Chapter Twelve: The Empress

The Captain helped Takkris aboard The Empress by way of a ladder that had been tossed down. Aboard her deck The Empress stretched out far and wide as any city block might. It sat tall in the water and it has three massive masts, one in the middle, a smaller one in front and one of similar size in back. The rear of the ship where the wheel was on a higher level, almost a full story above the rest of the ship, Takkris followed the Captain up the steps that rose from the sides of the deck to the rear of the ship. The Captain began bellowing orders and the ship sprung to life, unfurling sails, tying down loose sheets and lurching forward under the breath of the wind. To say it came to life was nothing short of literal. Takkris had never seen anything so beautiful and yet frightening. The crew had seemed fairly sparse when he looked across the ship and when the Captain bellowed his orders in a tongue that Takkris did not comprehend, the crew rushed to get out of the way. The ship’s sails unfurled and lines of thick rope stretched and tied themselves. The crew didn’t lift a single finger as the ship readied itself as the Captain’s command and he steered her out into open waters.

The Captain smiled brightly to himself, like a man performing a trick that never gets old. He caught Takkris’ eye and smiled just the same at him before speaking. “So, how’s the wind blow lad?”

Takkris looked at him in befuddlement. “I don’t follow,” he replied.

“Your decision boy! What say you, will the wind blow you into open sea and blue skies or will it blow you back towards the shoreline?” the Captain asked.

Takkris planted his feet and looked firmly into the Captain’s blue and green eyes. “The sea calls to me Captain and I shall prove my worth to her,” bellowed Takkris with more bravado and strength than he felt he had in him.

The Captain laughed and threw down his tricorne to the decks below. “Good lad, good lad indeed! We’ll make a right proper seafaring man out of you yet!” he said with overwhelming pride, “now, we can’t very well have you wearing that bloody mess can we?”

Takkris was about to answer before the Captain bent down and looked him over quickly, rolling his sleeves back to reveal the barely healed cuts that crossed them haphazardly. He pursed his lips accusingly at the wounds and with a wave of his hand a young woman ascended the stairs with a large wooden box. She pushed Takkris into the railing and another crewman slipped a small wooden crate beneath him as Takkris fell. The crate caught him and formed an awkward seat as the woman cut his shirt off with a thick long, sinister looking knife. She was dressed in nothing but cut off trousers, long boots and two slings one red and one white for each breast, as she bent down and moved the pair directly into his line of view he attempted to modestly turn away, much to the guffawing laughter of the Captain.

Takkris couldn’t help but notice that from the lack of tan lines of any sort around the slings of cloth she must not have normally worn anything while out on deck. The very thought seemed to stick into his mind and he gulped his own leaping heart down. Most of her skin was bare and well bronzed with various scars of a darker, almost chocolate color. She had a blood red bandana on her head, and her hair was almost bleached gold, probably from so much sun he imagined. Her hair was adorned with bits and baubles of all sorts tied right into her hair or using it to thread the various beads and talismans. Her face was beautiful in an unfamiliar way, she was not beautiful in the sense of any civilized form he knew of, but she had a deep beauty that radiated outward into her hard bronzed features and bright, sky blue eyes.

She got to work taking his weak, frail form into her hard and sure hands. She turned him about and looked him over like a piece of meat, clucking her tongue at him all the while. She brandished that gleaming knife, which could have easily been a short sword in Takkris’ eyes. She stuck the knife into his pants, which were of good quality and only slightly blood stained. Takkris froze in place as she started the knife at the hem, near the ankle and slide it slowly all the way up to the inseam and then down the other leg, watching his reaction with a cruel grin. Clearly she was enjoying herself, and the concern and fear that Takkris was showing on his face must have been quite entertaining. He yelped and clapped his hands to his groin as she gave one firm yank on his pants and they slipped out from beneath him and were tossed behind her head. He sat there, naked as a lark, growing beet red in the cheeks, his ears burning with a reddening blush. He tried to look everywhere but at her.

Her eyes caught his and still holding the knife in one hand she deftly gripped his chin, the knife barely missed cutting his skin. He eyed it worriedly and then her. He had thought, the worst possible outcome would be that he would be captured and naked forced to do terrible things. The way things had turned out however, while embarrassing certainly didn’t feel like things were nearly as bad as they could have been. He stared into her beautiful blue eyes and she looked hard into his.

“Listen here boyo, I’ve seen my fair share of them precious bits ‘n bobs yer tryin’ to hide there. They aren’t nothin’ special that ain’t nobody seen before. Get offin’ yer high horse and let me tend to your wounds. Can’t very good go ‘bout doin’ that if you’re going to yelp and squeak like a little cub every time I hafta check ya out. Go on then, it’ll only be worse the longer you wait,” she said with a sharp sniff.

Takkris sighed and pulled his hands away. Her immediate reaction made him stifle a laugh, her eyes grew slightly wide and her brows hopped slightly and she gave him a congratulatory nod with a smile creeping along her lips. The Captain laughed as he glanced over at the pair. “It certainly seems Sorlen approves!” he said between light chuckles.

Takkris looked away and turned red as a ripe tomato as Sorlen took out slick seaweed from a small tub. She unfurled them with a flick of her hand and began wrapping them around his arms. He was small enough that a single wide strip of seaweed was able to wrap around from his wrist to his shoulder. No sooner did the seaweed compress against his skin did he begin to itch intensely. Whenever his fingers twitched Sorlen would smack his hand and shake her head at him. She wrapped him head to toe in the emerald green seaweed. His pain was slowly replaced by a maddening irritating itch. She moved his arms out to the sides and flexed and bent each of his fingers with a slight snicker. The seaweed quickly dried and when it did it was harder than any plaster cast could be. No matter how much he struggled against it, he couldn’t move. From the neck down to his toes he was a prisoner to the cast of seaweed. He could barely move his neck around to see what she had been doing, but he could see his arms were bent at odd angles giving some sort of sign with his fingers. Whatever it was it caused an overflow of mirthful laughter from Sorlen and as several crew members came up at her behest they grinned and snickered to one another before the Captain shooed them off.

Takkris looked at the Captain and Sorlen curiously. “What, what’s wrong?” he asked worriedly.

“Nothing lad. Sorlen’s just having some fun. She made you sign out, ‘up yours Imperials,’ the translation is lacking. It’s a bit more lewd than that I assure you,” he said smoothly while walking over to him carrying a small crate himself. He set it down and sat in front of Takkris giving him a once over. “Well, how does that feel lad, better? You were a right sight to behold. Sorlen, how about the bandage on his head, think you can do something about it?”

