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I woke. That was surprising in itself. I didn’t think I had any business being alive. I was alive, right? Yep. For better or worse. My head throbbed in a counter-rhythm to the rolling of the ship. Notifications were flashing in my head, but I ignored them for the moment. A Tarish pirate in light armor was watching me come around.

“You’re lucky you were out for the captain’s wrath. I’ve seen him get angry before, but that was something else.”

I blinked my dry, crusted eyes and tried to stretch the cramps out of my arms. They were tied to the mast behind me. I was nearly in the same spot where I’d left off: the lower gun deck in front of the hole I’d made. They had tried to patch it with a mixture of magical and mundane methods, but a bit of water was still coming in with each wave we met.

“You really who your stats say you are?”

“Huh?” I retorted cleverly.

“No level 10 seaman I’ve ever seen would do what you did. You’ve no profession, neither. You really what you say you are?”

“No more, no less,” I said, my throat rasping. I discovered a dehydrated debuff. If I took the time, I’m sure I’d find a lot more debuffs than that. I didn’t want to find them.

The pirate shrugged. “Cap’n will find out sooner or later.”

He left, presumably to tell Lawless Jack I was conscious. I sagged against the mast, unaware that I’d ever tried to right myself. Not dead was good; pirate-prisoner was bad. Would I give up the former to change the latter? That had been my plan the last time I’d been conscious.  

While I waited for whoever was coming for me, I looked over my notifications.

Your ship Wind Runner has been sunk!

You have failed the quest: Escort the Wind Runner to its destination.

All linked Wind Runner quests have been lost.

Yeah, I saw that one coming. Still, it was hard seeing that there could have been a lot more quests. Quests were one of the best ways to gain XP. Having a quest chain led to great rewards if you could finish it. Of course, some quest chains took people their whole lives to see through. I may not have liked what the next quest in the chain would have been, either. Besides, I’d gained a total of 257,853 XP from the sea battle. 257,853! That was a windfall like I’d never seen before! After the XP that took me to my level 10 progression, I still had 197,505. No, wait. I had more than that. Where …?

You have crippled an enemy ship of a higher level! You have been awarded 40,000 XP.

You have caused the most damage in a significant engagement! Your reward is based on relative damage done and the average damage by your fellow combatants: +25,000 XP

40,000 XP wasn’t much when compared to what I was getting for each pirate kill, and the bonus for causing mayhem was only slightly better than each kill. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was being a miser. Crippling an enemy ship wasn’t sinking it, so I was lucky to get something. It was also attached to my position as captain rather than as a combatant, so it was something that captains got even if they didn’t gain XP from direct combat. Nice.

The bonus for the damage I’d done was something I hadn’t even known existed, so it probably didn’t even kick in until a combatant distinguished themselves. Even then, I caused a lot less normal damage than a soldier. The only reason I accomplished what I had was because of artillery and traps. The soldiers that had put up a fight had no doubt done a lot of damage on average.

Add to that the XP amounts I was getting from the pirates were skewed in the first place. The only reason I was getting such numbers from them was because of the modifiers I got from our level difference and the boost from the princesses’ blessing. The thousands I got from those two bonuses alone were amazing – I’d gotten less than 5,000 XP for killing the Hammernose! Ok, that was a skewed representation too, because I hardly caused it any damage to that beast and what I got was essentially a participation trophy. It had just happened to be what I needed to level. But get a hold of yourself, Domenic! You have a lot of XP from a unique encounter you managed to survive: be grateful! At least until they kill you.

I considered investing in a combat profession and dumping all this XP into it, or even allocating all my unspent leveling attribute points. I didn’t. Suddenly becoming a combat profession while the pirates’ prisoner seemed incredibly stupid, and I didn’t think that whatever I could learn would offset the fact that I was facing a whole crew of combatants. Attribute points wouldn’t help me either – I could invest everything into constitution (against every common-sense recommendation I’d ever heard) and amass an HP pool to be envious of. I could even spend my XP on leveling and double that again. It wouldn’t help me, because the body took time to adapt. My HPs would remain at their current amount as my body slowly filled my expanded pool naturally. A health potion would do it, but I didn’t have any of those, did I?

And again: I was a bound prisoner. A huge health pool would only give them more sport in breaking me down.

Steps behind me crossed the deck quickly. Captain Lawless Jack entered my field of vision. I expected him to look angrier, since the other pirate had mentioned I’d gotten him so worked up. Instead, he was all business.

“What kind of magic users did your ship have?”

My mind blanked. This was what he wanted to know? Did Hali’s enchanted necklace count? I hadn’t seen her use any other magic. There were a few sailors with tricks they could do with water magic, but nothing that would qualify them a real mage!

