Cleric Journal Book Seven: Day Seventy

 

 

I couldn’t sleep on the beach, there were too many ghosts there.  Well, not true ghosts, not yet.  The memories haunted those sands.  Noises from the interior jungle rattled me, so I slept just inside the first trees with trepidation.  My annoying friend, Wizard Tim, had a spell he would cast that acted as a guard.  If any hostile force approached him, it would screech and wail to alert him in time to be awake and prepared to act.  I tried to learn the spell from him, but could not bring the forces together.  Oh, he said that it wasn’t because I was a hopeless caster.  Our schools of focus are different.  This was his attempt at reassurance.  Frankly, that effort made a short list of kindnesses he’s shown me, counter to his early days of sarcasm and ridicule.

Without such options, I said my prayers, implored the gods to watch over my rest, and slept fitfully for a few hours.  This was not my first supplication, nor, I feared, would it be my last.  I have not been alone for a very long time, and it is unsettling.  The dark didn’t normally bother me.  The horrors of the last days has left me rattled.

I had no desire to sleep.  Granted, my body and mind needed the recharge.  The physical and emotional toll has exceeded my ability to blithely shrug them off.  I’ve gone without sleep for longer periods.  Several times Liz has drawn strength from the very nature that surrounded us, reinvigorating both her and I, allowing us to race to the rescue of friends.  I had no such tricks in my repertoire.

Even though the night was muggy, I wrapped myself in a blanket and closed my eyes.  Sounds from the previous days came back to me then, what I had interpreted as joyful coupling had likely been heinous murder.  Were there more bodies in the jungle beyond the beach?  I shuddered, unable to find warmth.

Eventually my body’s demands overrode my racing mind and I slept.  I don’t know how deep into the night I suffered.  I can tell you the dawn came far too soon.  Funny enough, it wasn’t the sun that woke me.

The nightmares that troubled my mind were rudely interrupted by a sharp crack to my forehead.  I woke mid-whimper.  Those I loved were being tortured and murdered in my dreams, not a far cry from the real world, so the waking was a blessing.  When I did not sit up quick enough I was surprised by a second quick rap on my skull.

I sat bolt upright and saw no one.  Typical.  My forehead hurt, though, so I know it wasn’t a dream.  I looked around where I sat, and saw two large nuts, their shells covered in green rind.  As I was examining one of them another flew toward me.  I had been expecting something, and trapped the missile before it struck me, catching a glimpse of who had thrown it.

On the branch of the tree above me and to the east sat a furry little creature larger than a fairy, but smaller than a kobold.  I had read of creatures such as these in one of the illustrated field guides back at the Keeper’s monastery.  There were many different species of these hairy men — or old men of the forest, as one scholar noted.  The one that hid among the leaves above me had only its face and golden mane sticking out from the leaves.

“I’m up,” I said, trying not to sound too mean.  The tiny creature scampered to a higher branch and squawked and barked at me, gesticulating to the beach and then back into the forest.

It stood no more than two hands tall, with golden fur on its arms, and along the tail which ran down twice as long as his body.  I’m not sure what had agitated the poor animal, other than my presence.  I say his or he without any true indication of the poor creature’s gender, not that it should matter a whit.  When I stood, he ran along a branch to where he was opposite me, and only a small distance higher than my head.

“What is it you seek, little one?” I asked.  He glanced at me, suddenly quiet, turning his head from side to side as if sizing me up.  Then it made a silent motion to me, the beach, then back to himself and to a point into the jungle.

“Did you see the massacre that occurred here?” I asked.

I swear to you, Father, that he nodded as if he understood.

“Bad business,” I said.  “I hope you were not unduly affected by such horrors.”

The old man of the jungle screeched then, throwing his tiny head back and raging at the trees above.  To my surprise there was no answering call.  Weren’t these creatures tribal?

“Where are your kin?” I asked when he dropped downward with his knees up around either side of his head.

He opened his mouth and coughed, then fell from the tree.

I caught him easily enough, cradling him in my arm, and went to sit at the tree where I’d slept.   His breathing was shallow and quick, which immediately set me on edge.  Was this creature injured?  I drew a breath, said a quick word of power, and called the green sight.

By the blessings of the Far Shore.  One of the arms was broken, and the tail had kinks in two places.  Worst of all was the internal bleeding.  Someone had bludgeoned this creature and left him for dead.

Not having experience healing these jungle creatures before, I pulled a bit of Kithri’s power, along with that of The Green Lady.  These I wove into a fine mesh and settled it over the poor thing like a blanket.  He squirmed for a moment then settled into the crook of my arm and went to sleep.  The bones in his arm and tail began to heal right away.  The green sight showed the vicious reds of his pain dwindling to faint patches of yellow or even pale greens, indicating a lessening.  The internal bleeding did not stop, unfortunately.

While he slept, I poked and prodded with the divine, seeking, through careful experimentation, the best way to heal him completely.  The whole effort was exhausting, and I had not fully recovered on my own.  I definitely could use more sleep.  In the end, I was able to repair the damage to the tiny creature and I learned some things along the way.  That was delicate work which I knew would serve me well in future healings.  Even though the sun was barely over the horizon I settled down and closed my eyes.   Only for a few minutes, I told myself before I joined my new friend in sleep.

Cleric Journal Book Seven: Day Sixty-Nine

 

 

I’m not sure which emotion was more prevalent during the night: rage or despair.  My friends were dead or missing, my ship was stolen, and I was marooned.  In previous circumstances, I could march away from the scene of the disaster, search for my friends and/or new allies.  Here, I was bound by physical limitations.  The waters beyond the lagoon teemed with killers beyond my abilities to subdue all at once, and even if I could best the sharks and sharkwives one or two at a time, I would soon be overwhelmed by the mass of their numbers.  Even if there were no predators between me and my final destination, I had no true means to swim in unknown waters, to a goal I could not place on a map.

“Six days straight toward Caliban’s Fist,” Old One-Eye had said to me, and we’d taken it literally.  Perhaps he hadn’t meant I needed to be there in six days, for that was not going to happen at this juncture.  Maybe he just meant that the distance could be crossed in six days and that I needed to follow the constellation of Caliban’s Fist, but going around this mess may have proven more rational.  It’s the nuance of the words, the interpretation and deciphering of meaning that mattered in the end.  Here I believe I had taken his words too literally, just as I had trusted some I should not have.

I fumed, believe you me, berated myself for ignorance and pride.  There was not enough humility in my actions.  I lamented my choices and railed at my own ignorance.  Then, slowly, as my emotional storm passed and the world around me came into focus once more through my veil of tears, I realized this line of thought led to despair.  I am who I am.  I do my best.  Thinking beyond that is to play the victim or the martyr.  I have never accepted those roles.  I must act. I must persevere.  If I lay down and let the horrors of the world roll me into a grave, then I have let the evil in the world win.  I could not afford the luxury of grief and apathy.