She nodded, and sliced the bandage off by wedging the flat of the cold steel blade against his temple and pulling the knife towards her. As the bandage fell the Captain and Sorlen exchanged the same range of emotions. Familiar pity and worry followed by an anger that twisted and contorted their features into unquenchable rage. Sorlen bit her lip and the noise that rumbled in her throat could only be described as a guttural growl. The Captain meanwhile took out a small squat vial from a pocket and thumbed open the small cork holding it in place. He then splashed the contents over Takkris’ forehead and wiped it with his thumb, then the heel of his palm. The water felt ice cold and it prickled like when his foot went numb and was slowly waking up. The Captain quickly pocketed the vial and sealed it one smooth motion before leaning forward and placing his elbows on his knees, staring into Takkris’ eyes. Sorlen took a damp cloth and gently blotted and wiped at his forehead, Takkris felt like he was profusely sweating and every time he felt his sweat dripping down she would blot it. The cloth came away progressively more soiled and darkened than it had originally been.

“Who did this to you?” asked the Captain through clenched teeth. There was a fire in his eyes, a raging inferno of anger that he had never seen another person carry. It burned deep into the beautiful blue of one eye and the green of the other. Takkris recognized that pain and that hatred of depravity, and something about seeing it in the Captain made him feel safe.

“It’s okay, you can tell us,” Sorlen added, her eyes filled with a fiery anger that turned her bright blue eyes a dark sapphire. Her anger came as no surprise, it mirrored the Captain’s but in a different way. She wasn’t so angry that it burned into the depths of her soul like the Captain, it was a righteous, indignant sort of anger but it was not something so deep and pure as the Captain’s.

Takkris looked to the side shamefully. But the Captain reached out and smacking him and catching his face in one go, making him look into his eyes. “You don’t dare be ashamed of this boy. You did nothing wrong. Now answer me.” The look of anger on the Captain’s face could have been misconstrued by a less intelligent individual, but Takkris knew where it was coming from. The very fact that he had hit him to knock him out of the feeling of shame felt almost fatherly.

Takkris would have rubbed his cheek if he could have moved and if the Captain wasn’t holding him by the chin. He didn’t seem particularly angry at Takkris, but he was clearly displeased by how he felt ashamed. And it was something to be ashamed of, having his own father sell him into sexual slavery for a pedophile that would have used him up and then killed him when he was done. It was a fate worse than anything one of those street beggars would have had to deal with.

“I don’t know who they are, but one of them who seemed to be a leader called himself Amman. I escaped three times and each time I was caught. The last time I was trapped in some sort of diamond mine. I didn’t know I had been marked, they never did it when I was awake, and it’s not a brand or a tattoo as far as I can tell. But I couldn’t wash it off when I tried,” Takkris answered numbly.

The Captain nodded to himself. “We know who they are, the mark tells us that much. It also gives us the location of where you were kept, a Fresin diamond mind owned by the Netel Company. Tell me lad, would you like to get vengeance on these dark souls who catch men and women and force them into servitude for no other reasons than their different skin color or different beliefs?” asked the Captain, watching Takkris closely.

“I would love nothing more,” Takkris replied firmly and with great conviction.

“That’s what the spirit lad!” said the Captain.

Sorlen looked suspiciously at Takkris. “Open yer mouth,” she said imperiously.

Takkris had somehow almost forgotten about the strip of cloth placed there. The swelling on his face was practically gone. If anything it’d look like he was carrying a bit of baby fat more than any sort of swelling. Something about it definitely tipped off Sorlen though. More than likely it was his slightly slurred speech since he couldn’t move his mouth as well as he would have. That slight alteration to his movements made his entire vocabulary come out slightly off kilter. Takkris obeyed but he was clearly apprehensive about it. Sorlen looked into his mouth without the aid of any additional light. She sucked air through her teeth in response and motioned for him to close his mouth.

Takkris felt the express need to explain, he had kept his teeth in absolute pristine condition all his life. His smile was something he cared about a great deal and for some reason he deeply cared about how the Captain and Sorlen thought of him. “I knocked it out myself. It wasn’t infected or anything, I just needed it to get out of the mines,” he said matter-of-factly.

Both of them stared at him, as if he were slightly deranged. “Lad, you’ve got quite a lot more explaining than that if you’re going to be making any sense. Why precisely did you require a human tooth to escape? This sounds like the sort of story I would very much like to hear. So, out with it!” he ordered.

Takkris sighed in resignation. He hadn’t wanted to tell anybody the story, it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of and it wasn’t exactly a brilliant moment either. Self-mutilation isn’t much of a barroom tale. Or so he thought. Takkris started at the beginning, with his plan of escape dating back to his third escape attempt and how he tried to alienate Amman and his second in command. After his death he realized he’d need to change his plan and with only a single partially dried tellis leaf he planned to poison Amman. But then when Amman had ordered him to drink the sedative, he described how he was forced to use the tellis leaf to counteract its overwhelming sedation and how he nearly poisoned himself to death in the process. However, his plan had worked as he woke up what was at least several hours before the sedative was supposed to wear off. He forced himself to remove the tellis leaf from his stomach and he got to picking the lock on his wrists and then on his ankles. Which was when he realized that it required two keys, and he only had one.

He told them that try as he might to find a substitute he couldn’t and the only possible solution he could think of was to use bone. A twig might have worked but there was no greenery around and time was not something he had in excess. So he did the only logical thing. He found a tooth he knew had yet to come out, choosing from the canines of course as they’d have the longest roots and therefore would be long enough to use as a pick. He described in graphic detail after sufficient prodding from Sorlen about how he prepared everything ahead of time as calmly as he could and used two stones to knock the tooth out. He had a great amount of difficulty describing the pain as it was not only hard to remember but near impossible to put into words that properly described it. Takkris explained how he had used the remains of the tellis leaf with a strip of his shirt folded up to act like antiseptic gauze. He continued with how he had managed to – after several failed attempts at cleaving the tooth – turn it into an implement that could be used as a lock pick. He then picked the locks and described his fortunate discovery of what he later found to be a raw chunk of diamond ore in the vent. The vent itself was a torturous experience, painting his body in red lines of blood. Considering that he had told them so much already, he simply continued the story about how he tried to kill the mouse with the rock, only to miss and find out the rock split into two chunks of diamond ore.

The story unfolded from there about how Takkris managed to flag down a merchant and his guardsman and barter for passage to Interis, thinking the Netel slavers would not be allowed to go there. To which the Captain quickly corrected that he was wrong and he would not have been safe even in the southern portion of Interis. Regardless he pressed on, explaining their eventual betrayal and how he dressed and washed himself before realizing he was marked. The Captain praised his idea to bandage his head, as he would have quickly been collared by the guards he had bribed on the way into the port city of Raslik. The rest, including his run-in with the corpses of those who betrayed him as well as the thievery and beating from the gang of street kids came rather quickly and easily. By the time he was done telling his story more than a dozen members of the crew could be seen leaning forward or sitting on the steps listening to the story in rapt attentiveness.