My bafflement at the question and subsequent consideration on whether to lie and how to do it was obvious to Jack. He sighed and pulled out my dagger. That is, the dagger I’d taken from the hold when I’d grabbed the runes.

“This was the only bit of treasure we managed to take from that hold – and only because you brought it to us. The distractions you caused served their purpose. We weren’t able to keep the Wind Runner from flooding while we dealt with what you’d done here,” he gestured at my handiwork. Even as I looked at the ship’s durability, I saw another point fall off. What I’d done would cause continuous damage as the ship tried to handle the sea. “I almost lost another man who tried to grab something as it was on its way down. I say ‘another’ because it seems that you were responsible for the deaths of 16 of my men.”

Now I was getting the angry captain vibes.

“I expect losses, though I keep them minimal. My personal goal for this boarding was no more than 10 losses. I brought 80 men with me. Now I have 47. 47 men! Nearly half my crew gone! And I find that you were involved in the death of 16! Thanks to you, a fifth of my crew is gone, including boys that I spent years training and leveling.” He glared at me in such a way I knew he was analyzing me. I decided that being only partly responsible for some of those deaths wasn’t going to help my case. “And as captain. Captain! Is this a joke? You were the captain? Was Lord Michaels never really involved? How could a runt like you with no profession at all fill that position?” He took a deep breath and controlled himself. “This stinks like nothing I’ve ever come across. I will get to the bottom of it. But the most pressing thing: the life rafts that you put over have someone cloaking them. Who could do that?”

“I don’t know!” I said quasi-honestly. I could guess, sure, but I didn’t know.

The captain stabbed me with the dagger. Just a slight wound, enough to break skin and cause a small HP drop. He did again and again. I flinched from every strike, but he was methodical. The fourth time he got the effect he was looking for. I already had anxiety, but the enchanted dagger bestowed the fear debuff on me, and I trembled.

“Tell me everything you do know,” Jack demanded. He didn’t stop pricking me, and every few strikes another fear debuff stacked atop the first. It became worse in duration and effect. That was the statistical/clinical side of it. From the emotional side of it, it was a nightmare without end in sight. By the time my fear became terror, I would have wet my trousers if I had anything in my bladder. I was begging for release. Jack demanded answers.

I’d like to look back and think that I held out from my own willpower, but the truth was I spent a significant portion of my interrogation gibbering and unable to express anything coherently. Terror had climbed higher, but I couldn’t count how high after panic. What came after panic anyway? I couldn’t recognize any of my debuffs, only the phantoms plaguing my mind.

When fear is magically induced, the subject has a chance to resist the effect. Naturally, it’s harder to resist anything when you’re already suffering from an affliction like anxiety. If you don’t resist the effect, then the response fills your mind. If you had nothing to fear, you would still have the effects, they just wouldn’t have a manifestation. If you did have something to fear though … the debuff hijacked your own mind and magically ramped up what your own mind was capable of.

I relived my waking moments aboard the Wind Runner, only without the adrenaline to push me forward or the safe ignorance of what was going to happen. In my mind, I was the last one out of the berthing area. A storm of bolts burst from every bulkhead and riddled the whole crew in front of me. I saw their faces – every one of them the color of sea foam.

Virgam was at my feet. His hand reached out to grasp my ankle and with his dying breath said, “I thought you were taking responsibility! Look at these men! You could do nothing for them, because you spent your life following your whims instead of learning to protect your own!”

I tried to break away, but his hand was as strong as iron, just like he’d been in life. I fell on my backside, the grip on my ankle a vise. The blood of the crew drained from their bodies and pooled, swelling to fill the hold. The gore crested and broke like the waves of the ocean. In a moment, it had swept me up and carried me outside. I looked up at the deck of the Wind Runner, it seemed to tower above me like the anvil of a storm cloud. The bloody waves picked me up and dashed me against the hull, grinding my body against the barnacles up and down the ship like cheese against a grater. It pulled me away and dashed me against it again and again. Every time I cried out the blood of my crewmates flooded my mouth.

Then I felt something grasping my legs. I looked down and saw Hali, scrambling for the surface, trying to save herself from drowning. I tried to pull her up, but I couldn’t swim and only succeeded in making myself drown. Desperate, I pushed her away. She dropped into the depths like a stone with a scream. “Domenic!” Her voice scraped at my mind, accusing me of thrusting her away, of killing her.

“You didn’t kill her,” a young voice said in my head. “You killed me!”

