“What is the purpose of your visit to the sovereign lands of Carwithian?” An Eshih guard questioned the group on the border.
Val laughed from his resting place in the back of the wagon, “We quest to find the Treasure to save the world!”
The guard shifted in his saddle, looking in the direction of the wagon, “What was that?”
Lucinde held up her hand, “Never mind him. He’s just our fool of a minstrel. We’re traveling to engage a Delmare ship in Tepest by way of Keening.” She fished out the papers Channing Kearnan had given each of them. “You’ll find everything sorted there.”
“Any trouble along your way?” He asked while scanning the papers.
Another giggle from Val, “Nothing much, just Darkhounds the size of horses hunting us in the night, burning their feet into stone.”
Lucinde threw an annoyed glance back to the wagon. ‘Will you quiet him?’ She sent to Iezecele through her ring. Not for the first time she wondered whether a certain kind of madness had taken rest in Val’s heart. That, or she needed to stop them from bringing any alcohol on their trips. “Some wild dogs attacked our camp one night, nothing more. You know how his kind like to embellish.”
The guard nodded. Rolling up the paper, he handed it back to Lucinde. “Everything looks in order.” He guided his horse, opening the road for the group. “Welcome to Carwithian. Remember it is forbidden by Eshih law to stray from the road. Stay to the path and your journey shall be light.”
“What is that sound, someone singing?” Val asked. There was light music in the air, a mournful something if Val could guess.
The group turned the bend in the road. The treeline opened up revealing an Eshih city. “It’s Keening.” Lucinde stated. She had visited Keening a number of times in the past with her father. She could tell from Val’s swiviling neck, that it was the first time he had ridden into the city. He was intently gazing the curving streets and smooth arches of the Eshih city. She explained to Val, “My father told me that the Eshih built this city in trying to understand the human heart. The wind makes that sound as it blows through.”
Val drank in the oddity of the city. It was if someone had taken the design of a human city, but didn’t know how to make a right angle. He looked to the rooftops and saw the metal spires swaying in the wind, making their sad sound. “Is this what they think of us then?”
“Maybe, generations ago when this place was built,” Lucinde answered. “Come on, the Street Song Inn is nearby.” They were warmly greeted at the entrance. Lucinde, Gaspar and Iezecele opted to rest in their rooms. Val chose to stay in the common room. As she climbed the stairs, Lucinde could see that the rogue already had a drink in his hand and was flashing his smile at the Eshih maid who was playing the flute. Somehow she doubted that he was staying behind to, as he said, ‘gather information.’
When Lucinde and Iezecele returned from purchasing supplies, they found Val finally awake in the common room. “So, find out anything interesting,” Iezecele asked.
“Mirielle has the cutest birthmark on,” the rogue started.
Lucinde dropped her bags heavily on the table, “The word about town, not your immoral musical adventures.”
Val nudged Iezecele, “She is very skilled playing the flute.” He winked at Lucinde, “There’s not a great deal of meat on the menu. Did you see?” He glanced over to the menu board.
“So?” Lucinde shrugged.
“The inn prides itself on the freshest game meat. I was talking with the cook and he mentioned that the local hunters weren’t having much luck. Instead of game, they’ve only been finding dead animals, slaughtered, and left to rot.” He took a bite of his breakfast, “They think that something may have gone rabid. I’m thinking that it might be either something with the blackness in it, or maybe more of our giant hound friends.”
“Well, we’re not that far from Cendrillion. It’s no surprise that the creatures are here.” Iezecele noted.
Val nodded, “Some of the soldiers were drinking pretty heavily too. They’re all on edge, pulling double shifts. The borders are closed and the patrols around the inroads are being increased. One of the guards said that he’s always feeling like a storm is about to break.”
“That’s good,” Lucinde ordered a drink, “at least they’ll be more prepared then Cendrillion.”
Val shook his head, “I’m not so sure. The guards were talking how the quake and the troubles since and how they must be the fault of the Ahebbens and their Willworkers.”
“So, they’re looking to go it alone, huh?” Iezecele scoffed.
“Yes, but they’re just as curious as Cosette. A merchant from Tepest mentioned that he saw a number of military ships were sailing northeast.” Val glanced at his companions, “Gaspar?”
They all sensed his presence to the west through the power of their rings. “He said he wanted to discuss some things with the local Druids.”
Val could see that Iezecele was curious about the Druids. Their powers were so strangely different than that of the Willworkers. He smiled, “He’s probably sharing all of our deepest secrets and giving them strands of our hair to work their weird spells.” By the time Gaspar returned, Val had weaved a tale of the warrior’s betrayal. The rogue stood up, pointing an accusatory finger at Gaspar, “There he is, the vile scoundrel himself come to hand us over to those villains!”