When he finished there was a stunned sort of silence that followed. Takkris wasn’t sure if it was in respect or admiration, or if what he had gone through was just so surprising and shocking that it was difficult to digest. When he thought about it, it was somewhat alarming all the terrible things he had gone through. Not just gone through, but survived. His laughter broke the silence and all eyes returned to him. The Captain’s face was an unreadable mask, but his eyes told him of something lurking beneath, something Takkris couldn’t quite put his finger on, but he felt like the Captain understood his plight more than the others.

“What’s so funny kid?” asked Sorlen.

“I just realized how lucky I am to have survived what I did,” replied Takkris, in between sporadic chuckles.

The Captain looked sternly at him. “There is no such thing Takkris. Luck is nothing but what happens when somebody takes statistics too personally. It was your bravery and cunning that put you ahead of those who would have seen you a slave. You did those things, not them. You. Never forget that lad. Don’t go givin’ some unseen force undue credit. Not just yet anyways,” he said with a wink, “go on then lads and lasses, story time’s over! Get back to your stations!”

Somebody bellowed from below, “’Ave we got ourselves a headin’ Cap’n?”

The Captain grinned viciously and he looked like a shark bearing its teeth. “Aye. We’re going Whale Hunting. Chart out a course to the Northern Sempris Isles!” he commanded.

The crew below bustled about moving the remainder of the crates that had been brought aboard below decks while a pair of navigators worked to plot out a suitable course. Sorlen pried Takkris’ mouth open unceremoniously and while he was distracted she yanked the uncoiling cloth out of his mouth. It ripped agonizingly against the wound which immediately began to bleed again. She took out a small dab of white ointment and pressed it to the socket with its dangling fibers and the pain instantly ceased and he stopped tasting his own metallic blood. Instead he could only taste a sweet almost floral flavor of her finger and whatever it was she pressed into his wound. She kept her finger there a few moments and then released it. She forced his mouth open with his hand and moved his head around to get a better look inside on the upper row of teeth. She nodded, pleased with her work. Takkris couldn’t help but prod and poke it with his tongue. It was a hard and smooth substance that capped the wound with a slight bump. It felt like glazed ceramic and tasted like flower petals. A taste he discovered he didn’t quite like and so he quickly ceased what would have otherwise been an obsessive tongue prodding.

“Take him below Sorlen, get him settled in and return, we have some plans to discuss,” the Captain said.

Sorlen picked Takkris up like he was a statue and tucked him under her right arm. Takkris craned his neck to be able to look up at Sorlen. “This is a tad humiliating,” he said.

Sorlen looked on ahead as she descended the stairs, a ghost of a smile playing across her features. “I know,” she replied.

Sorlen took him to a wide set of stairs that went below deck. He couldn’t see much except her stomach and what was on the wall to her left. The ship was nothing like he had ever heard of. Even the Royal Navy couldn’t hold a candle to The Empress. It was expansive and glorious inside. There were carpets and rich golden sconces with crystals that exuded a soft warm light rather than flickering candles or flames of some sort. The wood was rich mahogany with various inlaid embellishments, nothing too grand or fancy but everywhere he looked there was a definite air of class and respect. The crew dressed well, if a bit odd with an obvious flair of color and ruffled cuffs, gloves and clothing of all sorts. There wasn’t a single person who was without some form of jewelry, talisman or trinket draped about their body, tied right into their hair or stitched into their clothing somehow. But all of them were clean and their look of roguishness seemed highly calculated and too perfect to be a simple way of being, it almost looked like he was passing by various actors in some sort of well written and well-funded play.

There were many levels within the Empress, Sorlen tried to point out the various places of interesting, such as the Galley where’d he’d get all his meals as well as the various cargo decks where they kept whatever they were hauling. Takkris tried his best to keep everything she told him stored into his mind but it was difficult. She talked quickly and he was suddenly very tired. Without his life being constantly threatened or his future in jeopardy he finally was beginning to feel the past weeks catch up to him. He was tired in a way that made his soul ache for rest. He was just happy to have somewhere he could sleep and not worry about what would come when he woke up.

So it was with great relief when Sorlen shouldered open a door at the end of a long hallway that he saw his own private room. It wasn’t much, just a bed a chest at its foot a bedside table and a small armory right next to a bookshelf filled with all sorts of books. He had a tiny closet which was of course emptied of any sort of clothes and he had access to the bathroom just across the hall. The bed was what he had been most looking forward to. It called to him despite its simple frame and fairly lumpy mattress. It was the most comfortable thing in the world to him at that point. She forced his arms and legs down, the seaweed making a crackling sound in protest but she was easily able to position him how he wanted to sleep.

“When ye wake up, ye will have clothes to wear. I will show ye how to wear them properly. There is a small lever here,” she said, pointing to a tiny strip of wood on the wall that looked out of place and slightly raised, “if ye press this I will hear it. Press this when ye wake up and I will come help ye out of that seaweed and get ye into some proper clothes. That is meant for emergencies, and when I tell ye to only. If ye press it and ye are not hurt, ye best get hurt quick before I see ye or it’ll be me doing the hurtin’, got that?”

Takkris nodded, slightly wary of calling for help now. Of course that would mean he’d need to get out of bed first which would be no small feat. Trapped in the tomb of seaweed bandages as he was it would be hard to roll over, much less manage to get upright to his feet and hobble over to the door. His worries drifted over him like a dark cloud, but they didn’t bother him much. For all the practical concerns and questions he still had, he was in a far better place than he could have hoped for. He’d have room and board, fresh air, food and work to do. No such prospects appeared to exist back on dry land. He was thankful for the sea, for the Captain and for Sorlen’s healing touch. He didn’t know what would happen when he was able to exact some much deserved vengeance, but he was more than a little eager to find out. If he could channel that dark hatred that nestled deep inside of his heart and use it against the people who wronged him and so many others, then perhaps he wouldn’t feel the need to lock that part of himself away. After all, it was part of him and he should embrace himself, even the bad parts. His thoughts lingered on as he sailed off to sleep.

Takkris awoke in a haze. The room around him flickered and shifted like it was made of vapor. His body was fully healed but it felt somehow less substantial. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and met his feet to the floor, surprised to have on shoes. Not boots, not seaweed but proper shoes that fit him perfectly because they were his. He looked down at himself and was surprised to be wearing one of his favorite outfits, a rusty orange-red sweater and a pair of long brown slacks with a braided belt to hold them up. His shoes were simple loafers but they had been expertly broken in by him over the years and they fit like a second skin. It didn’t take him long to be certain he was dreaming. He would never wear clothes like that again, even if he had the money and means to. That part of his life was gone, just as dead and buried as his mother was. He would do no service to her, no honor to parade about like that again.