I found myself looking down at Redmund in the cargo hold. There was a lulling stillness while he stared me down, accusing me. Then the deck below him began to bulge, and I saw in slow motion the rupture where he stood. Wooden fragments turned his feet to gore, then shrapnel destroyed the rest of his legs. The whole time – through all his screaming, sobbing, and pleading for me to end it – his accusatory eyes never left mine.

When I was aware again, I was sagging against my bonds. My clothes that had been nearly dry after my swim in the ocean were now rank with my sweat. I knew I had plenty of other debuffs but could only recognize severely dehydrated and the slow drain it was causing on me. My HP sat just below 20%. A pirate was lifting my head and pouring a health potion in my mouth. I’d swear none of the liquid made it to my stomach, instead being absorbed into my parched tissues.

The pirate lifted my head by my hair to look me in the eyes. “A word of advice: don’t try holding out so much next time. You’ll scream less, and we’d all appreciate it.”

He let my head drop and patted my cheek roughly, like an uncle that forgot he had a strength of 30 and wasn’t sure he didn’t want it to be a slap anyway. The health potion brought me back to 180 of my 230, but I still felt awful. My debuffs hadn’t worn off, I’d become too exhausted to do anything but play rag doll.

The sunset was shining on my head through the gaps in the hull patch. We were sailing westerly. Probably scouting the coast looking for the lifeboats that had escaped the pirates. That thought didn’t even bring me any joy in my current state. I was a mess.

With a splash, water from the ocean entered the ship and flowed across the deck. My mind jumped back into its primitive reflexes, and my fear quickly found a new subject. That’s why they placed me here! To drown first if the ship went down! We were sinking! I was drowning! My air was being used up and the sea was thrashing me …

As the ship dipped and another wave surged into the ship, the water played across my knees. The sea … she was a mistress that would kill me, but I’d never been terrified of her. Fear, sure, in the sense of awe and respect. But not like this. And it seemed that the sea wouldn’t have it this way either: the stacked debuff the dagger inflicted on me disappeared. I was still a mess, but I wasn’t a quivering, terrified mess.

I spent nearly an hour like that, soaking up the comfort of the sea until the edge of the sun disappeared. I’d never thought I’d be happy to see water rush into a ship, but I was now. With each splash I felt comfort. The ship had become a necessary evil to keep me alive, but I wouldn’t regret my impending death in the depths. Surely the pirates would agree to let me drown instead of executing me!

I became aware of someone watching me. Captain Lawless Jack, examining me critically from my blind spot. How long had he been there? He grabbed an empty crate and brought it over, pulling out a white light-stone. He motioned to someone at the rear of the hold and sat down. A minute later, the water on the deck was magically pushed forward, surging past my knees and back out the hole to the sea. The team that did it also renewed the magical sealings on the patch. Jack nodded to them and they left us.

“Have any notifications you want to share with me?” Jack asked, adjusting his scaled tail as he sat on the crate.

I furrowed my brow as I focused. Yes, there was another notification …

Congratulations! You have completed the secret quest: Assure the Princess’s safety. You have been awarded 75,000 XP.

So! The princess had made it to safety, and I had a secret quest that gave me more rewards than any other source before. I didn’t try to hide any of this and echoed the notification to Jack word for word. He grunted.

“I figured as much. We tried picking them up along the direct route to shore, then along the route to the nearest towns in case they tried for those. I don’t know who they got to conceal them – probably that spy girlfriend of yours – but we couldn’t find them. Congrats, you don’t get XP rewards like that unless you’re in the big leagues.”

I didn’t know if I was supposed to say anything and was too tired in any case. Jack heaved a deep, controlled breath.

“Sorry about getting too carried away with the fear thing. You cost me a lot of money, kid. We were paid to get the princess. We’d have got a solid reward for killing her, but a whole lot more for capturing her alive and bringing her to the Madu. I don’t know whether Nilfheim wanted to squeeze her for secrets or ransom her, but she was a real pretty copper for us! Enough so that I decided to board a galleon with a contingent of specially trained soldiers to make sure I got her alive.” He rolled his scaled shoulders like the decision weighed on him. “And that turned out just dandy, didn’t it?”

Again, he seemed to be giving me the opportunity to say something, but I couldn’t get the right gears to turn.

“What happened back there was exactly what happens in a fight. Everything goes sideways. As pissed as I was about you costing me the loot aboard the Wind Runner, that was my call. I’ve got to admire you for what you pulled off. Sinking your own ship – a galleon – to keep it out of my hands? Distracting my crew while you snuck aboard my ship and turned her own artillery against her? Bloody fishguts! I’ve been sailing these seas my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like it! And at level 10 no less!” He shook his head ruefully.

