The Thessalan League included a hundred cities, but only three were worth talking about. Mighty Thessala, which gave the alliance its name; the great land power of Orthia; and the shining kingdom of Pergamon.
Observing the city from the Foresight’s deck and under the cover of darkness, Kairos had to admit the nickname was on point. Located on the northernmost edge of a vast, fertile island, Pergamon’s waters were infested with bioluminescent plankton giving off an aurora-like glow. They illuminated the coast during the night, revealing the magnificent shape of the city's stone walls and impressive architecture. Pergamon’s kings had invested in art, raising silver statues and opulent marble palaces. Their mines produced more wealth than they could waste.
Kairos couldn’t help but feel jealous at the sight. Having lived all his life in Travia’s harsh, poor lands, Pergamon looked like a dream made reality. A shining city on the hill, spared from monsters, bad harvests, and poverty. The people inside these walls lived a life of indolence, one that had been denied to all Travians.
But for all their wealth, Pergamon’s people weren’t warriors. Kairos’ paternal great-grandfather had tried to raid the city during a Travian invasion almost a century ago; but instead of fighting the invaders off like most Thessalan city-states, the current king had simply paid off the pirates to move on.
The Foresight's captain wondered if the current king saw things the same way.
“I see them, I see them!” Rook said while flying back from his scouting tour, landing on his partner’s shoulder. “They’re coming!”
“Good,” Kairos replied, petting his partner. Cassandra stood at his side, having waited anxiously for this news. “How many people can we bring to the meeting?”
“Just the two of us,” she replied. The shape of a ship bigger than the Foresight appeared under the moonlight, approaching from Pergamon. “Keep your weapon close, just in case.”
Kairos glanced at his men; all had their weapons ready for battle, and Rhadamanthe operated the ballista. Perhaps it was time to cash in his Skill Points. Better safe than sorry. “Cass, which of your core stats would you raise, if you could?”
“[Luck],” she answered immediately.
“Not [Strength] or [Intelligence]?”
“My [Luck] is piss-poor, and I’m starting to feel the toll it takes as I get older,” Cass replied with a bitter smile. “You can be as smart or powerful as you want, Kairos, but you will never control everything Fate throws at you. If you can make fortune favor you though, you will always bounce back.”
That was… an interesting vision of the world. “As a [Hero], I can either shore up Skill Points and spend them on increasing my raw stats,” Kairos explained, “or raise Skills up to the third rank. I’m not sure which way I should go.”
“Besides the obvious benefits, flat increases to your stats will also open new Skill trees and subclasses,” Cassandra said. “But if I were you, I would improve my skills. If the jump in performance is anything like the one between a [Common] and an [Elite], they will be far more useful than a little more strength. At least, in the short-term. Once you get past level 30, you're going to enter the grind; you'll sweat for any new level.”
Kairos nodded in agreement, seeing three paths before him.
Considering the cost of improving a stat, he could specialize in one or two like [Charisma] or [Intelligence], and upgrade the associated Skills. It would make him a powerful specialist.
Alternatively, the young [Hero] could diversify and upgrade his existing Skills, enhancing his knowledge and competence. He would never be as powerful as a specialized hero, but he could easily adapt to any new circumstance.
Finally, he could try to take a middle ground, increasing his key Skills while keeping SP in reserve to boost his raw stats later.
For now, Kairos decided to keep ten SP in reserve in case he needed to increase his [Magic] stat and use the rest to improve his key skills. Higher [Luck] would be a great boon, but less so than improved [Leadership]. The reaver also needed to boost [Observer] for information gathering, and [Spear Fighting] now that he could fully use his magical weapon’s abilities. As for [Poison Brewer], it had served him well in the past.
You spent two skill points to upgrade [Observer 1] to [Observer 3]. You can now glean information from creatures up to [Hero] rank, unless they possess a Skill or item capable of falsifying their abilities.
You upgraded [Leadership 2] to [Leadership 3]. Your leadership has improved. You are more likely to attract followers, and your allies will gain resistance to mind-affecting ailments (like [Terror] or [Enthrall]) when fighting under your command.
You upgraded [Spear Fighting 2] to [Spear Fighting 3]. You have become a true master of the spear. You can now use all non-magical spear techniques known to mortalkind.
You upgraded [Poison Brewer 2] to [Poison Brewer 3]. You gain intuitive knowledge of magical poisonous plants and animals, including how to brew poisons and antidotes.
You upgraded [Speech 2] to [Speech 3]. You have mastered the art of rhetoric. Your words are naturally compelling and clear, though not guaranteed to be obeyed or believed. Your voice can be heard normally no matter the noise, and you gain Resistance to [Silence].
You upgraded [Seamanship 2] to [Seamanship 3]. Your knowledge of ships, swimming, and navigation has reached perfection; additionally, you can intuitively sense maritime hazards like incoming storms and undersea monsters.