Seeing as it was a dream, or perhaps a nightmare that had not yet started to scare him, he set about towards the door. It barely seemed to hold itself together as vaporous as it was, he could almost see the other side beyond it. He waved a hand at its misty form and it passed straight through like it was no more than camouflaged fog. He stepped through and out into the hallway, only it was twisted like a corkscrew. Since he was at the end of the hall he had no choice but to follow its twisting path. He felt no different as the ship’s hallway spiraled around him a vine. He kept his head as best he could while looking for anything out of place. Aside from the fact that nearly everything except himself was made out of a sort of ill-defined vapor, everything was much the same. Save the significant lack of people. The ship was quiet and it didn’t move, but being as large as it was perhaps it didn’t move much. Takkris didn’t really know much about boats other than the fact that they floated and were the only means for accessing the islands scattered around the main continent. Aside from that, he always considered boats to be a rather outdated mode of transportation. The way the mainland was shaped, like some massive boomerang, it was hardly more efficient to use boats than overland transportation. Though he had to admit that his lack of intimate knowledge of seafaring vessels did color his belief somewhat and provided him with a healthy dose of bias that he hoped the Captain and his stay on The Empress would remedy.

Takkris rounded on the flight of stairs that led out onto the main deck. He gingerly placed a foot onto the bottom most one and much to his surprise as soon as he pressed down, the tiny motes of vapor coalesced to provide a corporeal and solid step, centered around where he placed his weight. He pushed down on his leg and brought himself up to the next step, again he was careful and tested before continuing on. He touched nothing else all the way up the seventeen steps and each step he was cautious and careful on as if it was waiting to betray him. The double doors ahead waited for him at the top of the stairs. He passed through them without any concern and they hindered him no more than an embankment of cloud might a bird.

On top of the main deck he could hear a distant bell tolling. And all around him he heard the tinkling sound of a music box playing. But one of its keys must have been broken because where the tune should have had a high note, it fell flat with silence. The deck of the ship itself was barren and devoid of any life. There was an ever present fog that hung about Takkris like a mantle, limiting his sight to only a few paces in any direction. The ship looked badly aged, its deck was rotted in some places, with moss and seaweed dripping through cracked, broken boards like infected wounds. The air was frigid and the sound of water echoed about but he could see nothing over the shattered, decaying rails. His heart sank at the state of The Empress. Its mighty masts were snapped and lost save for the single, smaller mast at the front of the ship. It had fallen on its side like a massive felled tree of polished mahogany with rich bands of decorated gold every thirty or so paces. It extended beyond the ship into the fog beyond.

Takkris hopped aboard the vaporous mast, unsurprised to find that it now held his weight just as easily as the stairs had. He walked gingerly forward, confused but also eager to see where he was. A pale gray rock slicked with seaweed and water stood adjacent to the ship like an iceberg. The mast created a small walkway to the stone, which as he looked down got bigger and wider. I suppose an iceberg is a fairly apt assumption then. He descended the stone with its sloping sides and small shelves of stone. A few extra hops and he found himself in the shadow of another great vessel, its side torn open on a massive rocky outcrop nearly fifteen paces ahead. The water was visible this close and it was a churning black terror. The water frothed madly on the rocks, trying to drown them, but they held out in spite of its inky depths. There were a few, smaller rocks that jutted out from the dark waves below, upon these rocks was a thin plank made of old boards. It looked like gossamer thread to Takkris and hardly corporeal unlike the ship or the rocks below him which were sturdy and strong, the walkway was dangerous looking. He placed a foot ahead and it met with slight resistance and then firm ground. The planks gave beneath him as hazy as they were. The sensation did not lend much confidence in the way, but without any other obvious path ahead he took it, regardless of his reservations.

Inside the broken ribs of a great beast of a ship he stood almost completely shrouded in darkness. The knell of a bell was growing clearer and something told him he had to reach it. There was something dark about this place. He could not put his finger on it but he knew that all sense and reason told him to leave. He wanted to run and hide from whatever lurked in its depths and to never look back. But he mastered his fear and his sense of reason. He hardly doubted the latter would be very productive wherever he was, likely in a drug induced hallucination. Or more likely a vivid dream brought on by too much stress, too little food and too little sleep as well as a pile of injuries. And that’s when he nearly smacked himself. He had been so engrossed in the Captain and in Sorlen that he had completely forgotten to tend to his stomach and its needs. Yet, it hadn’t bothered to remind him the entire time he was aboard The Empress or speaking with either of them so he imagined it must have taken a back seat to everything else that was occurring at the time.

The deep hold of the ship was large and cavernous. Its dark depths were difficult to trespass and he sorely wished he had a light of some sort. He almost paused for a moment and looked around, partially expecting a torch or some lantern to materialize out of thin air. But of course it didn’t. He knew better than that, but it didn’t stop him from becoming slightly hopeful. Over several broken crates with sharp jagged edges he finally found the steps leading up and out of the hold. He nearly sprinted up them – at least he would have if he could have done so. His limbs moved slower the harder he pushed them, until they too became misted and almost ethereal, like a coalesced spray of colored mist. He could both see through himself and not. Slowing down, Takkris was able to regain full control and remain corporeal at the same time. It troubled him greatly that any swift movements would disturb his capacity to exist on a physical plane as he had come to understand things. And so he took to moving slow and methodical as he rose through the steps. The next level of the ship was broken in half and water rushed in and out of the far end. The ship was pinned between two rocks and it looked like the force of the tide and the two rocks snapped the large ship in half like a bundle of dry twigs. Where the other half was he could not tell, and he doubted he could even if the pervasive fog would lift for just a moment.

He found a hole punched into the side of the ship opposite the direction he had come in on one level lower. A pair of logs, lashed together with seaweed had been turned into a bridge to a rocky shore. It was colder yet here and the fog was slowly beginning to lift. Bits of snow began to fall in a slight flurry, whipped around by the gusting wind. Takkris tested the bridge before taking it, arriving safely on the rocky piece. There was a clear path of stones and rocks ahead that carved a path above the water to tall walls of stone and dark caverns beyond. He followed the path which only became easier as the fog continued to lift, making only a slight haze some fifty paces or more away. He turned to look back behind him and what he saw was an eerily quiet graveyard of ships. The ships all stood still in the water as if frozen in time, they did not bob nor shift as the tide pulled in and out against them. The ones which still had masts had large sails blackened or dark gray and tattered like great sheets of moss hanging from a dead tree.

As far as he could see were rocky outcrops and corpses of various ships. Several of them seemed to come from different eras and different locations around the world. There were ships made out of metal which seemed to make little to no sense seeing how heavy metal was. There were ships that stood on top of three long metallic bottoms with the main body of the ship resting high above the water. The metallic ships were rusted and decayed and looked just as old if not older than the massive ships made of wood with only one or two masts and simplistic sails. Those ships he recognized from stories and books on piracy and old naval warfare, which not surprisingly was considered hugely important considering the amount of islands that surrounded the mainland. Most of them, if not all weren’t part of any nation.