Before he had joined up with Val and the others, Gaspar would have wilted under the gaze of all the people in the common room. They stared at him, intent on seeing the scene play out. “Ah, so you’ve discovered my plot?” He calmly strode to the group, “Well, earlier than I expected, but I’ve prepared for all possibilities. You’ll not escape your doom.” Gaspar eyed the group seriously, before Val clapped and broke into laughter.
Realizing the jest, the crowd went about their business. Gaspar took his seat, “The Druids have been attempting to scry the lands of Marmo, but they’ve been unsuccessful. They say that there’s something resisting their powers.”
“If it had been that easy, then Channing Kearnan wouldn’t have had to send us to look for ourselves.” Lucinde reasoned. Nothing on their journey was ever going to be won lightly. It was the path of the hero.
The magic of Willworkers and Druids couldn’t spy on their enemy, Val wondered. “It sounds like they must have some powerful Willworkers on their side, if they’re blocking us.”
“Or Druids,” Iezecele added. He worried about Val’s comment.
“They’ve got monsters. It makes sense that they’ve got magic.” Nope, nothing would be easy on the path of heroes.
“For the last time, will you both shut up!” Iezecele yelled in frustration. Val and Gaspar had been bickering for days. Ever since they were out of sight of Keening, the rogue had talked about leaving the road for the woods. In turn, Gaspar argued the respect of the law. They had been going back and forth for days, more sniping at each other, rather than any reasoned thought.
“I’m just saying,” Val continued, “what if we were really nowhere near a rest stop and I had to go, like really bad? The Eshih are going to punish me for that?”
Under Iezecele’s warning glance, Gaspar retorted, “If it was your home, you’d not want someone mucking it up with their filth.”
Val was going to continue, not just to push against the warrior’s sensibilities, but to continue to nettle the Willworker’s nerves. He was silenced by Lucinde’s raised fist, gesturing them to stop. “Sush, I hear something.”
‘Did you just sush me?’ Val sent through the ring. He heard it too, heavy branches snapping as something huge charged the road.
A giant bear of dire size crashed out of the thick woods. “Wow, during the day,” Gaspar laughed as the beast raged.
The monstrous bear likes to throw his weight around, Iezecele thought “Let’s see how he handles some real weight.” He gathered his Will. He felt the bones inside the bear with his arcane power. Unleashing his Will, he transformed the bones to the heaviest of metals. Burdened by the weight, the bear’s movements slowed.
Even though they had argued for days, Val and Gaspar fell into equal movement. They both moved to flank the beast, easily dodging its restrained attacks. Lucinde jumped from her saddle, landing a forceful blow on the bear.
Gaspar slashed at the giant bear with his sword and dagger, their magical blade cutting through it’s thick hide. On the other side, Val thrust his spear at the bear’s legs, slicing where it was vulnerable. Lucinde ducked under her shield, pushing with all of her might to throw of the bear’s heavy paw and mighty claw. She countered with her own attack, striking the bear’s outstreched arm with her flail.
“Give me some room!” Iezecele called out. He focused his Will. First, he called forth a storm in his palm, as he often had in the past. Instead of channeling it through his strike, he split his Will and summoned forth a second storm on the opposite side of the bear. The two storms’ power sought out each other, as they were bound by the same Will.
Feeling the hairs on their arms stand on end, the others backed away from the giant beast. Suddenly, with a crack of thunder, the two storms connected as a bolt of lightning arced between them, killing the bear with its blast.
Gaspar approached the bear, its hide still smoking from Iezecele’s attack. He gingerly prodded the beast’s maw with his sword. “There’s no blackness.”
“Think this is the reason for the lack of fresh meat?” Lucinde asked. “Something like that could kill as much game as it liked. Probably scare off the rest, too.”
Val wiped off the blood from his spear point. “Just a random giant beast. Not some creature from Marmo, nor some cursed monster.” He smiled, " Really kind of refreshing, don’t you think?"
After a couple of weeks, deep, verdant forests opened in front of the group. The land began to gently slope towards the coast. The thick green of the ancient woods gave way to the salty breeze of the sea. Where the land met the vast sea, lay Tepest. It was clearly not a city designed by humans. The buildings were shaped much like windswept dunes. The docks looked like waves rising out of the ocean. It was little trouble finding the Sea Queen. The Delmare ship was docked in the last slip. Val stood at the bottom of the gangplank, “Permission to come aboard!” He hailed the ship.
A woman, flanked by two tough looking sailors, came down to meet them. It wasn’t the first time Val
had encountered a Delmare, but he still marveled at the amount of jewelry they wore. It seemed like the more important you were, the more you wore. By the amount the woman wore, she was pretty important. “What business do you have with the Sea Queen?” The strands of gold that ran from her nose to her ear jingled as she spoke.