The sounds of gulls eventually snapped me out of my self-indulgence.  Hours had passed, the sun rising from the east in a rush to reach its zenith.  I found the heat an oppressive blanket pushing me down into ennui.  I rose to my feet, determined to shake off this dark mood and began to make a plan.

My wounds had not healed overnight, an indication of just how close to death I had been.  My time wallowing in my grief had allowed for some physical benefit to the ongoing healing my divine casting had begun the night before, but I could wait no longer.  I had three immediate goals: take care of the dead; search for survivors; and find a way off this island.

The beach swam with the odoriferous miasma of rotted blood, loosed bowels, and viscera baking in the heat and humidity of the day.   The air was thick with flies and gulls, while crabs crawled from the surf to join the feast.  I vomited again, dragged my hand across my mouth and decided to deal with the dead first and foremost.

I struggled with what to do, truly I did.  We had not talked about burial rituals among these people, and I highly doubt there would have been a consensus among them if I’d asked.  Nature had her own ideas and I debated letting the crawling and flying things pick their bones clean.  But it all felt too indignant.

The bonfires from the previous night still smoldered, three points along the beach with glowing coals.  I went to these, knowing my plan.  The jungle to my back, I raised my arms and called the wood.  As I had done many time before, I called for that which I could burn.  It is a rather vague spell, I know.  Once it had pulled the arrows and spears from a band of croakers who sought to kill me and mine.  I would not be surprised to find similar here when I was through.

As expected logs and twigs flew through the air toward me and stacked themselves in a manageable pile next to each fire pit.  I was not surprised to find arrows amongst that first pile.  In the second I found broken hafts of axes and a few broken barrels.  The third, the furthest from me, and the one closet to the sea brought forth a more surprising mix of wooden tools.  Crossbows and bolts, polearms and flails.  I watched as most of this last batch of items flew from the man-o-war, much to the surprise of their owners.

I had to laugh when one of the cross-beams of the forward onager ripped itself loose from their ship and came speeding toward me, only to land in a neat stack with the rest of the wood I had gathered to me.

The distance was as I would expect by previous trials, but the power of my call had been stronger than I anticipated.  Rage could be the cause, I’m sure, or perhaps I had grown stronger as Semaunzilla (may she show me a way through this dark time) had grown with the wakening of the god whom she worshiped.

Finally, as I began to throw wood upon the fires and stoke them into roaring pyres for my friends, two small boats floated toward me, pulled along the waves to grind their way up the beach.  Those I would examine later.

For now, I went to the first body, the line rat grandfather and lifted him.  I am always surprised by the heft of a body, even one as lithe as this one.  When he began to smolder upon the first pyre, I went to his granddaughter and added her to his bier.

The gulls complained, and the crabs fled as I walked among the dead, carrying each to a fire.  I did say kind words as I tossed each onto the pyre, sending them to the Far Shore with love and reverence.

And rage.  The hammer of the sun beat down upon my head and I let the anger build in me.  At the end, as the smoke from the burning bodies blotted out the sun, I walked to the waterline and cursed those who had taken our charity and turned it into a night of murder and theft.

Then I sat on the beach and wept once more

Cleric Journal Book Seven: Day Sixty-Eight

 

 

Desperate people will act a certain way to free themselves from the suffering they are enduring.  They will make promises they cannot keep, confess to anything, give away secrets, even sell their children if things are bad enough.  I’ve read about this phenomenon in books and stories, but I haven’t truly experienced it until this evening.  To fully understand our plight, I’ll need to take you back to dawn’s first light.

We carried twenty-seven survivors of the Castilla, a small merchant vessel, according to those same survivors.  They claimed that they had been ambushed by the folks who sailed the man-o-war, calling them Diablo’s people.  They said this new tribe had pursued them across many seas and through many storms before catching them here in this place.  Our lot were vigilantes, freedom-fighters, oppressed by a greater power, and willing to believe their tale as it fit in with our own narrative.  What fools we were.

Some of the survivors were wounded, but did not want to allow me to heal any of them.  We had done too much already.  The debt between us was already too great.  They would rest and recover naturally once they met up with their compatriots.

We sympathized and overlooked the discrepancies in their story.  We made anchor at the small island where their friends had limped to shore the night before.  The Rasa made it beyond the breaker line, finding a narrow passage between the reefs to get close enough to the island to ferry people across.  They were so appreciative that we grew proud with all their praise they heaped upon us.  Pride, as I’m sure you know father, always proceeds a fall.

We met the crew of the second ship, the San Luis, who greeted us warily until the those we’d rescued spoke to them in their own language.  Then they became friendly and offered to share their food and wine with us for our bravery and heroism.  They had those among them who could speak enough of our language to interpret for us and we all seemed to get along famously.

They had already pulled their ship onto the shore to make repairs, and offered to see to ours as well.  They were skilled boatwrights and could find no better way to repay our kindness than to help get us back on our way to whatever errand we were on.  The joy of our combined crews was nothing short of amazing.  Survival is a heady drug, and our people were feeling mighty.  Adeline sent most of the crew ashore to rest, gather fresh supplies, and enjoy our victories such as they were.

I did not partake of the ale and wine.  I’m not sure why, but I was contented to watch the others enjoy themselves.  Perhaps I had an inclination of what was going to transpire.  Maybe the gods had tried to send me a sign.  Either way, as the crew got drunker, and the dancing around the bonfires began, I found myself at the edge of things, watching and waiting for whatever was going to happen.  Here and there some of their crew took some our crew into the woods where I could hear the rutting and grunting of carnal activities.  As I’ve said, they showed great appreciation for our valiant rescue.  For some reason, I was content to sit and watch those around the bonfire.  Their gaiety was infectious and I began to sing one of Liz’s favorite tavern songs.  This was one of the most joyous celebrations I had seen in such a long time.  It was not what I expected to happen, but who was I to judge.

Something else I didn’t expect was a truncheon to the back of the skull.

The fact I have an extraordinary thick skull has been an ongoing bit of ribald humor among my friends.  A joke I’ve long learned to ignore.  This is one of those times I’m thankful to be hard headed.

When I came to, the beach was littered with the bodies of our crew.  The San Luis and the Tabla Rasa were nowhere to be found.  I struggled to sit up with my head pounding like a hammer striking an anvil, and vomited.  I called upon the divine to heal myself and found I had nearly been killed.  The back of my skull had been cracked.  Honestly, I’m not sure how I lived.  Certainly, the blood on the back of my shirt proved good enough for my attacker.