I was surprised to hear such praise coming from him. Hadn’t he just tortured me? Wasn’t he about to kill me?

“Why’d you do it Domenic? Just to spite me?”

I had to answer this question. I swallowed several times and croaked something out. Jack leaned forward in interest. “Not spite.” I said. “At least, not just spite. I had to make sure my crewmates had a chance.” I paused. Maybe it was Jack’s friendly demeanor, maybe it was an effect of the torture he’d put me through, but I felt the need to clarify. “Ok, a lot of it really was spite.”

He laughed. “Oh, you’re a find, Domenic! I wish I had men like you!” Then he leaned forward, intently serious. “In fact, I just might consider it.”

He left me there in shock. Had I just been given a job offer by the pirate I’d ruined?

 

They left me tied all night. I didn’t sleep so much as I fell unconscious. In the early hours of the morning, after another team bailed the water out of the ship, my exhaustion wasn’t enough to keep my mind comfortably under. I had endured the pain of the same position for an entire day. I prepared myself to endure it for the rest of the day but was surprised when a pair of pirates came down and untied me!

“C’mon, then, follow us.” Was this to be my execution? I didn’t think I could live with myself as a pirate, but hadn’t Jack hinted he wanted me on board? Didn’t I even have a chance?

I stumbled along, rubbing my limbs and holding back groans from the pain of returning circulation. They didn’t take me to Jack. They didn’t even take me topside, just to the next deck up where two dozen pirates were eating. I got a few glares, but for the most part they treated me indifferently. Some were even amiable. Wasn’t this a dirty band of cutthroats who were only held in line by the strength of their captain?

They handed me food. Not the nastiest scrapings they could dredge up either, but bread, cheese and salted fish. Sailors rations. Stunned, I met the eyes of the pirate who’d handed the meal to me.

He shrugged. “Fewer people, plenty of food. Our best cook is dead, so there won’t be hot rations any time soon. Take your time. When you’re done with your hands, we’ll bind them.”

I nodded mutely and took my time, trying to stretch my muscles as much as possible. I didn’t want to press my luck but being tied to a mast for a day was no fun. When I’d finished, they bound my hands behind me like they’d said they would and escorted me topside. I was left on the quarterdeck by Jack, who had the helm.

“Mornin’s blessings on ya, Domenic!” the Chortin said cheerfully.

We’d turned back east after Jack had learned he’d failed and were now alongside the Falai cliffs that marked the dividing line between Oorkom and Andros. How long ago had it been since I was here on the Wind Runner heading the other direction? Wasn’t that the same morning I’d shown Redmund the world?

I could ignore the grief for most of my crewmates. There were some that had escaped, and I could pretend nearly anybody had been on board those rafts. I hadn’t seen Virgam in the chaos? He must’ve been on the raft. Sam or Harm? Must’ve been on the raft. Anyone else I came to know on ship’s crew? Well, they could’ve been on the raft, now couldn’t they?

But Redmund … his death hit me hard. Even harder because I’d caused it. I shoved my grief away. Interesting how a mental action like that could actually feel like shoving.

Jack had rightly ascertained that there was no safe harbor for him in Oorkom. He was making for Andros, it seemed. Andros wasn’t wholly uninvolved in the current war, but they were staying out of it because the trade benefits they might get if Antarus fell wasn’t worth antagonizing Oorkom. They were as close to neutral as neighbors could get. They also had an interesting culture – pirates weren’t considered scum. Becoming a pirate would only disappoint your family if you didn’t sign on with a successful pirate. A fellow could toss a coin between piracy and the navy and not be judged for it.

Of course piracy was still illegal, but when they sold their stolen goods cheaper than the government-controlled markets and kissed the babies while they were at it, the public refused to despise them. What did they care if the ships of other nations were robbed? Or even ships from their own royal fleet? Jack could find a dry dock to see to his ship. It would cost him, but the Raven hadn’t seen her last days.

“Not very chatty, are ya’?” Jack said. I startled.

“Just trying to enjoy it, captain.”

He chortled. “You do that, but don’t fret overmuch! I’ve not decided whether to kill you yet, but if I do it won’t be anything too nasty.”

I wondered if I should thank him. After what he’d put me through already, what was his definition of ‘too nasty’?

“In the meantime, stretch your legs! I’ll not be releasing your hands just yet; in case you get any ideas about using your Lifesaving achievement on your own skin. But I see no reason why we can’t be amenable to each other!”

“Why?” I blurted. At his look I hastily amended myself. “I mean, why aren’t you all furious with me?”