Iezecele handed the woman the papers Channing Kearnan had given them. She read them, turning them over in her ringed fingers. “You may board, but you’ll have to disarm yourselves before greet the Captain.”
“Of course,” Val unbuckled his sword belt and handing it over to one of the sailors. Lucinde wondered how many daggers the rogue had secreted about his person. She guessed he was pleasantly giving in to the Delmare demands to throw off suspicion of just that. The rest of the group followed Val’s lead, disarming themselves.
They were led to a large cabin at the rear of the ship. A woman and a man sat at the table. Judging by the amount of jewelry, the woman must be Captain Abernette. The woman that permitted them aboard sat next to the captain and whispered into her ear while handing her the papers from Channing Kearnan. Captain Abernette read the papers carefully. She placed them down carefully, stood, and dug a key out of the many strands of gold she wore about her neck. Unlocking a cabinet, she searched through a number of scrolls. Finding one, the captain sat back down and compared it with the one she had been handed. Satisfied, she looked to the group, “Please be seated. The Channing has aided me in the past and the Delmare always pay their dues.”
“As the waves roll out, surely they must roll in.” The other woman, presumably the captain’s sister, spoke as if the phrase carried almost a religious tone. Indeed, as she spoke, the man touched his forehead, lips and heart in quick succession.
The captain nodded, “What does the Channing want?”
The others looked to Val, “Channing Kearnan has heard of attacks on the Delmare ships. He would like to know if these rumors are true, and, if so, what the nature of those attacks are.” Val knew that the Delmare were a secretive lot. After all the Delmare ships he had seen in Celedine, the Sea Queen was the first one he had stepped on. Even in the inns and markets, they tended to travel in groups. In the back of his head there was always a chance that these folk may already be on Marmo’s side. He felt it was a safe question to ask.
The woman who had granted them passage onto the ship threw a warning glance to the captain. The captain thought for a moment before giving her answer. “That is a Delmare concern. You may tell the Channing that I am thankful for his concern.”
Val noted two answers to the question he had asked. If it was their concern, then it was true. If it was a Delmare concern then the attacks were on their people. ‘No, not necessarily on their people,’ Val checked his thoughts, ‘it could also be within their ranks.’ Either way, Val decided, the attacks were happening and the Delmare were victims. If the Channing trusted them to ask this captain, then he thought he could push the issue.
“Were there monsters in these attacks? Twisted creatures born of nightmares? Have your people’s ships encountered a landmass to the northeast? Are the attacks coming more from that direction?”
The captain looked Val in the eyes, taking measure of the Channing’s emissaries. “You are remarkably well informed,” she finally said after some thought.
Val smiled, “My friends and I have the wounds to prove it.”
Even the captain’s sister leaned forward at this, “You’ve seen them too?”
Absently, the captain ran her fingers over the Channing’s signature. “We’ve never mentioned them to any of the land-folk. We didn’t want people to think us mad.”
“Madness,” Val leaned closer, “My dear captain, madness is the appropriate response in seeing what we face.”
The captain looked to her sister, who nodded in return. “The true danger lies not from their ships, but in the ones they’ve captured. Their ships are much like the ones your folk make, passable, but not worthy of sailing the Great Sea. All I have heard from my fellow captains say that these new people make every effort to capture, not sink, our ships. It’s as if they want to take the Great Sea from us.”
That, Iezecele thought, plus the added benefit of more raw materials for their armies. He didn’t want to share that bit with the captain. “What can you tell us about their forces? Do they attack your ships with the Will?”
“They have sorcery that allows them to throw fire and lightning, magics to pull a mist to hide their passing.” The captain’s sister answered. “Though we can not tell if it is the power of the Willworkers or more akin the Druid’s abilities.”
“How far south have you seen their ships, or ships they’ve captured?” Val asked. It was difficult to mask his worry for mere curiosity.
This time the man spoke, “The Osprey.” With a sad tone, he explained, “A ship my brother once crewed was seen as south as Saville.”
“Probably Karg on the eastern shores,” Lucinde added. “They must have come by sea to have taken the city without being seen.”
“Karg?” The captain’s eyes widened, “Karg has been conquered? Are you sure?”
Lucinde nodded, “Seen it with our own eyes.”
The man laughed wryly, “Bet King Ganelon was none too happy about that”
Iezecele leveled his gaze at the man, “No, he wasn’t happy.”
The captain narrowed her gaze at the people in front of her. Who were they? At first, she thought them merely hired hands for the Church. But not only have they faced the monsters of her enemy, but they were talking as if being in the presence of one of the Isle’s great leaders as if it was unimportant. She looked down to the scroll she had pulled from the cabinet. She had received it when she had earned her first captaincy. It warned of ancient dangers returning. “Is all this part of the Church’s Prophecy?”