The healing made the world spin and I lay back down, my mind a muddle.  For nearly an hour I lay in a stupor, my body utilizing every ounce of energy to repair what was broken.  I don’t think I actually slept, but I drifted in and out of consciousness all that time.  When I could sit up, I reached for my mace and did not find it.  Pushing myself to my knees I looked around me and saw the speaker from the survivors, dead, not three strides from where I had been struck down.  To one side of him was a cudgel, likely the one he’d used to brain me.  To his left lay my mace.  His left hand had been burned to a small charred stump.  I guess the shock of that had killed him, but I picked up the mace and smashed his skull for good measure.

With that small bit of payback accomplished, I stumbled across the beach to the crew.  One after another I found them dead, their throats slit without so much as a struggle.  In a panic, I began to search faster, horrified at the dead faces that lay in the churned sand.  There were the line rats, the young woman and her grandfather, their eyes open and drying in the late afternoon sun.  Sven lay across two others, each of them gutted.  I ran from person, to person, desperate to find someone alive.

There were none.  All I found were dead.

My outrage and panic took a hold of me briefly and I despaired.  Then the calm voice of Liz spoke in my head.  I actually spun to see if she was truly there, knowing full well she wasn’t.  The words in my head were my own.  The voice, that of one I trusted above all else.

There were those I did not find among the dead.  I forced myself to walk among them once more, to make sure and found with a relief several missing from the carnage.  I did not find Emad, the scout, for instance.  Nor did I see Raucous the gnome rogue, nor Bob.

I fell to my knees and prayed right then.  Gave thanks that I had survived this ridiculous attack.  Prayed for the safety of those I did not see amongst the dead, and to seek the gods guidance for those who would go on to the Far Shore.

I rose and looked out over the archipelago of islands toward the sargossa and the graveyard of wrecks.  The man-o-war still remained where I remembered them to be, but there were no other serviceable ships as far as I could see.

Marooned with the massacred crew of the Rasa.  I had no armor, only the clothes I wore, my pack, and my mace.  My journals were scattered on the sand, but the coins and gems were taken.  Three of the ink bottles were smashed, and the quills all ruined.  Several of the pages in my journal would need to be recopied due to the pages being torn.  I had to chase the loose pages down the beach where they scattered among the dead, but I recovered them all before the afternoon waned.

Now, sitting here writing this with my last bottle of good ink, and the quill from a dead seagull, I scratch out these words.

People will die because of this.  I will hunt them and make them pay.

But first I needed to find what happened to those who lived.

Cleric Journal Book Seven: Day Sixty-Seven

 

 

The repairs held, barely.  The crew on the man-o-war took a while to sight in their onager, so the first three shots missed us.  We had just pushed ourselves off the wreck, and were maneuvering with the sweeps to find a clear channel, when a large stone smashed into the swollen hull of the ship we’d just extricated ourselves from.

“How many stones, do those idiots have?” Adeline growled as she swung the wheel hard to port.

We were already prepped for battle with all crew awake and at battle stations.  One thing good was that the man-o-war was not lobbing burning pitch at us.  Not that the stones wouldn’t hole us if they made a direct hit.  The entire sargasso was a death trap.

I called upon those of my pantheon to protect us, obscure our passage, and hamper the enemy’s ability to strike true.  Bob joined me in prayer, and to my surprise, so did several of the crew that could do nothing else while the rowers and the captain did their best.

Before long I had ten sitting on the deck in a circle, each touching the person to either side.  Prayer is an additive power I’ve come to learn.  I felt recharged before long, not completely rejuvenated by any means, but enough to call upon the blessing of the gods.  The flow of divine was a mix of several.  The Green Lady’s warm and comforting flow that tasted of exotic spices was foremost.  Second came the calm flow of Kithri — the chill sense of mint a strong reminder of her power.  Lastly, came the moist and steamy accent of growing things and flowing sap that could only be my first mistress, Semaunzilla (may she guide our passage and obfuscate our enemies).

The overpowering strength of my lizard god’s contribution surprised me.  If anything, the connection had grown.  On a whim I stood, placing the hands of those on either side of me upon my legs to maintain contact and faced the attacking ship.

A used the green sight and examined the man-o-war across the distance.  The crew of that ship was sick, desperate even.  I could see each of them glowing like a flickering flame.  Their food stores were fine, but they were running low on water.  Their captain lay dying of some disease they had never seen, and there was no healer.

I could use that information to parley with them, perhaps.  But not if we were smashed by that damned catapult.  I considered all the options of power I had used before and reached into the ether pulling down a column of fire.  It was not a great column, granted.  The onegar was not a complicated piece of machinery.  The flames struck the thing, smashing the crew aside as they attempted to load another missile.  None were killed in the strike, though fire splashed across the deck in a circle more than a rod across.  The twisted ropes used to store the torsional force that propelled the bar and therefore the load upward, shredded at the impact of the flames.  There was probably no permanent damage, they could replace the ropes if they had spares, but for now they could no longer threaten us.  The second weapon at the rear of the ship had no angle to attack us.  For the moment that threat was removed.

The crew sighed, and I looked around me.  I had not only used the divine powers of the gods who had answered my call, but I had also drained energy from those who had joined me in prayer.  Nothing too terrible, praise all the gods.  Bob saw my panic and rose to assure me.  This was no vampiric draining of life force –sleep and food would restore their vigor.  We had all been connected to a common purpose and each had added as they would to achieve the goal at hand.

I’d healed with others of faith before, other clerics and priests.  I had done nothing like this before.  I’m not sure I wanted to try again, to experiment in this fashion seemed a good way to hurt people.  The power had been invigorating, and I could see how some would find it addicting.  I thought back to the necromancer and found I could understand a bit more of his motivation and methods.  The thought gave me shivers.

Once we were clear of the wreck and in no danger from the man-o-war I went to the prisoners and questioned them.  They were definitely foreigners; humans, or mixed human heritage as far as I could tell.  Their language proved difficult to understand and we spoke mainly in pantomime.  Their ship had been pursued by the man-o-war across many leagues.  Three times they thought they had escaped only to have the sails of those ships appear on the horizon.  The caravel and the man-o-war were allies.  The two galleys which had fought the caravel were kindred of our prisoners.  They came from the capsized one.  They had been making for the islands when the man-o-war had broken their hull.  The storm had sunk two other smaller ships in their contingency, and the three that had remained had each suffered some damage to sails and rigging.

They did not know who the people in the man-o-war were, nor why they pursued them, but the speaker wished them a quick and watery grave.

In the end, we agreed to swing around to their ship, take on the survivors and get them to the island.  This offer was so overwhelming that the captives fell to their knees wailing.

Adeline saw the wisdom in our rescue of these strangers and set about finding a safe course through the wrecks.  The going was slow.  If we had not knocked the onager out of commission, we would not have been able to risk it.  We reached the far side off the wrecked ship long after dark.  The lights of our lanterns showed us desperate and grim faces as we approached.  They were prepared to take our ship by force if need be.  I set the chief spokesman of the captives free to go to the prow and call to his comrades to explain the situation.  Within an hour we had taken on the twenty-seven who survived.  They came across a rope bridge we rigged one at a time, handing their weapons to our crew as they set foot on the deck.  They were beleaguered, dehydrated, and near to starving.