“Oh, we were. Some of the crew who lost good mates still are. But we’re mercenaries. It’s part of the life, and we had to admit you were impressive.”

It was amazing to me how dispassionate these pirates could be about killing. I’d pictured a bloodthirsty lot – and they had looked it while boarding us – but now they looked … normal.

Rather than study the morality of the crew, I watched the horizon. I saw the Gull for the first time, a sloop. She was keeping pace with the Raven easily as Jack took it easy on her hull.

“Who captains the Gull? If I may ask …”

Jack smiled. “My brother Nigel, but the Gull belongs to me.”

That told me a lot about the captain. As a race, the Chortin placed a heavy emphasis on family bonds. Jack hadn’t given those up to be a pirate, instead he made his brother his accomplice. He was proud of his brother, too, by the looks of it, but didn’t hesitate to let me know where the ownership of the vessel lay. This was an operation owned and run by Jack.

The fact that he owned and operated two ships spoke of his skill. Two ships greatly increased his attack power. The Gull didn’t have the same quantity of artillery the Raven could manage, but she was quick and easily maneuverable. I didn’t think Jack would hesitate to arm such an asset with the same kind of ship-crippling enchanted weapons that he had.

“Mr. Tucker!” Jack yelled. A moment later a Tarish popped up on deck. “Aye, Cap’n?”

“Send word to Regis. I want Nigel to scout out that ship on the horizon and see if she’s the one to meet us.”

“Yes sir!”

“Then check with the bailing team below and see if we need Regis to spell us now that his mana pool has had time to recharge.”

“Aye, aye.”

The efficiency of the commands and the willingness Mr. Tucker displayed to follow them were showing. As was the captain’s eyesight. I could just make out a ship on the horizon. I thought about asking the captain if he was expecting company, but that was the kind of inane question you asked when you were fishing for detailed answers. I didn’t want to come across like that, being in a precarious position and all.

“Domenic,” Jack barked. “Come take the helm.”

I blinked twice in confusion but approached. How did this pirate keep surprising me at every turn? Jack undid my hands, then gestured for me to take over.

“Maintain heading?” I inquired.

“Do as you please.” He replied. What was that supposed to mean? I didn’t for a minute think he meant turn about and head for a friendlier harbor. Did he want to see if I could maintain a course? Of course I could! Anyone with half my levels of seamanship could! I could maintain our heading in a storm!

So that obviously wasn’t it. What did he want me to do? He didn’t just want me to relieve him for a bit. You don’t remove a prisoner’s bonds for that. What was he testing me on?

I felt it and corrected before I understood what the test was. We’d been slacking behind the Gull and our course had us taking on more water from each wave than was necessary. I adjusted by a few degrees to take better advantage of the wind and relieve the bailing efforts below. It was the proper way to run a course.

That’s when I realized that had been the test. Or at least, that had been the question. Was the test to see whether I’d see it and correct it, or whether I’d sabotage the ship and slow us down? That would have been futile and amateurish, both. No, the test wasn’t to see it. The sails were all adjusted to catch the wind at this course. Jack had deliberately moved off course and let me fix it. What in the name of the deep was the test?

“Why’d you take us off your course?”

He grinned, a frightening sight with teeth that big. “To see what you said.”

“Did I pass the test?”

“No test, I was just curious what kind of sailor you are.” Bloody stars that was annoying after I’d worked myself up so much. “Tell me, why haven’t you spent your XP on something?”

“If I spent all my XP on something that might help me escape, you’d kill me straight off. Am I wrong?”

“Nope. Fishguts! If I could assure your loyalty it would almost be worth one of the treasures you made me lose.” He looped a line around the ships wheel to hold our course and tied my hands again. “The trouble is I can’t assure your loyalty.”

“I’d swear not to sabotage you.”

“I don’t need deck hands! We’re not low enough on crew for that. I need your drive! I need whatever it was that made you decide to spit in the eye of the kraken and take two ships down with you! But you don’t have the makings of a pirate.”

“I could be the best sailor on board, and at half the levels of your other crew.”

“I know. You’re 23 years old and have 18 levels in seamanship? Most people with that level have grey hair and ships of their own. That perk of yours – Heart at Sea – I fancied that I might get it myself when I was younger. It took me years to realize why I didn’t get it, why it was rarer than a helpful Hammernose: I’d get back to port and I’d feel safe. I couldn’t wait to get back out here, back to the freedom, the adventure! But I didn’t feel safe out here. What idiot would? We all know the sea isn’t safe. But you …” He shook his head at me. “I saw the fear slide off of you. At first I thought you had a hidden ability, some trick that you’d played on me. But it wasn’t. You felt the sea and she calmed you. Your heart really does belong to her. She’s more wife than mistress, ain’t she?”