There were stories of the islands, myths and legends but the only thing he knew was that the people willingly left them behind and had not been particularly keen on going back. A few of the tiny isles were in use by large companies, families or royalty of some sort but for the majority of the nations, the islands were ignored. Takkris couldn’t help feel that there was a primal fear of the islands and their shrouded banks that kept most people from wanting to go near, much less think about a trip to one. The few people who did return to one of the islands always had the same story. The journey there was met with danger and death at every turn, nearly half the crew died just sailing to its shores and half again died making it only a few leagues inland. The rest was incomprehensible drivel from the few that somehow managed to survive and make it back to civilization. And yet the Captain didn’t seem afraid of the islands, he captained a boat and so he must have visited some of them at least.

Takkris had stood there, staring at the dead ships that used to be so full of life for so long that he hadn’t noticed the figure that stalked up behind him. It spoke in a drawling, but eloquent voice. “You have come here by great pain, and yet your heart is different than those who have come before. You…interest me, Takkris Nhor’sky,” the voice, neither masculine nor feminine said.

Takkris started and turned, but saw nothing more than a shadow of a shadow. It stood tall and ominous but it did not feel threatening in the sense of imminent danger. He relaxed and looked at its eyes, if they could be called such. They were two pinpricks of light within the shadow and nothing more. “What do you mean? Why am I here?” he asked, panic rising into his chest and out into his voice.

“You have something that is rare in this world. Even among all the ages, what you possess is still considered rare, and I have been alive far longer than your mortal mind – brilliant as it is – can comprehend. I have been both Savior and Destroyer. I have brought you here to bestow upon you a Gift. If you would receive it,” rumbled the shadow.

“What’s the attachment? What price must I pay for this ‘gift’ as you call it? Nothing comes free,” replied Takkris.

“Your cynicism does not interest me. It is that which you try to hide and bury beneath civility, good grace and proper manners. That cold rage of the sea that roils within you. You can feel the call of the sea in your blood, can you not? Yes, I thought so. My Gift, is for you to do as you please. There are no hidden strings attached, and there are no prices to be paid besides what it will cost you to wield my Gift. You will be changed by it, and those around you will be changed as well. You know what I speak is the truth, and you know that I do not seek to deceive you. I wish to see what you do with my Gift, nothing more,” boomed the shadow as it held out a wispy, shifting hand of shadow, “take my hand if you wish to accept my Gift.”

Takkris looked around. Making deals with a shadowy creature in some sort of dreamscape wasn’t exactly the sort of thing that led to happy endings. And yet, what it said was true. He did feel that it wasn’t trying to hide or deceive him, but what benefit would it gain by giving him a gift? Takkris couldn’t know and the question would undoubtedly drive him mad if he ever turned the thing down. He reached out his hand and felt a strong powerful masculine hand grip his in return. The pain coursed through his hand and up into his arm but he clenched his teeth against it and rode it out just as he had when he was hurt before. And then as the pain reached its peak, a feminine hand, cool and gentle set itself atop his, sandwiching Takkris’ small hand between a powerful masculine hand, and a gentle feminine hand. The pain ceded as quickly as it came upon him, like it was being channeled away from him and into the owner of the gentle hand that graced the back of his. He had no idea how long he stood there but it seemed over all too soon and he looked at his hand in curiosity.

A black mark was brightly glowing almost as bright as a stoked smithy’s furnace. It was a symbol of a mighty wave and hand reaching out of the water grasping a sword firmly. Takkris looked back up, and the shadow was gone. As the fog filled back in Takkris could hear its voice in the distance. “I have been both Savior and Destroyer. Which will you strive to be, I wonder?” echoed the disembodied voice. The fog grew so thick and damp that it coated his very skin in a slick sheen of dew. He struggled to breathe, to push the fog off of him but it pulled itself into his mouth and into his nose choking him from the inside. Just as he felt he was going to black out from the lack of oxygen, his lungs burning with need, he started awake bolting upright and breathing in fresh lungfuls of air. The seaweed had softened at some point during the night and he found it quite easy to move with it on him. He swung his feet over the side of the lumpy bed and threw off the relatively dry sheets.

His whole body felt tight and strained, like a new pair of leather shoes before they were broken in. He struggled with his own body to stretch and move as he desired, slowly making his way to the small almost hidden lever to call Sorlen. He wanted to be changed and up on the deck. The windowless room unnerved him after his dreaming and he wanted to eat, to clean himself and to be properly dressed for once in his recent life. He reached a hand forward and activated the lever, pressing on it twice to call Sorlen to his room so he could escape the damnable seaweed cast that had begun hardening again around his body. Even if it weren’t for the seaweed drying out again his own body felt so taut and stiff that any movement was an extreme effort.

He waited around impatiently, he would have paced the floor but with his body and the seaweed wrap causing him additional hindrance he would rather save his strength for the walk to the galley where he could get something to eat. It wasn’t difficult just standing there as he was, he idly thought about how weak and tired he had been yesterday, to the point it had apparently eclipsed his need for food. So much had happened to him in such a short span of time he was still reeling from the events that spun his otherwise posh and privileged life out of control and down a darker path than he could have ever guessed. He had seen the families of the Ninth District lose out on their prospects, become poor by the standards of the wealthy and affluent, but they still clung to their rights. They still were rich by the standard of any normal person, so they wouldn’t be invited to the top social events, who cared? At least they wouldn’t starve or want for anything, which was a far cry better than Takkris’ own situation. He had never expected to feel the gnawing, twisting, cramping agony of starvation, to feel his body cannibalizing itself just to stay alive and doing a poor job at that besides.

His stomach made a low guttural groan and then the cramps came upon him in crippling waves. They forced him onto his bed with his hands reflexively clasping onto his abdomen where the pain was centered. It was when he was curled over the side of the bed, both hands pressed firmly to his midsection that the door casually swung open and Sorlen sauntered through. She was scantily clad as yesterday, in a similar outfit, except her pants had changed to a darker shade of brown, closer to the rich loamy soil of Central Grachyr. She was at his side in a flash, her hand placed onto his back. He couldn’t quite look up at her yet, but her touch was one he was familiar with as a child. It was a thing of comfort and concern, he hadn’t imagined he’d ever feel it again, it wasn’t his mother’s, he knew that much. But it was similar, the care and concern for his wellness was not something he had ever thought to have another worry or fret over again. He knew he might be accepted on The Empress, but he didn’t think they’d ever come to think of him as anything more than a stray they had took pity upon and took him in. He knew, deep down that he wouldn’t ever truly belong. He had nothing in common with them and they had no reason to place a great deal of faith or trust in somebody so unfamiliar with boats, the ocean or the way of life that these people carried on with. He was, by all standards and means of the word, a foreigner on The Empress. It might have well been the moon for all its familiarity and his understanding of proper customs, dialect and social graces.