Our lookouts spotted the galley that had survived the battle with the caravel limping toward one of the far islands.  When we asked if the newcomers wanted to join them they heartily agreed.

It felt good to do something nice for people who needed it.  I know I try to do that a lot.  It always works out for the best, does it not?  That warm feeling of accomplishment filled my chest.  I have no idea why Brother Durham’s voice echoed in my head — “no good deed goes unpunished.”

Cleric Journal Book Seven: Day Sixty-Six

 

 

We killed two more sharkwives just after dawn.  They are wily foes.  To my horror, we lost three crew in the night.  Two were obviously mesmerized by their magical powers, but one we think just fell overboard due to his inattentiveness.  Along with the sharkwives, we killed half a dozen of the great whites, which seemed to be too much for them and the rest retreated.   I was under no delusion that the waters were safe, but safe enough to risk some repairs seemed logical.

You see, the hull of the Rasa was definitely cracked.  Not a full breach.  We weren’t scuttled, far from it, but we were definitely taking on water.  When Raucous took a squad down to investigate, she reported that the damage to the inner hull appeared to be minor.  Still, water didn’t need much to make its way into places we didn’t want it.  Our stores were lashed to the fardage to keep it above any small collection of water, but with even the slight angle of our deck to the surface of the water, and the extent of the leak, the aft of the ship was nearly thigh deep in brine.

The crew spent a goodly part of the night either bailing water, or moving our stores to salvage what we could.  We’d be needing dry goods before we made a true port town again.  Also, two of the water barrels had overturned, but that was small loss.

The extent of the damage to the outer hull could only be determined by us getting over the side and examining it.  Adeline guessed that the worst damage would actually be above the water line as the point of impact had ridden up onto the wreck.  Still, the thought of those sharkwive gave me a moment’s pause.

Everyone agreed it would be much nicer if we could get to a safe place to work on repairs.  Barring access to port and a shipyard, we determined the most logical point was the island where we’d seen the bonfires.  Adeline didn’t care which island, as long as we were no longer in danger of being eaten by half naked sharkwives.  Also, she was not convinced that the people who had run along the beach the previous day would turn out to be friendly.  Anyone marooned in these waters would likely be pretty desperate.  She had a fair point.

Regardless, we couldn’t get the Rasa to the island without first making a few temporary repairs.  And that meant taking risks.  Luckily, we had a crew that wasn’t afraid of facing danger.

Bob pointed out that we couldn’t leave the prisoners to drown, and led a squad to bring them up onto the deck.  He would supervise the lot while others bailed water, or worked to seal what they could.

I agreed to lead a crew out to see how bad the damage was on the outer hull.  Bob wasn’t very pleased.  We planned to stand on the hull of the ship we’d grounded against, which would put us in chest deep water.  I pointed out that it would be over his head, and last I checked he had no way of breathing under water.  He didn’t like it, but agreed I was freakishly tall and better suited to such work.

We stationed lookouts on the prow of the Rasa, and brought several others with us out onto the swollen wood of the derelict ship.  The larger sharks couldn’t come across the top of that wreck, which was some small comfort.  There wasn’t enough room for them to maneuver.  Dorn pointed out that we needed to watch the littler ones she called tiger sharks.  They were fast and could strip a man before the sound of his cries could reach the ship.

Big or small, they all had far too many teeth.

While the others watched for danger, four of us went to work on the repairs.  The angle was not good and I ended up being further down the curve of the derelict keel than I was comfortable with.  They had ropes thrown down from the deck so I didn’t slip between the ships.

Where I could, I used my mending spell to repair tricky joints and seams.  As I expected, it proved to be solid repair, returning the sections I could manipulate to a good-as-new state.  Unfortunately, repairing that much broken wood took hours and drained my powers faster than I liked.

Repairing the hull was nerve wracking.  Our lookouts were good, and three times I heard a cry of warning, and the sound of crossbows firing.  We did not get the signal to scramble up the rope ladders, so I assumed the shots were true, or the threats not great.

When I had expended my divine resources, I took my turns at watch, while others did the crude carpentry needed to cover the remaining damage.  It was an ugly repair, but Adeline figured we needed it to keep the water out for no more than a day.  We’d be able to navigate through the wrecks and to one of the islands in that time.

I loved her optimism.

The mundane repairs took most of the day.  Twice we had to fend off attacks by small sharks, but the big ones remained beyond our crossbow range.

Late in the day, Dorn led a crew out on one of our little boats to harvest the shark fins.  She swore they’d make good eating.  After watching the monsters rip men and women apart over the prior day, I was not inclined to partake in such fare.

Still, the small boat would not have been feasible if the sharks had been as thick as they had earlier.  They could easily overturn such a small craft.

The later it got, the more nervous I became.  The crew on the ship lit lanterns and hung them in the rigging, casting a golden circle of light around the ship as the day turned to dusk.

As I kept watch, my mind wandered.  Who were these various warring factions, and why did they war?  What was this place to draw so many wrecks?

Old One-Eye’s voice echoed in my head, telling me again to go for six days directly toward Caliban’s Fist.  He’d mentioned treacherous waters.  Is this what he’d intended.

We were all on the ship and beginning to take a bit of sup when the man-o-war began firing their forward onager.  A large splash off to our portside sent a gout of water high into the air.

Why did so many people end up being jerks?

Cleric Journal Book Seven: Day Sixty-Five

 

 

Sharks I knew.  Everyone who went upon the sea knew of those cold and calculating killers of the deep.  Horror stories ran through new crew like last week’s porridge.  To be in the water when sharks arrived was a horrendous way to die.

The fish woman I saw with all the teeth, though.  What was she to the legends of the sea?  Sharkwife?  That seemed right.  I scanned the waters for her, or another like her, but found nothing.  The wind of the storm was nearly spent, and the water began to calm.  The sea of weeds could hide anything.  This place was a death trap, for sure and true.  As I looked around the vast expanse of deep blue water, I realized that the thick clumps of brown seaweed diminished the waves.  As I stared after the sharkwife, broken wrecks began to emerge among the tangled weeds, their hulls cracked. Fish of all colors and sizes swam among the wooden hulks.  The longer I stared into the depths of the water, the calmer they became, and the further I could see into that startling blue.  I counted a dozen ships from my vantage point, and for the life of me, I wanted nothing more than to dive into the water and explore.

Then the sound of screaming tore me away from the mesmerizing scene and I turned to the portside in time to see several people swimming furiously toward the island.  The distance covered no more than a furlong, or forty rods.  Even I, who had little experience swimming, could make that distance.  That is until the sharks showed up.

