“Melina, Don’t go.” Nauisikka, my mother, said again, “please.”
My mom was wrinkled and bowed with age, sitting on her bed in our ramshackle cottage. I ignored her entreaties. I’ve already told her time and again why I have to go. I strapped my cutlass to my waist for the first time in at least ten years. It was heavy but still familiar.
“Don’t forget to bring the chickens in at night or the jackals will get them,” I told her as I headed towards the front door.
“You don’t have to do this,” she said. “The oceans are no longer safe.”
“You listen to too much gossip from the fishwives. The oceans are the same as always. And besides, I’m traveling inland this time.” I heaved my pack onto my shoulder. My long silver-streaked hair was still held in the milkmaid braid from last night. “Six months at most, then I’ll be back and we’ll have enough that I can hang these boots up for good.”
“Last time you were away for 2 years.”
The last time I left I didn’t intend to ever come back but my mother didn’t need to know that. This time I didn’t plan on staying away a moment longer than I had to.
The job was to guard and guide a merchant lord by the name of Captain Passel. He was headed from Sarros to Orthos, the City of Glass. He had been traipsing the continent for the better half of a year and it was time to go home but had made some enemies in his travels.
He had inquired in the local tavern for sellswords. As everyone else in town was fisherman, farmers, or merchants my few years as a mercenary were never far from anyone’s mind (try as I might to hide it) he was led to my door. Now I find myself in his service, helping to make sure he gets home without too much trouble.
Passel fancied himself a captain as he owned a ship but I doubt there was any naval experience under his belt. He was loud and a braggart, but not a bad person. More importantly, he promised to pay handsomely enough that I could fix up our home, and add attain some new livestock that should sustain us for the foreseeable future.
In truth, I have also been looking for an excuse to leave Sarros since my return, but felt anchored to my mother. Perhaps I’d finally find what became of my husband while I was off adventuring. Alexi was not here when I got back. And I was not going to find out why by staying put.
And, a thing I have told no one else, something strange was happening to me. I could do things I should not be able to. I needed to find out why. The journey would take a few months to complete. I could then spend a fortnight in Orthos looking for him before returning to Sarros and then finally back to Madara for good.
The Lunar Festival and the Brass Man
We made good time reaching Orthos and to my astonishment, there were very few incidents. I felt more like I was on a vacation than guard duty. I even warmed up to Passel.
Arriving early in Orthos, Captain Passel had an entire day and night before his vessel, the Sea Sheppard would set off on her voyage. Luck would have it that the locals were in mid-celebration of an annual lunar festival. Captain Passel bid I join him in the festivities, and I was technically still working on his coin, so I could not decline. Plus, why not enjoy myself? Only one more day to till I could afford to retire. Might as well go out with a bang.
The town was bursting with party goers. The lunar celebration reminded me of a fertility festival we have in Sarros. A great deal of emotional baggage came with that. It was the last time I remember being truly happy. Alexi, my husband was there, smiling at me, hand on my full stomach, all happiness and hope. Everything went to the nine hells soon after that.
I stamped out the past by accepting another drink from Passel. I ogled at the carts of exotic animals, wares and fabrics. I tried overly-spiced street food dripping with grease that I washed down with a rich wine. Both of which l expected to regret the next morning.
Myself and some overly confident man signed up for a dueling competition. We tightrope walked back and forth while swinging wooden swords at each other to cheers and jeers of crowds.
I dispatched him easily enough and had a moment of pride when the onlookers applauded. My happiness turned to longing when I saw Alexi in the crowd. I stumbled after him, but it was a trick of the light and it was not him. Alexi would be older by now anyway. Late middle aged, like me.
Captain Passel wanted company at a gambling table. Who am I to argue? I accepted another cup of wine and sat down next to him. He handed me a ridiculous amount of game chips to join in with him. I gave half of them to the server who brought me a plate of grilled and skewered meat and grape leaves. She could use the money more than Passel I’ve no doubt.
Pretend-annoyed at my disregard for his gambling funds Passel called over two passersby to join our table. “Melina here is no fun and is giving away my money. If I let you borrow some will you play with us?”
The newcomers warily agreed. The first was a young woman named Anastasia. She had hair clouding and drifting around her as if she was floating underwater. It is a nice trick. I figured she’s a performer at the festival and this is a minor charm to make her seem more dramatic. Maybe the blue skin is too?
The second one to join in our game is a Bronze Dragonborn. A ranger, I assumed as he is cloaked and carrying a bow. Those tend to be the tell-tale signs. Also, he smells of earth and is covered with smears of mud. If not a ranger he certainly spends too much time in the wilds. We all accepted a glass of wine. I expected the dragon's hand (Should I call it a claw?) to leave a dirt print on the glass when he let it go. I was not disappointed.
Cards were dealt. We drank. We talked. Passel more than the rest of us. The Dragonborn’s name is ‘something’ Stargrove. He talked in serious tones of journeys afar but my head was swimming from the drink and I had trouble following. I got lucky in the first few hands of cards and wondered if I should start throwing the game. Passel will surely take whatever I win against my payment, but perhaps he would be inclined to gift Anastasia and Stargrove their winnings?