Val shrugged, “Whether it’s part of a prophecy or not is for you to decide. Either way, the threat is real.”
“I’ll take you as far as I can,” the captain decided. “But if we see one of their ships, we will not fight them. I’ll not risk my sailors.” She turned to her sister. “We leave as soon as possible.”
Val perked up at that. He had heard stories of sailing the open seas on a Delmare ship. “Do you need any help? It’s not my first time on a ship.”
Lucinde was puzzled. Val was always the last to offer to help. He avoided labor like a venomous snake. No, strike that, he’d surely play with a viper than do work.
“You are guests on this ship,” the man replied, “you’re not expected to sail.”
Val pressed. “I could help with the sails. In the rigging, and the like.” Val added and Lucinde understood. The rogue wanted to play in the ropes way above the deck.
“You were already told no. You are not Delmare and your help is not needed.” The captain ended Val’s hopes.
The group stood as the man offered to show them to their quarters. Val paused at the door and looked back to the captain. “You know, that’s how we’re going to lose this war. Everyone staying to themselves.”
After several days of sailing, the group walked onto the deck and found a thick fog surrounding the ship. “Where are we?” Lucinde asked.
The captain’s sister pointed east, as if she could still see the Isle. “Landfall would put us along the border between Carwithian and Cendrillion.”
“Mistress,” a sailor with a tattoo of two eagles fighting on his chest padded up to the captain’s sister, “wreckage off the starboard bow.”
Torches were lit at the bow of the ship, burning off some of the thick fog. After some time, the group and the crew could see the remains of a ship floating along side the Sea Queen. “It wasn’t a Delmare ship.” She spit over the side, “Bastards rammed her with one of ours.”
All Iezecele could tell was that there was rope and wood floating. Enough of it he could guess that it was once a ship, but he could see how the captain could tell by the wreckage. “How can you tell?”
“There,” the captain pointed, “and there.” They were just pieces of wood to the Willworker. “That’s part of the cathead, see how it’s crushed? And that, that’s part of the hull. It’s shows the freeboard. Much too high for one of our ships.” She noticed the confused look on the group’s faces. Landfolk. “The cathead is where the anchor is tied. That kind of damage comes from being hit with a great deal of force. Only a Delmare ship could move with such swiftness.” She slammed her fist into her palm for emphasis. “The freeboard shows you how low that ship sat in the Great Sea. It’s much to high for a Delmare ship. This was a landfolk ship.” She touched her forehead, lips and heart, “At least the captain didn’t give her up.”
The captain’s sister approached, “It was the Longstrider. We’ve recovered the captain’s trunk.” She led them to a well made trunk that the sailors had hauled on deck. It was clearly water-proofed and was latched with a heavy padlock.
The Iezecele looked to Val, who held up his hands, “It’s a Delmare trunk. I say it’s their concern.” Iezecele could tell by the rogue’s petty tone that he was still upset that he couldn’t go gallivanting in the ship’s rigging. Val could be so childish at times.
After the crew of the Sea Queen broke the lock, the captain’s man sorted through the contents. He passed over obvious bags of coins and oil wrapped silverware, but gently pulled a book from the chest. He flipped through it. “I knew this man. Tannin Falk, out of Tepest. He was a good sailor.” He looked to the captain, “No family.” The captain nodded. The crew put all of the contents back into the trunk. The sailors quietly drilled holes into the chest before returning it to the sea.
“May he rest beneath the depths.” The captain’s sister said reverently. As one, the crew touched their foreheads, lips and hearts. Lucinde was amazed that Val hadn’t argued about keeping the gold. She could almost hear him say that it was pointless to throw away good gold. She looked to see if he was feeling ill. Instead of being repulsed, Val seemed to be watching the scene with intense curiousity. She had often thought that Val was joking when he said that seeing new things was his real treasure. Maybe that wasn’t the case.
Back in her chambers, the captain was reading through the final entries of the ill-fated Longstrider. Something caught Iezecele’s eye. “Captain, may I?” He took the log when it was handed to him. “And some parchment and ink?” When it was delivered to him, the Willworker intently went through the pages of the log, stopping to write a word here and there. When he finished, he held up the paper and blew on it, drying the ink.
He laid the paper on the table so the others could read. It read, ‘the Treasure shall unite the Lands against the greatest foe.’ Beneath the sentence there was a jumble of letters: i, o, T, s, a, a, n, n, o, D, c, u, n.
Val looked at the letters, “You don’t have anyone named Tobias on board do you?”
The captain shook her head.
“We’ve already met one Tobias?”
Gaspar spoke, lost, “he’s the Treasure?” He couldn’t imagine what Verite’ was doing. How could a crippled boy be the key to the Isle’s victory? “That makes no sense.”
The Willworker’s scar pulled into his wry smile, “No stranger than Verite’s Chosen.”