These were crew of the capsized ship we first grazed, where the captives had sprung from.  I did not understand the dialect they spoke, but I could hear the fear in their voices all the same.  They shouted, they wailed, and they cursed and prayed; each encouraging or lamenting the swimmers’ fates.  It soon became clear that they would not reach the island.  Fins appeared in the water, making a dash toward the last swimmer.  She went down with a short cry that ended in a thrashing and frothing of bloody water.  Three sharks had attacked her at once.  She had no chance.  The second swimmer turned back, a knife in his teeth, but his actions served no other purpose than to add his blood to the water along with the other.

I will give him points for bravery.  He slashed two of the sharks, gouging deep cuts into the exposed fins, before others deeper down pulled him apart.  His screams were of rage, not fear.  That one would haunt these waters if any heard that voice.

The third, a lad in his early teens almost made the breakwater.  I could see that no fin appeared in the lagoon.  He was within two rods of safety when he pulled up short.  As we all watched, the sharkwife rose out of the water before him.  He did not cry out.  To my surprise, she pulled him to her naked bosom and he suckled there as she dragged him below the waves.  He fought at the end.  Long after I assumed he had drowned, the water erupted in a frenzied splashing and he reached up toward the sky.  Only his arm made it above the water before he was dragged down once more.  I stared long at that point, disbelieving the scope of that tragedy when the boy’s arm from elbow to fingertip floated to the surface amid a smear of red.  The entire sea of grass and all upon it had grown deathly quiet, watching the tragedy unfold.

Then a sharkwife broke the surface, snatching the arm in her mouth as she soared up out of the water like a great leaping trout, and plunged back beneath the waves, the arm firmly lodged in her wide toothy grin.

Wailing and weeping rose from the capsized ship, but I could not stop staring at the point where the sharkwife had disappeared.  What finally shocked me out of my daze was a sudden splash of water.  I had leaned over the railing of the Rasa, not far enough to lose my balance, but far enough.  Below me two sharkwives floated in the water, their buoyant breasts bobbing on the surface.  One of them splashed me a second time and they both giggled.

Giggled, I say.  Like young women flirting.  Not like horrid monsters who ate fleeing swimmers.

“Begone,” I croaked at them, my voice thick with rage.

“Come into the water,” the first said to me, beckoning with slim fingers.  “We have sated our hunger for the moment.  Come explore our sea.  We seek one who would be a worthy mate.”

Before I could answer, a crossbow bolt sped toward the nubile beauty, piercing her breast with a spray of black blood.  She cried out, grievously wounded, and slid beneath the surface of the water.  The second sharkwife uttered no word of rage or fear, the coldness that fell across her once merry visage a sharp reminder of her true nature.  She dove with a quick flip of her tail, splashing a gout of water onto the deck, vanishing amid the weeds and wreckage faster than I could follow her escape.  The first who had called to me floated just below the surface, shadows of the weeds falling across her face while blood infused the water around her.

“Turn away,” Dorn said at my side.

I glanced at her.  She handed Sven her empty crossbow and he handed her another cocked and loaded.  She scanned the water around us as Sven cranked the first crossbow and slotted a new bolt.

“You are strong of will,” she said, leaning the crossbow on the railing and patting me on the arm.  “You withstood two of them.  No man alive can say the same, as far as I’ve heard tell.”

“Truly?”  Liz said I was stubborn, maybe I should start seeing that as a positive trait.

She didn’t answer right away, but scanned the weeds.  Her eyes held an unexpected intensity.  There was definitely more about this crone than I had considered.

“Those who lust after the female form find it difficult to withstand their wiles.”  This time it was Sven who answered.

I glanced around the boat and saw that mostly women stood along the rails with crossbows, though a few men supported them, including Sven.  He smiled at me with a knowing wink and scanned the waters as well.

“There can’t be many of the enchantresses here,” Dorn said.  “We needs kill as many as we can, the sharks as well.”

I had to agree with her.

“What about the others marooned here?” I asked.  “If we can push off of this wreck, we should make for the others and rescue them.”

Dorn shrugged and spit into the water.  “That’s between you and the captain.  Honestly, I say let the bastards in the man-o-war rot.  Serves ’em right for shooting the captain.”  She glanced at me and patted me on the arm again.  “Glad you were there to save her life.  Nearly makes up for the grief you caused her over the last two years.”

We stopped talking for a bit, each of us scanning the waters.  Once a crossbow fired, but there was no cheer, no confirmation of a hit.  We could be at this for a long while.

Eventually the sun broke below the remaining clouds on its way toward the horizon.  Periwinkle and rose painted the underside of the clouds as below me in the water, sharks began to feed upon one of their own.

Cleric Journal Book Seven: Day Sixty-Four

 

 

I made my way to Adeline who growled at my appearance.  “About time,” she said, clutching the wheel with hands like marble.  “Get that damned thing out of my back.”

I stepped around her and saw that the bolt had punched deeply into her lower left quadrant.  Likely damaged the kidney.  “I’ll need to lay you down to get that out and heal you,” I said.

She gave me a stern look.  “You’ve been waiting to get me to lay down for you since you got back, haven’t you?”

She smiled when she said it, but I could see that she was in a lot of pain.

“Maybe next time,” I said, smiling back.  “Don’t make me pull rank.”

For a moment, I thought she was going to fight me.  “Someone has to actually steer this thing, you know,” she said, cocking her head toward the wheel.

Shouting from the front of the ship spun me around and I just barely managed to grab the wheel when the ship gave a mighty lurch.  Adeline was slammed forward into the wheel before falling to her knees as the wheel rolled starboard violently.  I was thrown off balance and landed next to where she lay on her side.

“Fine,” she said, her breath coming in painful gasps.  “You could’ve said please.”

We were no longer moving.  We’d deal with that later.  Right now, I had to save Adeline.  I rolled her onto her stomach and she groaned.  The shaft had penetrated her nearly four inches.  Lucky for her, it had hit her thick belt which had absorbed much of the punch.

“Is she going to live?” Dorn asked.  She flopped down next to Adeline and took the captain’s hand.  “Hang on, lass.  This boy will fix you right up.”

Adeline grimaced as I probed her wound, applying small bits of magic to help deaden the pain.  Sven stood at the wheel, an axe in one hand.

“Make sure no one boards the ship,” I said.  “With us stopped, that seems like a real danger.”

He looked from me to Adeline, real worry on his face.  Dorn slapped him on the calf and he looked down at her.

“Go, boy.  I’m sure that dwarf could use a hand fending off boarders.”

Sven nodded and ran toward the aft of the ship where I could hear Bob calling out orders.  I risked a glance toward the front of the ship and saw several bodies scattered on the deck.  Two I recognized as line rats, crew that worked the top of the sails, lashing sailcloth to the spars when the sails were furled.  They’d been thrown from the upper lines when we came to a sudden halt.  They were my next stop.  If they lived.