It didn’t take long for Sorlen to brandish her knife and free him from the confines of his green, salty prison. And once again he was naked as a lark in front of a woman, the first time in fact since he was a little boy being bathed by his mother, counting both occurrences of the past day and whatever day it happened to currently be. Takkris didn’t have the greatest sense of time on the best of days, and having deeply vivid and disturbing dreams wasn’t exactly something that would set a mind straight. Though, if he were completely truthful to himself, he didn’t want it to be a dream. The thought of being gifted with power was something he had always fantasized about and in his particular circumstances, bearing in mind his recent change of social status and personal torment, would prove wildly useful. It only took a single glance at his left hand for him to realize the marking from his dream was still there. He smiled widely to himself and wondered what exactly the gift was and why it had seemed so important, for that matter he wondered why he would be considered so important as well. It’s not as if he was powerful, particularly smart or gifted in some way. He was still a child in the eyes of the world, not old enough for much good yet. So it was no wonder that Takkris found great interest in what was so special about him that this entity would give him a mark of power.

Sorlen stared at it, and their eyes met when Takkris realized she was looking at it and not somewhere far more inappropriate. Her beautiful bright blue eyes turned dark as the stormy sea and a wide range of emotions scudded along her face like so many clouds in front of the full moon on a cloudy night. Fear, pain, despair, hope, pity and finally concern all whisked across her beautifully tanned features in less than an instant. And before he realized it she was slapping a pair of simple clothes at him. Boots, trousers and a simple shirt were all that she gave him and she gave them over in such a rush that Takkris couldn’t help but think that she wanted nothing more than to be rid of him. This was further confirmed by her immediate and hasty departure. Takkris took a few moments to get into his clothes, his body was still in great need of stretching and being broken in, and he suspected that the Captain would somehow find a way to do so while also embarrassing Takkris to the point the Captain and half the crew were in tears from laughter.

Takkris sluggishly dragged his recalcitrant body into a shambling walk, making it out into the hallway and halfway up the stairs when he felt a sudden shift in the air. The wind gusted up around him and flew out of the below decks and onto the main deck beyond, pushing forward and then suddenly dying down. Takkris gripped the rail on the side of the stairs and braced himself for more, but nothing else came. He waited a few more moments to be safe and then continued his laborious hike up the steps. Each movement was like trying to press against knotted leather laces, his muscles and tendons snapped back quickly with a stark soreness that he had never known before. They gave into his efforts but only when he concentrated every last fiber of his being on movement, which was a far from ideal and easy thing to do on such an empty stomach. But, he felt he should see the Captain since Sorlen seemed so spooked by whatever she had seen.

He had barely made it above decks and out into the dying light of dusk before he saw the dark shape of the Captain, wearing completely different clothing than before and yet somehow it seemed all the more appropriate. Sorlen was beside him, arms folded worriedly below her breasts. The Captain looked into Takkris’ eyes and grinned, holding out his hand. “Let me see your hands lad,” he said with mild amusement. Somehow he managed to look just as scruffy as yesterday and yet still exceedingly handsome like one of those roguish pirates from one of those tawdry and trashy romance novels.

Takkris did as he was asked and extended both hands, the mark on his left hand clearly visible as if it had been permanently stained black. “Do you know what this is, Captain” Takkris asked.

“Aye, lad I do,” he said, pulling up his oversized black cuff that came down to the knuckles of his hands, revealing the same mark on his left hand, “more than you could ever know lad, more than you could ever know.”

Takkris looked ready to burst with questions but the Captain raised a hand to forestall him, and guided him to his quarters accessed by a pair of large doors with two crossed golden swords adorning each. The inside was richly decorated with polished hanging candelabras and chandeliers. The room had so many rich rugs and spoils of war that the single room just based on what Takkris could see would easily be worth a large estate in the 9th District of the Capitol. The room was expansive with the entire rear wall filled with massive windows with silver frames embellished with curlicues and scrollwork. The quarters were well lit with sconces of pure gold on the walls, interspersed between large framed paintings and hanging framed weapons of all sorts. He saw pistols, both new and antique as well as swords, daggers, and several strange weapons that he had not seen nor heard of before.

There were a few large cherry wood tables spread about the large room, several had maps and charts for navigation, one was dedicated to what looked like a constant buffet of various fruits, meats and snacks of all sorts. Nothing particularly meal-like but that table in particular attracted Takkris and his gnawing stomach, more than anything else. The Captain saw him eyeing the table and motioned for him to go to it. “Have whatever you like lad, we’ll be here a while yet and you must be quite hungry,” he said as he crossed to a large King’s Desk. He reached out to the shut cylindrical top and took out a small golden key, inserting it into a lock and with a small click it and a short push the desk cover rolled over and into a hidden compartment, revealing a portion of the desk. It must have been important since a King’s Desk was not only incredibly difficult to construct and even harder to come by, it had intricate locking mechanisms and the wood was laminated with sheets of a metal that resisted even the most powerful of drills.

The desk was as Takkris had figured it would be, richly decorated with jewels and gems of all sorts and inlaid with scenes of the sea and battles of large frigates. One of which looked strikingly familiar to The Empress, although smaller in scale than he would have expected it to be portrayed. He took his eyes away from the Captain and Sorlen, heading straight to the buffet table. He picked up a heavy porcelain plate and quickly overburdened with fruits and dried meats of all sorts, putting several large wedges of various cheeses and biscuits on a second plate. He wasted no time setting both of the plates down and mowing through the food as if he had no sense of manners at all. To which the Captain and Sorlen smiled but passed up on the golden opportunity to make fun of Takris. Something the Captain seemed particularly inclined to doing. He wasn’t used to being teased, but he had heard that some people did it as a form of friendliness or to show that they cared. Takkris thought it was a rather peculiar way to show somebody that they were special or liked, but he guessed some people didn’t know how to express themselves any other way.

The Captain sauntered over in his black as night leather coat with high collar and thick rolled cuffs with decorated black velvet. He wore a tight leather vest beneath with large silver buttons and an open vee neck exposing his somewhat hairy chest with a large silver medallion resting against his bare chest. He had a few silver buckles and clasps around his waist. While his pants were fairly simple black leather trousers without anything particularly special about them. His boots were large, black turned down things that pulled off the dark ensemble quite well. The man definitely had a way with flair and he looked far more dangerous and yet natural the way he looked now. Without a hat or his previous, more civilized clothing he looked closer to a pirate villain than the roguish hero that one might find in a trashy romance novel. He still looked too handsome, but Takkris imagined there wasn’t too much that could be done about natural looks. And he couldn’t help if his own fair features would betray his ability to fit in with the Captain and those on The Empress.

As Takkris filled his never-ending pit of a stomach, the Captain held up a small red leather bound book. It had several impressed symbols and circles on it, some looked familiar but most were plainly foreign and had a distinctly magical, or perhaps occult look to it. Takkris had never much believed in magic, wizards or the like, they were the fanciful dreams of a child and those who couldn’t handle the harsh truths of reality. Magic was a nice fix for complicated problems that ordinary people had to deal with all the time. It was nothing more than a coping mechanism, just like religion. People who actually believed there was a God of any sort, or that magic existed were deluded weak-minded creatures who would rather live in a fantasy than come to terms with reality. At least, Takkris had thought that. He was beginning to wonder just how wrong he was. He still suspected that there was no such thing as magic, only a higher state of being that was perceived as magic. Ages ago people would have thought that a railcar would have been pure magic. Ignorance always looks to the supernatural for explanation rather than logic.