You upgraded [Raider 2] to [Raider 3]. In addition to the [Terror] ailment, your enemies may suffer from minor stat debuffs when they witness you assaulting their holdings.
In general, it seemed rank 3 Skills were the peak of human mastery, or with limited supernatural effects. Kairos dared not imagine what rank 4 Skills could unleash. He immediately tested [Observer 3] on Nessus, who was busy sharpening his bow with a knife.
Nessus the Horned Hunter
Legend: None (Elite)
Class: Rogue (Hunter, Archer, Outlaw)
The last part saddened Kairos. He knew Cass was level 33 and Rhadamanthe 36, but to have all his officers be higher level than him? It reminded him that he was sorely lacking in experience as a captain.
Kairos glanced at the waters below, the shadow of Andromache hidden beneath the waves. The Scylla had taken back her natural form in the water, with orders to attack the Pergamonian vessel should Cass’ contacts prove treacherous.
Andromache, Scylla of Scheria
Legend: Phoenix Guardian (Hero)
Race: Scylla (Naiad)
Class: Spellcaster (Pyromancer, Witch, Storm Caller, Shapeshifter)
Kairos was happy not to have opted for a fair fight, considering the gap in power. He took it as good news though. A difference in Level wasn't an insurmountable obstacle. Skill mastery and good tactics could overcome it.
The other ship finally revealed itself as a quadrireme, a war galley mightier and taller than the Foresight. Unlike the pirate ship, it advanced without a flag, hiding its allegiance. Soldiers formed a wall of shields and armor on the deck, protecting a tent at the back of the galley.
Almost all the people on board were [Elites], some of them capped at level 40; quite the security for a mere envoy. Kairos kept his hand on his spear, wondering if the quadrireme would attempt to ram the Foresight. Much to his relief though, the other ship peacefully stopped next to their own, and the marines raised a wooden bridge to link the two decks.
Cassandra and Kairos exchanged a silent glance, before stepping onto the other ship. Rook stayed on his partner’s shoulder, clearly uneasy.
A tall man awaited them on the quadrireme's deck, protected by guards in silver armor. Unlike the soldiers, he wore rich clothes woven with silk and jewels. Most strangely, his eyes and combed hair were both the color of gold, and his skin unnaturally without blemish.
“Absyrtus,” Cass said.
“Cassandra,” the man replied with a graceful nod, before frowning at Kairos. He must have been the sailor’s contact in Pergamon. “Where is Panos?”
“He’s dead,” Cassandra replied bluntly, presenting Kairos to the man. “This is our new captain, Panos' nephew Kairos.”
The man observed the young pirate carefully, his eyes settling on his spear in particular. Thanks to [Observer], Kairos identified the man as a level 40 [Elite] [Crafter] and a Nymphblooded human. The man had a legendary Nymph somewhere in his ancestry, which explained his strange appearance.
“A new [Hero],” Absyrtus mused out loud, his face an expressionless mask. “Good. My liege will be pleased to meet you in person.”
“Your liege?” Cassandra frowned.
“My liege,” Absyrtus replied calmly. “Please come inside. You may keep your weapons, but your pet will not be allowed inside. My master despises most animals.”
The emissary looked at Rook, and the griffin glared back. “Wait for us on the Foresight,” Kairos asked his partner. “I will give you a treat on my return.”
“Yes, Kairos,” the griffin grumbled in an all-too-human way, before flying back to the Foresight.
The emissary led the duo towards the luxurious tent at the back of the quadrireme. Before the duo entered, Cassandra offered Kairos a few words of advice. “Let me take the lead on this one,” she said, having cultivated this connection herself. “Be polite, be respectful, and indulge them, whoever they are; laugh at their jokes, unless it is a trick to test you, in which case, say nothing. And whatever you do, don’t overshadow them.”
Kairos nodded, understanding the silent message.
Let them think they’re in charge until the time is right.
The duo walked inside and instantly breathed a cloud smelling of perfume, wine, and expensive spices.
The place oozed wealth. Everywhere Kairos looked, he could see marble statues, baskets full of wine and fine food, and even a private bath; it took the raider a moment to realize the tent was far larger in the inside than the outside. What kind of sorcery made it possible?
Four collared slaves attended to the needs of a nobleman, who sat on an elaborate throne of ivory with backrest covered with peacock feathers. The man wore a magnificent Thessalan tunic made of purple silk, alongside a crown of silver and gemstones.
Their host’s most interesting attributes, however, weren’t his choice of dress, but his pale violet skin and deep purple eyes; even his hair had turned purple. He remained fiendishly handsome in spite of this strange oddity, in an exotic way.
Kairos didn’t even need to use [Observer] to recognize the man… though he did check, just in case.