I was thinking about this as Passel got up to fetch yet another bottle of wine. The two at my table talked to each other about looking for a ship captain to do something or other and I planned to volunteer Passel’s services but when I looked back I find him unconscious and slung over the shoulders of two cloaked figures. They were sneaking him out the back entrance of the gambling hall.
I yelled after them and tried to stand up but the world tipped and reeled unevenly. I lost my footing. Just then there was a clamor of plates and tables as the Dragonborn crashed to the floor. Anastasia tried to get to her feet and stumbled as well.
It was the wine, I was sure. Though nothing I knew of was strong enough to hit us all so fast.
I gathered myself and stumbled after Passel. The world wouldn’t stay level and I had to steady myself on to tables or even other patrons to stay standing. By the time I was in the back alley the mysterious figures and Passel had vanished. I decided to climb a stack of barrels and food crates to the rooftop, hoping to get a better vantage point on where they may have taken the ship captain.
I shook my head to clear it before attempting to ascend the wall. I was worried about the poison still in my bloodstream. I stepped back then ran as fast as I could at a wooden crate. I sprang off the top of the crate with my first foot then leaped into the opposite wall planting my foot for just a moment before using the momentum to push off into the opposing wall. Moving back and forth until I was able to grab onto the roof edge. There was a crash below as I was cresting the top ledge. Stargrove and Anastasia had exited the building, also in pursuit of Passel and the mysterious strangers.
Standing on the rooftop I shielded my eyes from the sun and saw the group I was following on another rooftop a few buildings away.
“They’re up here!” I yelled down to the Ranger and the woman and pointed out the direction of the abductors. Stargrove and Anastasia cut around through the alley trying to head them off. The holler alerted my quarry to my presence and they started scrambling down the far end of the building they were traversing.
The rooftops, like many in the town, were made of white-washed volcanic rock and topped with a smooth flat surface. Most of the houses were spaced just a handful of feet away from each other; close enough that leaping from one to the next was not too challenging. It shouldn’t have been anyway.
I dashed for the second building when the poison hit my system again and the world turned away from me. My jump fell short, and I collided painfully with the wall of the building in a cloud of dust. I almost fell from the rooftop but managed to get a handhold at the last moment. I pulled myself onto the structure and had to pause to catch my breath.
Stargrove and Anastasia were below me again. They had reached a dead end and were using a rope to grapple up the building-side.
I pulled myself together and sprinted to the opposite edge just in time to see the captors drag Passel’s lifeless form into a warehouse on the far side of the street.
I started climbing down after them. I lowered myself down to the top frame of a second-story window, then held on and swung into the sill before trying to drop down onto the next ledge. That’s when Anastasia dropped off the roof above and crashed into the street below. I don’t think she had any kind of magic or armor keeping her from harm, just too little fear and a lack of proper respect for gravity.
By the time I made it to the street the water genasi was already dusting herself off and limping toward the warehouse. I made it to the ground and joined her just as Stargrove crashed through the bay window of the building we had been on. I guess he decided to go through it instead of climbing over it.
The warehouse was a maze of boxes, crates, and fishing gear. Beams of sunlight cut through clouds of sawdust in irregular patches. We weaved through the wooden containers, piles of rope, and puddles of water and finally caught up with the group we were chasing.
The two cloaked figures had Passel in a storeroom near the back of the building.
“Free the Captain and there will not be any trouble,” Stargove rumbled in his gruff dragon voice.
One of the mysterious men stepped out of the small room and slammed the door behind him. He smiled and let his cloak drop to the floor. He had silver hair tucked behind pointed ears and grey skin with tattoos of gold veining his arms in intricate patterns. The gold lines merged at his fists which now appeared to be made entirely of solid brass.
He charged at us. I drew my cutlass to defend the blow but the poison was still in my system and I misjudged my parry. His fist connected with my jaw like a brick. I hit the ground and tasted blood. I stood up and tried to return the attack with a swing of my sword but I still couldn’t get my balance and my attack went wide as I stumbled past him. The ranger blurred past me firing multiple arrows into the strange man while I was recovering my footing. “Free the Captain and there will not be any trouble,” Stargove rumbled in his gruff dragon voice.
Anastasia pulled at the door, trying to get to Passel. It was barred from the inside and holding. Smoke was seeping out from the edges of the door followed by green flashes and sparks.
I took another slice at the bronze man and finally grazed him. He just laughed in my face and answered it with a punch to the chest. I fell backward into a crate. Anastasia helped me up and uttered some words that sounded like the gurgling of a brook. It must have been some sort of nature magic as my head stopped swimming and I was able to see properly.
The laughing man charged again. With my senses restored I was able to block his thrust and stab at him before he could escape. The point of my blade connected with his gut and instead of pulling away he grabbed my hands and drove himself fully onto the blade, laughing all the while. All at once, his body dissolved into a cloud of sand.
“What the hell,” I said and looked at my companions but they were already breaking the door down that was hiding Passel and his captor. Paying little mind to the pile of beach that was once a warrior. Maybe they had seen something like this before. I would have to ask.
I pushed over to the small storeroom doorway to see what they were looking at. Burned into the ground were the remnants of a teleportation circle, still smoking. Neither the other cloaked man nor Passel was anywhere to be found.