The Captain looked at Takkris and then at his almost emptied plates. “Tell me about your meeting with Mhor’dynn Takkris,” he said, pulling up a chair and sitting down near him.

Takkris was finally feeling full, something he had thought he’d never feel again. He had forgotten just how uncomfortable it felt, but he forced himself to choke down another cheese biscuit, they weren’t only incredibly delicious, but he was secretly worried that he wouldn’t get a chance to eat again. He didn’t know how long, and so he wanted to be sure that his meal would last him. Takkris wiped his mouth with his sleeve and began at the beginning, dreaming of the vaporous ship and the graveyard of broken, desolate ships that he had never seen before, many of which were of make and design that seemed impossible, such as metal ships the size of a small city. He continued up until he met the shrouded figure and its small speech about being both Savior and Destroyer. It had felt real when he was in its presence, but he was beginning to understand that that wasn’t the right phrasing. It felt right like being in the presence of a caring parent, or a loved one that he hadn’t seen in a long time. He tried to explain himself as best as he could as both Sorlen and the Captain watched him in silence. Neither of them said anything or interrupted his story until he was finished.

The Captain leaned forward and spoke, lacing his ringed fingers together and peering over them with his dark rimmed eyes. Takkris could have sworn up close that he was wearing some sort of makeup to make his eyes look that dark, but he didn’t know enough about it to be certain. It definitely looked like some sort of black makeup, it made the Captain look serious and yet dashing at the same time. “You met an ancient being, some might call them a god, or something of the sort but all I know is that it isn’t the only one and it has some serious power. Its name is Mhor’dynn, and it’s been alive for more ages than most historians are even aware existed. He, or she, let’s call him he for sake of simplicity – though I have no idea if they even have genders. These creatures exist outside of time and space as we know of them. They disappear for entire ages, never heard from or documented, and then sometimes they completely alter an entire age by themselves or through their agents. Their ‘agents’ as they’ve been called by historians and the bits I’ve collected are people like you and I Takkris, people who have been favored with their gift which is represented as a brand or a mark on their body. Nothing you can do can harm the mark, not that it won’t hurt like the depths of hell to try, but the mark will heal whole and be none the worse for wear. So I wouldn’t try it, if you were thinking of going that route,” warned the Captain.

“I wasn’t. I actually was quite interested in the sorts of things I could possibly do with this gift, if anything. Have you – have you had it for long Captain?” asked Takkris.

“My name, lad is Killian Montaiq, you may call me Killian or Captain if you like. And to answer your question, I’ve had it for a little while now and have gotten used to its quirks and strangeness. But you, you are very young to receive the mark. Not that I ever doubted you had the mettle, but I don’t know how it will affect you boy. I was a grown man when I was marked, and it changed my entire life. I wouldn’t be here if not for it and I’ve done my best to gather every scrap of knowledge and evidence that these things exist. They either do a very good job of erasing their existence, or their touch upon our world is so subtle and gentle that we wouldn’t know it from a simple breeze,” said Killian.

Sorlen stood by his side and stood motionless as they spoke, her eyes sometimes slid between the blue and green odd eyes of the Captain to Takkris. There was something in her eyes that Takkris could barely register and it was only there when she thought neither of the two of them looked at her. He had first thought it was disdain or something of the sort, even anger perhaps but that wasn’t it. She stood watching like a protector, and the way she stood seemed to indicate that the Captain wasn’t the only one she was watching over and protecting. Takkris wondered exactly what she thought of all this talk of magic and beings that were more than human. His waking mind told him that it was all superstition and storytelling gone wild through the ages. But he had seen the thing, whatever it was, a he or a she or something completely different, and it had been marked, there was simply no denying that. But the rest of it, there was no direct evidence. And it was difficult for Takkris to wrap his mind around being part of something much larger than what he was already preparing himself for.

“These creatures, there’s three of them from what I gather. I know not what sort of game they’re playing at but they seem to choose people that either best fit their particular ideals or those that can unlock the breadth of their powers. That mark you bear gives you something no other human has. Even my own powers will be different than yours. We may share some in common but by the large we’ll be as different as our personalities and the paths of life we’ve both walked are. It took me too long to fully understand what had happened to me and that it was a blessing rather than a curse. It took me even longer to be able to realize and harness the abilities so that I could count on them as I would count on a bit of steel to see me through a scrape. Your powers are part of you, just as your fingers and hands are. They are extensions of yourself expressed in a way that most people cannot fathom, let alone compare,” said Killian.

“Like the way you get The Empress to do as you command with just a few words? I’ve never seen a ship do something like that. True, I don’t really have much experience with them but I’ve never, ever, ever heard of a ship being able to lace itself up and get going as The Empress can. It’s such a massive ship I figured the crew did all the navigation and rigging that a normal crew would be there for, will you be able to show me how to do something like that? Not for The Empress of course! I wouldn’t want to step over any boundaries or anything! I just would like to be able to do what you did, perhaps help or with another ship or something, having the ability to captain your own ship without expressly requiring a crew would be wonderful,” said Takkris, trailing off quietly as he looked away, afraid he had offended the Captain or somehow The Empress.

The Captain, Killian Montaiq leveled a gaze at him, inclining his head slightly and looking up at the boy who quickly cast his eyes away. “Don’t do that lad. Don’t look away. When somebody stares at you, you stare back just as hard. You hold their gaze and you make sure they know you aren’t going to back down. Perception is everything and if you seem weak, even if you aren’t, they’ll think they can walk all over you. People in this world will tell you what you can and cannot do if you give them a hair’s breadth of leeway. You have to push back against them and make them see what and who you are. People won’t accept the most basic of facts unless you shove it in their face. It is a sad truth that I had wished I learned at a softer age,” he said, looking down at the cover of the book on the desk. It was a while before he spoke again, lifting his head and his tousled, inky black hair. “I can’t say that I know what you’re going through lad. But I can tell you that I can offer you what nobody else can. I can offer you more than a home, and more than a way of life. I can offer to reveal the man you can be, the best man possible to you.

“I can show you what sort of hidden talents you have swimming in the depths of your soul. I can show you how to hide what you want hidden and show what you want the whole world to see without ever losing yourself in the façade. But you will have to work for it and there will be nobody that can make the work any easier or any less grueling. You are the one who will be responsible for growing and becoming better, I can show you the way but I cannot make you walk the path. I would have you as my First Mate, if you so wished. And I’ll tell you, that position comes with plenty of perks,” Killian said, wagging his finger with a lavished grin showing his pearly white teeth. He lowered his hands and began to thumb through the book. “There are things that I would like to tell you, and after I finish speaking, I would like your answer. I know I may be imposing on you as of late, but these things are important beyond what you can imagine and only the time will show us exactly how important these decisions will become.