The bolt that had punctured Adeline’s back had gone in at an angle, toward the outside of her core, away from her spine.  A bit of green sight assured me there were no major blood vessels damaged and the kidney on that side was fine.  Dorn pushed a strop of leather into Adeline’s mouth and nodded at me.  I pulled the bolt out, and she screamed.  The healing went swiftly then, enough to stop the bleeding and close the flesh.  The muscles would take longer to mend, but the magic would continue to work for another hour or so.  She’d be weak.  Not that she’d sit still once she found she had the strength to stand.

“Keep her down as long as you can,” I said to Dorn.  The old woman nodded.  The way she treated Adeline, you’d have thought she was the captain’s mother.  Not likely, as we’d picked Dorn up from the Dusk Runner and the late Captain Turnbull.

The two line rats were in bad shape, but they both lived.  The younger of the two, a young woman barely into her maturity had a broken arm and a concussion.  She was a breeze to heal.  The other, a man in his dotage, nearly as old as Dorn by the look of him.  He had a broken back.   I could heal him, but I was already running out of steam.  I’d need to rest first.  I gave him a little nudge with the magic to start things in the right direction, aligned the splintered discs into place and left him to others.  “I’ll finish up with you later,” I assured him.  “Try not to move if you can avoid it.”

He didn’t nod, but the girl said she’d sit with him.  Turns out, he was her grandfather.

I went to the front of the ship and saw that we had indeed run up on something.  The prow rose at an odd angle, but nothing too steep.  I guessed we had either hit a sand bar, or another shipwreck.

“Are we sound?” I called out to Emad who was running from the forward hatch.

“Aye,” he called.  “We got the prisoners locked in a storage room below decks.  Some of the others are looking for leaks, and the rowers are trying to see about backing us up.”

I leaned out over the prow and saw that we had indeed run up on the wreckage of another ship.  Shadows played along the water, making it difficult to see too far in.  I don’t think we were damaged much.  We could pull ourselves off this wreck and assess our situation.

“Can we get some strong folk up here with poles to see if we can push her free?”

Emad saluted and ran toward a knot of men who were milling near midship.

All around us the storm seemed to be clearing.  As the rain stopped and the clouds began to lift, I was shocked at what I found.

We were in the midst of a massive field of seaweed, great tufts of the stuff as far as I could see in three directions.  To the south, close enough that we could row there if need be, stood a string of small islands.  Smoke rose from several fires along the beach facing us on the largest of the three I could see.  Tiny figures ran along the beach, waving their hands.  If they shouted, their voices were lost in the distance.

The caravel and one of the galleys continued to take on water.  The crew of the second galley was either fending off boarders from the sinking caravel, or taking on their friends from the sinking galley.  We were far enough away that we could just hit either ship with a crossbow, if we had a marksman.

The great ship we’d passed stood heavy and cantered upon a large spit of sand.  How we had avoided that I’d chalk up to Old One-Eye and his firm directions.  Of course, it may have been better if we went around this whole mess.  I’m sure there was a good reason for us to end up here.  There always was.

There were no small craft in the water, which surprised me.  The large ship with the armored men had several hanging from the portside.  Why were they not making for that island, I wondered?

Out where we careened off the first sunken ship, I could see men scrambling back atop the keel that protruded from the water.  There were still men and women in the water and as I watched they began to swim frantically back toward the capsized ship.

“Shark!” a clear voice reached me over the waves.

I looked down into the water below our prow and saw the flip of a fin.  As I followed that creature, a head bobbed out of the water and a nubile young woman appeared among the weeds.  She smiled at me, showing many, many teeth.  Then she dove back into the water, her long tail splashing behind her.

Cleric Journal Book Seven: Day Sixty-Three

 

 

The hail had let up after covering the deck in ice pellets, which proved to be a hindrance for friend and foe alike. Bob lunged forward, catching our attacker in the back with the boarding axe while I swept the mace up in time to block the sword.  Luckily for me it was a scimitar, a slashing weapon, so the angle of attack was in my favor.  If it had been a thrusting weapon, I’d have been skewered.  Bob bashed him with his shield causing the wiry man to stumble and I finished him with a blow of the mace.

All around us men were swinging from lines onto the deck of the Tabula Rasa.  Our crew had experience in ship-to-ship combat, luckily.  We were no merchant vessel.  The report of the aft ballista echoed strangely in the foggy storm and I spun around in an attempt to see who Adeline had been firing at.

To my horror, I saw a grand ship loom out of the fog.  Where the Tabula Rasa was a ship built for speed, the ship we faced rose two decks higher, and twice as wide — a monster whose design was foreign to me. I could see two onager, one fore, the other aft, but we were too close for them to be of any use.  Their railing was crowded with armed men in hauberks of chain.  They would prove a deadly force against our lightly armored forces.  At least our crew could swim if they hit the water.  The troops preparing to board us would sink like stones.

“To me?” I called, rushing toward the first rope ladders were dropping from the other ship.

I realized we were still moving forward, as the ladders floated by us.  Three armored men dropped to the deck before the fourth fell screaming as crossbow bolts thudded into him.  He hit the water between the boats with a splash.

Lightning flashed and the surrounding area was lit for a split second.  Three ships were tangled together off to our right, men and women on a galley fighting with men armored as those from the big ship.  Only, their ship had been holed by a second galley whose prow was buried in the side of a caravel that was taking on water.

The three armored men had taken down four of our crew before we closed the distance and engaged them.  Bob was a devil with that axe, and had cut the first man down by bowling him over, shield first, then hacking him in the neck with the axe.  The man I engaged had a short stabbing sword and a shield.  I can tell you this was one of those moments I missed being able to utilize a shield.

The third man ran toward Adeline and the wheel, no doubt thinking to turn the ship, allowing others from his own to join the fray.  He stumbled as a crossbow bolt caught him in the chest, but the wound was not deep.  The chain shirt had absorbed much of the impact.  This brute of a man cut down three sailors that stood between him and Adeline.

My own opponent required my attention and we parried and danced.  He caught my mace upon his shield twice and managed a shallow cut along my left leg before luck turned my way.  The Rasa struck something else, another glancing blow, and we were all knocked askew.  This gave me an opportunity to swing under the man’s shield when he raised his arms up and out to gain some modicum of balance.  The head of the mace smashed his hip, shredding chain and pulverizing bone.  He fell to the side, lumbering back against the rail and went to one knee.  With the respite I glanced at Bob and found he battled back and forth with his armored foe, the ring of steel on steel overwhelming the shouts from those who fought around me.  Dorn now stood between Adeline who leaned against the wheel, wounded and the oncoming brute.  Those on the huge ship had begun shooting crossbows at the Rasa and our dear captain had taken a bolt to the back.