I could only swallow. I wouldn’t deny it. I could see he understood, understood in a way no one else ever had. I just wish that the conversation didn’t seem to be pointing in the direction I thought it was.

“I could convince myself to take you on, even knowing that your ambitions differed from others. But your Lifesaving, your pitiful attack skills; you’re not a man who wants to take life.”

“I didn’t hesitate when your crew showed up.”

He rounded on me. “Look me in the eyes and tell me that when I order you to board a merchant ship, you’ll leap aboard and cut your way to the nearest hatch. Tell me you’ll lay traps for its crew like you laid for mine! Tell me you’ll follow my orders when I point out the prisoners we can’t leave alive. Swear to that … and make me believe it!”

I tried to push the lie past my throat. I needed to live long enough to escape. I could lie. I could even follow through on slaughtering a crew if it meant saving my hide, couldn’t I?

And yet as I imagined laying traps in some ship, I imagined a red-haired cabin boy stepping into them. I imagined chainmail shrapnel shredding through the legs and the HP of an 8-year old. Had he died instantly? Did he know what happened? Had I really shredded his legs or removed a limb? Had I just sent just a sliver of wood into his heart and make him gasp as he saw the quantifiable measure of his life’s essence drop away …

Jack saw all he needed in my eyes. He turned back to the ship’s wheel without a word. I didn’t ask if he’d made up his mind. I didn’t want to hear the answer.

 

The ship on the horizon was the ship Jack was meeting with. As chipper as he seemed to be, I gathered from the general tension that this was not going to be a happy visit. The portholes for the artillery were closed, and half the crew remained below. It didn’t take a genius to imagine 20 people manning ballistae with their armor piercing bolts. They would bypass the Raven’s armor as easily as another ship’s if it came to that.

The ship was named Veracity. It was a quirk of the Madu to name ships in such a manner; Veracity, Fidelity, Concordat, etc. It made naming Madu pirate ships a joke. They weren’t flying any flag, but the name of the ship and a basic understanding of Jack’s employers told me who owned the ship: Nilfheim.

The pirates didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet, but they were courteous through and through, not protesting in the slightest as an armed retinue boarded the deck ahead of their diplomat. Jack personally greeted the diplomat with a bow, and if physical touch had been socially acceptable to the Madu I’m sure he would have kissed her hand.

The diplomat was female, of course. Being a matriarchy was what the whole Madu race was best known for. It was not the most interesting thing about them, not by a long shot. It was what people tended to get hung up on, though. Stories said that the Madu females had started to keep a male counterpart nearby in case whomever they were talking with refused to speak with them, but no one dared do anything but talk directly with the matriarch because when they sent the male to speak with you, they were dismissing you.

Personally, I thought that story had been made up by Antarus. Their political structure was incredibly similar, only the roles and titles were mixed up a bit.

“Lady Yuthe Seel,” announced the diplomats assistant. At first glance, you’d expect them to have sibilant voices, but they didn’t. Their voices were gravelly with a slight echo, like they had twin voices only one was slightly behind the other. It was different from the flanging effect the Tarish voices had but caught the ear in the same way.

The diplomat noticed me – how couldn’t she? I was the only one on deck with my hands bound – but she didn’t stare. The bodyguards did, though they didn’t let their guard down from any other possible threats.

The men had wide, round eyes. The sclera were the same color as the pupil, so you had to pay attention to the iris if you didn’t want to think of their eyes as being all one color. It made it difficult for the men to look harsh, more like wide-eyed children. Children with blades and incredibly quick reflexes.

You heard them referred to as the snake people in the same way the Chortin were the lizard people, but that also seemed like a poor description to me. They were what a human would look like if you gave them fine scales instead of skin or hair. Mostly. They had waves of corrugated red cartilage along their necks. On the men, it started at a point just above the collarbone and moved up both sides of the neck in a V shape to the ears – or where the ears would be on a human – and across both cheeks to just below the chin. This fringe and the cartilage that grew around it bore the unfortunate resemblance of a cobra’s hood … at least it did when you’d seen the caricature pamphlets showing the Matriarch of Nilfheim biting the friendly hand of Antarus. Yes, Antarus has been rabble rousing for as long as Nilfheim’s been shaking their spears. I grew up in Pristav. I got my full dose of rhetoric on why Nilfheim was bad and the Madu were savages. Sue me.