“I’m going to lay the cards out on the table. I fear you may be quite the noble hearted young vagrant and I wouldn’t want to win you over with deceit and lies – though I wouldn’t be above that either, fair warning. You sit aboard The Empress, the greatest pirate vessel to ever grace the waves of the deep. We, all of us are pirates, we rob and pillage and we make what is not rightfully ours, our own. We do not enslave, and we do not harm women or children that don’t harm us. A well kept secret is that our first preference is not to fight, but rather to intimidate and force whomever we’re pursuing to give in rather than risk life and limb to fight us off – we’ll win anyways and it’s less bloody that way. Also a lot less tiring,” the Captain said with a wink, “theatrics and piracy go hand in hand as well as any weapons. We use these garbs, well not Sorlen, that’s her natural taste and native customs, and I just really like to dress in style, but most of us aren’t as dirty or roguish as we look. It’s a carefully cultivated lie. The more we dress to frighten, the more fearsome our reputation becomes, the less people fight us and the less good men and women have to die as a result of that fighting.

“I know it doesn’t make much sense, but seeing people bleed isn’t exactly something anybody should be proud of. But nobody can know that, because if they do then you lose your advantage, suddenly you’re back to scrapping for every coin that’s out there and that lad is no way to live. We kill only when we must, and we prefer to go after the healthier targets, those that would make light of the misfortunes of others. Large companies that hires slaves to do their work, or the great nations of Interis and Grachyr for example. War benefits us quite handily as there are always supply shipments to raid and secret stores to liberate. Without us serving a valuable need to the good people of this world, well there’d be little Interis wine, or fine furs from the north and the great produce and fineries like gems and diamonds of the Grachyr Kingdoms would be utterly non-existent in other parts of the world. Not to mince words, we steal and we reap the bounty of our work. The Empress has had a target on her aft for quite some time which only complicates matters.

“We are far from the only pirate crew around and though our reputation would have you believe we are the bloodiest band of cutthroats that ever did sail the seas, there are many crews far worse than our own. They work hard to keep their reputation and to make sure they’re taken seriously. They do much of what you’d imagine a pirate might do, they are in my opinion nothing more than thugs with a boat. We call ourselves Corsairs, rather than Pirates, to help distinguish ourselves. We operate cleaner and we are better for it, we aren’t common thugs, our way is a way of life that few would take to and fewer yet succeed at. Our path is one that’s more difficult than you might expect. You must be capable of doing wrong, but never going so far as to harm unnecessarily. A person robbed of their coin can live to make more, a person robbed of their life is forever gone. So, all this doom and gloom talk and I’ve yet to get to the point at hand. The thing that predicated all of this and that which is most important to the two of us, I speak of course of those creatures that I affectionately call The Old Ones.”

“There are three, Mhor’dynn, Nheir’ma and as I understand it another which goes by many names of which I do not presently have his or her current alias, so let’s go by a previous name, Lucerin. Each of these creatures holds sway over a particular portion of our world. It’s my belief that they somehow draw power from their respective elements as it were. Mhor’dynn as you’ve no doubt been able to deduce hails from the sea. Everything about the sea and its bounty falls under its domain, and as the world is mostly made of the salty stuff, it’s no wonder that Mhor’dynn has been hailed as both a savior and a destroyer. As the sea can take just as readily as it gives, a lesson you will learn quickly.

“Nheir’ma is something I understand less, but the scraps of information I was able to find, and the old tablets and myths surrounding this one suggests it has hold over the lands and their depths. I’m going to make a leap and suggest, stone, diamond, metal and the like fall under Nheir’ma’s particular lot. I don’t particularly like the land very much, doesn’t move quite right under your feet, feels like I’m standing atop a dead carcass of some great beast,” Killian said as Sorlen cleared her throat to get him back on track, “right as you are Sorlen. Back to business then; finally we have this Lucerin, who always seems to change his name every age or so. He’s had many others throughout the years and I suspect he’ll continue to make more. Lucerin is the only one that I have constantly seen referenced as a man, and always with eyes as black as a moonless night bereft of the stars. He holds dominion over the shadow and the darkness. I can’t tell you exactly what that means because it makes no sense to me, but I’m just going to go and assume we’ll want to carry lanterns with us if we ever meet him, or any of his agents.

“Why this is so important is that it would appear every Age there is a great competition amongst the three Old Ones. They bicker and battle, using us as pawns to show who among them is the greatest. Generally speaking the end of an Age comes with a great tide of destruction, not necessarily waterborne of course. You’ve heard the stories, the legends of each Age being wiped clean before the people can truly do anything about it. The ancient ruins and relics of a bygone age, the islands are rife with them and there’s no shortage of stories telling that the islands used to be a great nation that was shattered by the ending of an Age some time back. What you and I are best set to do is go to these ruins and learn what we can. Aside from a fat treasure I’m sure we’re to find some good information of our puppeteers. I for one do not take kindly to having my strings tugged about like some plaything, and the sooner we go about finding a mighty pair of scissors, the better. Don’t you think?”

Takkris sat there for a moment, stunned into silence. He went over all that the Captain had said, he had a hard time thinking of him as a man, as Killian Montaiq. The Captain was just what he looked and seemed like to him. He was bigger than life and just as arrogant and full of swagger as one might expect. Truth be told, he was quite jealous of how cool and collected he could always appear to be and desperately wanted to be just like him. The offer of First Mate had come as a major shock, but perhaps with the both of them being marked as they were, or agents as the Captain had said, they had more in common than he thought. Takkris had thought that Sorlen had been his First Mate, but she didn’t even flinch at his suggestion which meant she was already resigned to giving up her position, or the role wasn’t filled to begin with. He wondered how odd that was among pirates, or corsairs, the difference of the word didn’t seem to strike him as overly important. They robbed and killed with a ship either way, only the Captain did so in a far more honorable and brilliant way to make his own job easier. There had been the hint that there were other pirates that would like to see The Empress resting at the bottomless depths of the sea, and Takkris filed away his questions regarding that for another day.

When Takkris finally responded he said, “I do. But what about the powers we’re given, won’t that somehow be gone when we cut the strings, so to speak?”

“Aye they could, but I don’t believe so. I don’t rightly believe that the Old Ones care enough to directly control us, but they tug the world around us. It makes us react to what’s going on rather than act on our own designs. They are clearly stronger than us, but if a nation was broken for being too advanced, then perhaps there’s something there that we can salvage to shed some light on how we might break free from these chains that bind us. At the least, lad, it offers us an excellent adventure and a challenge for the Ages. If we’re forced to fight against others, then at least we’ll have the biggest guns,” he said with a broad grin, “about the other little matter. What say you about being my First Mate?”

Sorlen looked expectantly at Takkris as if she were hoping for a particular answer. Takkris noticed her and looked back at the Captain. “I would follow you into the Maelstrom itself,” Takkris said, with a shockingly valiant air to his words.

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