Dorn stood absolutely no chance against the mountain of a man that barreled down toward her.  The wily old woman danced to the side, her bare feet slapping the wooden deck as she slashed in with her dagger, catching the man under the left arm as he went by her.  He spun, as her cut sprayed a wide arc of blood behind him.  He caught himself, swung wide with his shield and clipped Dorn as she tried to dance back.  She fell like a rag doll and he stepped forward ready to drive his short blade into her.  Before his stroke fell, however, Sven swung down from the rigging and caught the man in the back with his feet.  The arc of the swing sent the armored man forward where he tripped over the prostrate form of Dorn, and right at the feet of Raucous and two others who hacked the man with boarding axes.  He never had a chance.

Bob could handle his own, so I turned back to the starboard side to see several fallen invaders, and four standing in a huddle, fending off more of the Rasa’s crew.  They had leapt from the capsized boat, I realized.

“Surrender,” I shouted, rushing toward the knot of men.  They took one look at me, assessed those who had them penned in, and threw down their blades and dropped to their knees.

They called something out in a language I had not heard before and thrust their empty hands into the air.

“Bind them,” I yelled to the crew and they obeyed, thankfully.  I was half expecting them to skewer the lot and throw them over the side.  Hurray for us being good guys.

We were past the large ship and I realized that it was not pursuing.  The angle of its decks was wrong, and I understood it had run onto a sand bar.  How close were we to these islands?

I ran toward Bob just as he pushed his opponent over the rail and turned to seek a new foe.  I shrugged at him and he grinned, his blood high and his battle lust raging.

“Check those ships,” I called to him, pointing forward and port.  The second galley that had rammed the caravel had given up trying to pull away from the smashed ship, and the first galley was taking on the crew.

“See if you can sort out who is who,” I called and he nodded, running to that side of the ship.  Raucous took control of the prisoners so I ran toward Adeline.  She still stood, so I paused at Dorn and found her unconscious.  I gave her the tiniest bit of healing I could, which stirred here awake.

“The captain,” she muttered.

“I’ll see to her,” I promised.  Sven came running across the deck toward me and I motioned for him to pause.  “Protect her,” I said, motioning toward Dorn.  “See that she comes to no more harm.”

The big man grunted and stepped over her, turning to find a new threat.

Cleric Journal Book Seven: Day Sixty-Two

 

 

We sailed through the next day following on the back end of a storm front, the clouds scudding before us as we rode a strong wind.  We were blessed by the gods and Bob and I gave thanks.  The crew had their own rituals and contrivances which they performed as was their wont.

Our stores had been replenished on the island adventure.  Sven had returned with fresh meat, turkeys and goat, mostly.  The water barrels were all full and the cook added fresh fruit to the porridge.  The lime slurry we took daily to ward off disease would ferment for days longer as we imbibed fresh alternatives.  The crew was happy and the outlook was grand.

Three days we sailed in such circumstances, the spirits of the crew were at a high point.  Anything seemed possible.  Bob was recovering at an amazing pace, partially due to the kind treatment and the adequate food.  He claimed his good fortune and fair health was due to reuniting with me, and who was I to argue.  For three days we flew in bliss.

On the fourth we saw sails on the horizon.  We were in the untamed seas, far from any known civilization and off any map known to us.  The possibilities were numerous, other pirates, explorers, treasure seekers, expeditions from Skyfell into the ruins of ancient places, friends, or most likely, foes.

Adeline discussed veering south, as those sails appeared to be heading north, but Dorn, reminded us all that my instructions had been to fly directly toward Caliban’s Fist for six days.  If we veered off course, what ramifications would that cause?

We held the course and prepared for battle.  At this distance, there was a reasonable expectation that the other ship had spotted us.  Just as we had eyes open in all directions, we had to assume they did as well.  Doing anything else in uncharted waters would be foolish.  Granted, if it proved to be the Hand, they could be both wary and foolish.

Hour after hour we drove directly west, the wind full in our sails.  There were times it felt as if we barely touched the sea.  How great it would be if we could truly fly, I pondered at one point and Bob grew pale.

“I prefer my feet on solid ground as it is,” he said, quietly.  “Being on the sea is as much as I can stand.  Flying through the sky would be my undoing.”

I didn’t laugh at him, though the look of horror on his face was both comical and endearing

By the time the sun had reached its zenith and was making its way to the western horizon, we had lost sight of the other ship.  The crew was palpably relieved.  Adeline continued to wear a scowl.  The few clouds that had made their way before us had finally slowed and had begun to accumulate in the distance.

“Islands,” Dorn the navigator said.  “They catch the weather and hold it over them.”

Adeline nodded.

Before long we could see rain ahead of us.  Black clouds roiled upward into the otherwise blue skies and we sailed toward that storm.

Adeline roared from the wheel, calling for the square sails to be furled and for the lateen sails to be unfurled.  Lightning flashed ahead of us.  Bob and I stood at the prow, watching the storm as neither of us had experience with the sails.  We would join in on combat if that happened.  Otherwise we stayed out of the way.

“That’s an ugly storm,” Bob breathed, for my ears only.  Lightning flashed again, sending long, splintering bolts down into the sea.  “Have you seen such before?” he asked me, taking my hand.

“Once or twice,” I said.  “We’ve always fared well, mainly to luck and Adeline’s skills as a captain.”

“Good, he said.  “She seems a fine captain.”

The rising column of clouds struck a high point and began boiling outward in a wide circle.  It rolled toward us, as if trying to cover us in its wet fury.

“Lashings,” a sailor behind me cried, and I moved to the starboard railing, pulling Bob with me.

I explained how we needed to be secured to the ship because of the raging weather we approached.  “We don’t want to be flung overboard,” I said as calmly as I could.  “Better safe than sorry.”

The color drained from his face and he scrambled to secure his lashing.  I had learned to tie the knots I needed one-handed after my reappearances in a storm.  I did not like this coincidence.  Of course, storms were not uncommon, and we could avoid this if we slowed, or sailed around.  We would do neither.  Our course was firm.  Directly toward Caliban’s Fist for six days.  We would get to Liz with all haste.

Old One-Eye had warned that we faced treacherous waters.  I prayed that this would not prove too terrible.  Now that I thought on it, I had no sea gods in my pantheon.  Granted, I had not been near the sea until recently, and had not encountered any to worship.  I was open to the possibilities.

The first heavy drops of rain slammed against the deck like sling bullets.

“Hail,” someone yelled, and the sailor to my left fell to the ground screaming, a pellet of ice splitting his scalp.

“Shields and helms,” I cried, going to the stricken man.

The railing was lined with shields in preparation for a boarding party.  Bob snatched up the closest and squatted next to me, holding it above the three of us as best he could.  In that brief bit of time, the hail stones had increased to the size of a child’s fist and were making dents in the wood of the ship as they crashed into us.