The women had a similar corrugated flange, only theirs ran from their ears below their chin, without covering the neck. It was the most reliable way I’d found to differentiate the sexes. The other differences involved the eyes – the women didn’t have quite the wide-eyed look the men had – as well as the … well, the best description would be ‘decorative’ scales. While the males were mostly shades of light and dark green scales, the women had light green scales with segments of red that matched their fringe and light pink accents. Human ladies applied makeup to adjust to different fashions of what pretty was. The Madu had their decorative appearance established in their scales. It was pretty, but anytime you spent a moment admiring you’d draw the attention of any guards or escorts.

As a general rule, they showed no scales on their bodies except their heads and neck – which were always exposed. I didn’t know if it was a modesty thing or not, but this delegation was no different.

“Captain,” said the diplomat, Lady Seel. She had a similar voice to her companion, only it wasn’t deep enough to be called ‘gravelly’. “We had a contract for the Antarus princess. You haven’t delivered.”

“No, my dear lady,” said Jack. “Nor shall I, I’m afraid. The princess made the shore in a stealth craft. I risked enough of my crew on the seas, I’ll not take my men ashore Oorkom.”

“You have reneged on our deal.” The diplomat said.

“Not to be contrary,” Jack said, “But you hired more captains than just I. None but me and mine even dared attack.”

“You were given a full description of the vessels capabilities! I am disappointed, your reputation was much more … indomitable.”

“The vessel was exactly as your information described, your ladyship. Only the crew presented …” he looked pointedly at me. “Anomalies.”

Lady Seel examined me as she was expected to. “You were hired to capture a princess, and instead you save this man? I thought it was the humans that had difficulty differentiating genders of other races.”

“I did not save this man. He had the temerity to steal aboard my ship.” He withdrew a packet of letters from his coat. “I could not acquire the prize we agreed on, but I would not insult you by coming with absolutely nothing. These were taken from Lord Michaels’ cabin before the ship went down.”

“We will not pay for intelligence.”

“Nor am I selling it. Consider it part of an apology.”

The diplomat took the letters, glanced at them, and handed them to her assistant. “Our relationship is through, Mr. Jack.”

Jack bowed with a flourish while the lady departed, followed by her guards. He kept his smile while the Veracity pulled away and it was out of sight. Mr. Tucker approached him first.

“Well captain?”

Jack’s smile twisted into something else and he made a deep-throated hissing sound. “Nilfheim’ll have a bounty on us, if they don’t hunt us down themselves. Bloody stars! We had nothing for them!” He turned to glare at me. “Set our course to the northeast. We’ll detour to Lazlo’s Deep.” He stopped to whisper in my ear as he made his way to the helm: “There be monsters, there!”

 

It was as I feared. Whatever subliminal message Jack had gotten from the Madu had broken whatever goodwill he seemed to have for me. Not completely, I was still given simple rations and wasn’t tied to the mast again. There wasn’t any question of my impending doom, though. We detoured to a spot known for sightings of monsters – beasts that preyed upon small fry like Hammernose whales. It was only a few days from Andros’s harbor, and subsequently one of the larger known ship graveyards in the Passive ocean. Where there was a steady stream of commerce, there was bound to be a steady stream of fools who tried to harvest the schools of fish, hunt the whales, or even challenge the denizens for the sake of rare alchemy ingredients.

I didn’t know if this detour was a spite or an honor. Was Jack dropping me to be a snack for a monster, or was he giving a proper farewell to someone whose heart embraced the depths? Conversely, how did I feel about it? How did I reconcile myself to my now certain death?

To be honest, I didn’t. I spent most of my remaining time incredibly nervous, like I was going to stand up before a crew and speak for the first time. Thoughts about my life and dreams didn’t come easily. I was glad that my last visit home had been much like a last goodbye. I wasn’t leaving anyone hanging or dependent upon me.

It was a surreal moment when I was bound tightly with line, had my ankles manacled together and a weight attached to me so I’d sink faster.

Jack brought the dagger to me and held it up for examination. “You know, I actually considered sending you down with this: let you have your spoils, fight off the monsters down there for eternity and all that. Then I remembered that your own stats brand you as adaptable and a trickster, so knowing you there’d be a way out somehow and I’d run into you captaining a naval vessel hunting me in a few years!” A chuckle went around the group. Jack had thought it fitting to put a plank where I’d blown out the hull. Because of that, water ran over the plank with every wave. Not much of a drop, eh? It also served to remind the crew of the shipmates they’d lost, and my execution was something of a celebratory affair for them.

“I also thought of giving you a fear debuff before you go and wondering how far down you’d make it before the sea calmed you. Would she calm you, knowing you were about to die? In the end, I didn’t want the suspense of wondering what happened to you!” Another round of morbid chuckles was shared.