Mithridates IV Hegemon, King of Pergamon
Legend: Poison King (Hero)
Class: Rogue (Assassin, Cutthroat, Duelist, Bard, Poisoner, Arcane Dabbler)
The king had decided to meet the Travians himself.
“Your Majesty!” Cassandra immediately bowed. “You visit us in person?”
“It is unusual, yes.” The king’s voice sounded like an experienced singer, almost hypnotic. “Usually I settle these deals through intermediaries, but I decided to make an exception for the new [Hero] of the day.”
News traveled fast. Kairos politely bowed before the mighty king. “I hope not to disappoint, Your Majesty.”
“No, you do not, Kairos Marius Remus.” The king’s eyes examined the young pirate captain as he spoke, sizing up the raider the way a mongoose would with a serpent. “Though I am curious. You possess a Travian name, but a Lycean nomen and cognomen.”
He must have had [Observer 3] too. “My mother was exiled from Lyce, for being a werewolf.”
“Good,” Mithridates replied, his smile unwavering. “Lyceans are no friend of mine. Barbarians, all of them.”
Kairos said nothing, the sight of this foreign king filling him with intense jealousy. The atmosphere of sheer luxury was suffocating, and that man could waste his boundless wealth on trinkets to impress visitors. Even the slaves looked pampered.
This should be ours, Kairos thought bitterly. Not stones and scraps.
Cassandra gave him an elbow bump, and he regained his composure. Kairos’ envy must have shown on his face.
Mithridates, though, wasn’t blind. He smirked at Kairos, reminding the Travian of a fisherman having lured a fish.
“Hydra’s venom,” Mithridates said, his eyes on the [Anemoi Spear]. He recognized the poison Kairos had coated the weapon's tip with. “Do you have a cup of it on yourself? May I see it?”
Kairos frowned, but Cassandra silently nodded at him. The young captain took a small vial hidden beneath his clothes and handed it over to a slave. The servant offered it to Mithridates, who seemed vaguely amused that Kairos traveled with such a dangerous poison to a diplomatic meeting.
And then, the king drank the vial like a cup of wine.
Kairos’ eyes widened in shock. “Your Majesty, don’t!” he shouted while the king finished his cup. “There’s enough to kill a minotaur!”
But much to the pirate’s astonishment, Mithridates suffered no ill-effect. Instead of falling to his knees in atrocious pain, he licked his lips. “Delicious,” he said, playfully returning the empty vial to its owner. “I had almost forgotten the taste.”
That… that was impossible. Even Andromache had been affected. This king had more than a [Poison Resistance] Skill; he must have a full-blown Immunity to the ailment.
“I am something of an erudite,” Mithridates explained. “My great passion, as you can guess, are poisons. I learned to protect myself and others from them; enough that the System rewarded my efforts with a [Legend].”
The ruler snapped his fingers, and slaves handed Kairos a small silver drug jar.
“Here is a drug jar of mithridate, an antidote of my own making,” Mithridates explained. Obviously, he was modest enough to name an invention after himself. “I refined it from sixty-five poisons and venoms extracted from powerful monsters, including manticores, mandrakes, and basilisks. It can cure any poison, no matter how powerful. Please take it, as compensation for your venomous wine.”
“We cannot accept such a gift, Your Majesty,” Cass said with diplomacy.
“Think nothing of it,” the king replied with a charming smile. “Few of us have invested in the [Poison Brewer] skill as far as we did, Kairos, but it was a wise choice.”
While seemingly innocent, the comment struck Kairos as a veiled warning. That this purple man could see his guest’s Skills, and could casually disable his most powerful weapon should he wish it. The young raider carefully accepted the drug jar, promising himself to reverse-engineer the content later.
“Now, I thought your captain was an older man, instead of a dashing young [Hero],” Mithridates mused. “Or have you overthrown his predecessor? I heard you Travians did that sometimes.”
“Our previous captain perished in the fight with Pelopidas,” Cass said, doing her best not to betray any emotion.
“A shame,” Mithridates replied, although Kairos could tell he didn’t care. He was just being polite. “I will still pay you your due, don’t worry.”
“But Your Majesty didn’t invite us to a private meeting to deliver a payment,” Cassandra guessed.
“No, of course not,” he chuckled heartily. “As I told you through my representatives, dear Cassandra, I am looking for trustworthy mercenaries. You have proved your competence, a rare thing in this world; enough for one of you to become a [Hero]. So, I would like to offer you a long-term proposition. What do you know of Thessalan politics?”
“Enough to know I know nothing,” Kairos replied.
This made Mithridates laugh, although the pirate couldn’t tell if it was genuine. “While the Thessalan League takes its name from it, the city-state of Thessala is no friend of mine. Yes, we have a loose alliance for mutual defense against foreign invaders, but their demands are increasingly getting on my nerves.”