The light failed.  The clouds drew down around us, hindering our ability to see very far into the gloom, and any clue to what surrounded us.  I had barely thought how dangerous it was for us to be sailing at this great speed into a cloud bank so thick when we struck something.

More like we grazed something.  I glanced up to see a ship off to our right.  It took me a moment to understand the situation because I could see the keel.  The ship had flipped.  Cries rose up from the waters around us.  We had driven straight into the midst of the surviving crew of that ship, killing who knows how many in our passing.

“Oars,” Adeline called.  “Hard astern.  Furl the lateens and prepare to be boarded.”

Boarded?  I finished healing the sailor before me and spun, pulling the mace from my belt.  Bob had a boarding axe in one hand, and the shield in the other when the first screaming attacker landed on the deck and swung a curved blade at my chest.

Cleric Journal Book Seven: Day Sixty-One

 

 

When we got back to the Rasa, Adeline hugged me, then called me a few names, suggested a few anatomically invalid actions for me to perform, then hugged me again.  I think she may have been worried.

We were hours away from the island, heading toward Caliban’s Fist, at my request. The star formation was not visible, but the crusty navigator, Dorn, assured us that she could reckon well enough until the stars appeared.  As Adeline trusted the old woman, I didn’t protest.  Bob got settled in the crew area, meeting lots of folks who asked questions and generally treated him well.  I was happy for that.  He had experienced a lot of trauma over the last two years of my exile, and was only finding his bearings again.

After a while we slept huddled next to one another in a large hammock and the crew left us to our slumber.  We were exhausted in ways that neither of us could articulate.  We woke long after dark, bleary but better off than we had been.  I kissed him upon waking and he snuggled against me, convincing me to go back to sleep.  His quiet snores sang me back to my dreams.  Finally, as the midnight watch called out the time, we rose, gathered out boots and snuck out of the crew quarters.  Several of the hammocks were filled as those off shift sought to rest.  I have to tell you, Father Mulcahy, that I’ve never been around a less shy bunch, then pirates.  They had no body shame, and many of the women went around topless as the men did.  There were no societal taboos there.  And lovers came and went, couplings surviving days, even weeks, before they went their separate ways, parted as friends.  It is the healthiest society I’ve experienced.

At two bells after midnight, Adeline summoned me and Bob to her cabin.  She knew of Bob, of course, as he had been at the battle for Butcher’s Bay, back when we made our first and most decisive strike against the Hand.  She respected him for his valor.  She also knew he had not been with the crew, and had magically appeared, in similar circumstance to my own arrival.  She wanted news and explanation that would satisfy her curiosity.

“The truth is neither here nor there,” she said when we sat to tea.  “The crew will believe the most outlandish tales and what each believes will change from one event to the next.”

First off, we spoke of the instructions Old One-Eye had given me.  She was not surprised to find I had run into two different dwarven gods on the island.  Frankly, after our adventures, and the stories she had heard, I don’t believe Adeline would be surprised by much.

Gods did not concern her, or so she claimed.  I know for a fact she prays to Mother Crone.  Her belief and worship are her own.  Dorn came in part way through our telling and assured us that we were dead center to Caliban’s Fist.  She said by her reckoning, in six days, she would expect us to be in similar waters to where Liz disappeared on an island.  Adeline thanked the woman and bade her sleep.  We’d need her sharp eyed in the next days.

Bob told us of his story, more for Adeline’s sake, but he did elaborate more on his failed adventure and eventual capture and torture.  He explained how he and the hobs had uncovered clues to Khorok Azgoth, the Black Tower, and the artifacts it was supposed to house.  He detailed the ambush at Inky Harbor and how the others in his party had been either killed, or captured along with him.  Each of those had been tortured to death, but none could state definitively where I could be found.  When I had driven the hand away from Far Spire, they had sent home for reinforcements.  They had also put a hefty bounty on my head.

Word had even reached the dungeon Bob had rotted in, when we attacked and captured the fortress and surrounding city at Butcher’s Bay.

“Oh, how they raged,” Bob said.  “The newest Hand leader was a younger fellow with a rank of cardinal, and the wealthy family connections to back it up.”

“Was?” Adeline asked.

Bob shrugged.  “He hit Jedadiah once when we were both being tortured, just nonchalantly cracked the boy’s skull for having the sheer audacity of being your friend and not telling the sadistic monster everything he wanted to know.”

His breath was coming faster now, and I know he was reliving harsh memories.

“I snapped the chains holding me and killed him with a length of the stuff.  Poorly smithed, if you ask me.”

Adeline sipped her tea and wrote notes on a scroll.  I think she got that habit from me.  We both dipped our quills into the same inkwell, an intimacy I had grown quite fond of.

“In the end,” Bob continued once our scratching had died down.  “Inky Harbor has fallen to the Hand, though they are short a few key regional leaders.”

I patted him on the arm and he took my hand in the both of his.  His palms were sweaty.

“How do you fare, love?” I asked.  “Is this too hard for you?”

He laughed.  “Hard?  Nay.  This is as easy as pie.”  He shrugged, “I find peace in the telling.”  Tears filled his eyes as he watched my face.  “They were too young,” he whispered.  “They should’ve been with their friends, not on some fools errand with me.”

I squeezed his hand and rose.  “No feeling sorry for yourself, ” I said, perhaps a little harshly.  “We make sacrifices, we strive and fail, until we succeed or die in the attempt.”

“And you show up here, out of a dungeon, bedraggled, forlorn, and weaponless.”

“But for these,” Bob said, reaching into the sack at his feet to retrieve one of the twin hammers.  “I cannot tell you just how important these hammers are.  The enchantments upon them are older than the first tunnels of my homeland.  They were wrought by the gods to slay a monster far more terrible than a dragon.”

Adeline snorted.  “Dragons are pretty awful,” she said with a grin.  “You believe we will meet such a creature in our travels?”

“Worse, likely,” he told us, sadness writ large upon his face.  “Finding Liz is but one of the trials before us.  There is the matter of the bear and the foxes,” he looked at me as if I was supposed to know what he referred to.  “And fair Lilith must be recovered ere we find your father’s whereabouts, or the final resting place of the book you seek so arduously.”

“And the Hand to contend with,” Adeline said, rising from her stool.  “We can accommodate you both, as you know, but you will needs work upon the ship.  Every job is critical while we are out in the wilderlands.”

“We will pull our weight,” I promised.

Bob and I returned to our hammock as the sun began to rise.  Even though we’d already slept nine or more hours, our bodies craved more.

I cast a bless upon us as we snuggled into each other’s arms.

I didn’t have the heart to ask him where his paladin armor had gone.  I just prayed the Hand did not possess it.  That would suck.