“But seriously,” Jack went on. “You’re the man who faced a crew several times your level and spat in their eye. We know you wouldn’t fear! If the sea does lend you her ear at the last, remember that we sent you off with respect.”

So, no curses on the ship or crew from a dead man. Got it. He really was trying to cover all his bases.

I didn’t ‘walk the plank’ so much as I ‘shuffled the plank’ because my legs were manacled. Were these what they’d planned to put the princess in? Would she ever know that I’d taken her place? I stopped on the end of the plank and looked to the horizon. I trembled. So this was the last of it I would see. My promising life ended here. I always told myself that the sea would kill me, but there was usually at least a coin flip as to whether it was then or later. Now it was certainty.

What did I regret? Not spending more time with girls? Not finding the perfect girl? Not working a simple, routine job? I thought of Coe, who’d done his best to tame his little corner of the sea. I thought of Virgam, the aged, experienced sailor I thought I’d be, and again told myself that I hadn’t really seen his face on the deck of the Wind Runner. I thought of Hali, who I was only pretty confident that I’d saved by throwing her overboard. Now that I was about to die, I could safely admit that I’d had a big crush on her.

One of the pirates jounced the plank and was elbowed by one of his more superstitious brethren. My sea legs could handle a lot more than a little jounce.

Looking back on my life, I couldn’t really regret much. The things I wished I hadn’t done had been learning experiences that made me better. Maybe my life wasn’t as filled with adventure as a tavern story, but I’d given it a fair shot! Except that in the end, I didn’t have what it took to save myself – only enough to save a handful of people out of my whole crew.

As I looked into the depths that were about to become my grave, I felt the same pull from the depths that I’d felt when trying to rescue John, the same pull I’d felt on the Wind Runner just before taking command. There was no interruption this time. I felt like I had somewhere to be, and it was below me. Whatever spirit or consciousness I’d felt before was somewhere down there. Maybe I’d even recognize what they were before I drowned.

I didn’t wait any longer. I took a breath and fell into the sea.

By reflex, I checked my time and tried to control my movements. My time was 5:54, on the upper limit of my capacity, but of course my movements were restricted. I was going down fast, the dense weight tied to my manacles pulling me down. It was fast enough that it was hard to gauge my depth. I’d done free diving before and knew something of what to expect. At about 100 feet my airtime flickered; first down by ten seconds then upwards by five as my heart started to beat slower. My time continued to flicker as I descended, the increased pressure of the ocean literally crushing my lungs, while my heart slowed as I stopped pumping blood to my extremities and only around my major organs. I got the debuff to explain it. I could safely say this was the deepest I’d ever been …

The filtered sunlight from above disappeared, unable to penetrate this far. As my airtime tried to decide how fast I was using my oxygen, I received another debuff: crushed. Now the weight of the ocean above me was inflicting direct damage on my HP. It seemed like I was descending faster and faster, which made sense if I was being forced down.

I flashed by something that moved. My mind didn’t process it until I’d passed, otherwise I might have panicked a bit and lost more airtime. Whatever it was had been big!

I’d lost awareness of whatever presence had shared my underwater home with me. It seemed to be capable of masking its presence. I guess I wouldn’t be solving that mystery before I drowned.

I saw the ocean floor below, glowing plants scattered across an otherwise barren terrain. I thought that I was going to smash into it, but my speed was deceptive. I might be descending rapidly, but not as fast as a free-fall through air. I touched the sea floor with 60% health and 2 minutes of air left. Two minutes to live. Unless the crushed debuff killed me first. Who’s to say? I could make any wager I wanted with myself on which would do me in.

Less than two minutes to live. Wow. It made me feel a bit reverent, like this was a momentous occasion.

I looked around and tried to take in the place that would be my grave. Not much to see. It wasn’t a coral reef, or anything. One of those glowing, tree-sized plants might have moved. I gave a little hop and turned around. Maybe there’d be a canyon or …

I almost spat out my 1:30 of air. Just on the edge of my vision was a ship! I’d come to rest right next to a sunken ship! Oh, the irony!

The ship was a beauty, a massive Man of War with black sails that rippled in the ocean current like they were still filled with wind. Interesting, I didn’t notice a current. I used my analyze skill on it:

The Perdition

I didn’t get past the name. This time I really did spit out half of my air. The Perdition! Why, that was the ship of …

“I heard a song,” said a voice behind me. It had a slight echoing quality through the water, but otherwise ignored the rule everyone else acknowledged about speech underwater being impossible. “A song of the sea …”

Davy Jones.

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Edited; thanks for the help!  (Also thanks for the fun links!)


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