So, business as usual. Thessala had dominated the alliance for a century, and its people’s heavy-handed influence had made the city many enemies.
“I will spare you the dirty details, but I am currently engaged in a dispute with Thessala’s government,” said the Poison King. “I tried to reach out to Orthia for an alliance, but that mighty city has become a turtle. It stays inside its shell, and refuses all my generous offers of political union against Thessala.”
“Your Majesty wants us to attack Thessalan ships?” Cassandra asked.
“No, no,” Mithridates smiled. “I want you to ravage Orthia and spare Thessala.”
Kairos immediately caught on. “You want to pressure Orthia so they feel threatened. If we attack their holdings but leave Thessala’s intact, they will believe they hired us as the prelude to a bigger offensive.”
“Orthia is mistaken in its belief that their city can stand on its own.” The Poison King nodded with a sharp, predatory smile. “To win their heart, I must first break their pride.”
The king’s slaves offered Cass and Kairos a pile of scrolls for them to read. They glimpsed at the content, and then exchanged a shocked glance.
The scrolls included a map of Orthia’s coastal holding, alongside observations on which villages and areas should be attacked first. While they provided a wealth of intel on the city-state and its vassals, all the documents were written in a way that deliberately implicated the city-state of Thessala. Should the pirates die and the scrolls end up in enemy hands, Pergamon would remain above suspicion.
That cunning king must have a pretty robust information network. Clearly, he had been planning this operation for years.
“Outside the plunder, you will be generously compensated for this campaign,” Mithridates promised mirthfully. “Though for the success of this enterprise, I ask you not to reveal our association, even to your officers. Tell them Thessala’s Archons hired you.”
“Some of these targets are under Pergamon’s protection though,” Cassandra said, pointing a finger at some of the marked villages on the maps.
“Obviously, I need plausible deniability. Orthia will wonder why pirates ignore my coasts to target them exclusively. These positions are worth little to me, and fear will motivate my people.”
That king was willing to casually sacrifice his people for a greater strategic objective? Kairos wasn’t sure whether he should feel impressed by his ruthlessness, or disgusted by his lack of scruples. Cassandra and her captain exchanged a glance, the same thought crossing their mind. "We're in, Your Majesty," Kairos declared.
“I want the Orthian coast on fire,” Mithridates continued, saying that with the same detachment as if they discussed the weather. “Kill, rape, and pillage to your heart’s content, so long as you teach them fear.”
Well, he hadn’t earned his title of Poison King for nothing. Kairos pitied those who crossed him. “We will skip some of these steps,” the young captain replied with diplomacy, “but we will target Orthia’s holdings.”
He wasn’t interested in mindless slaughter or atrocities on helpless peasants, but his crew would steal everything they could get their hands on.
Still, it seemed to satisfy King Mithridates, and the pact was sealed.
|Congratulations. You earned a level (total 26) and 3 Skill Points.|
Impressing an older [Hero] had its perks.
In the end, Kairos and Cassandra returned to the Foresight with two chests full of gifts. As promised, Mithridates paid them a hefty sum in Thessalan coins for Pelopidas' murder, alongside an advance on the raiding job. All in all, the Poison King paid handsomely for a job done well.
Leaving Rhadamanthe and the others to split the reward, Kairos watched the Pergamon ship return to its home city. “What do you think of this, Cass?”
“That man is poisoned honey,” his first mate replied with keen insight. “Using a sweet taste to hide the venom underneath.”
Yes, Kairos thought as much. The king had tried to impress them with his wealth, to lure them with promises of more riches to come. But the work he asked for was extremely dangerous. Kairos had the feeling Mithridates wouldn’t blink at leaving the Travians to their fate, should they fail him.
Still, this poisonous [Hero] offered the crew a rare opportunity. Lucrative jobs were rare, especially since it involved doing something Travian pirates might have done for 'free.’
“We should take precautions, in case he decides to sacrifice us to cover his tracks afterward,” Cassandra said wisely. “But if he doesn’t, then we should cultivate this partnership.”
Kairos nodded, his eyes wandering to the water, and Andromache swimming beneath the surface. The memory of all the wealth at the king’s fingertip still soured his mood. The young raider had lost his family to famine or raids caused by bad economic times, and Pergamon could spare to be generous. “It should be ours.”
“Mmm?” Cassandra frowned.
“These beautiful lands, this wealth, it should be ours,” Kairos declared, glaring at Pergamon while seething with resentment. “It should belong to Travia. They don’t appreciate what they have.”
Cassandra said nothing for a while, her eyes wandering to the city. “Maybe these lands will be ours, one day,” she finally spoke up, “but not today, Kairos.”
No, not today. The moment wasn’t right yet.
“We will need more men than we have to launch a raid of this magnitude,” Cassandra continued. “We’ll need to staff our missing positions, especially a shipwright, and an additional surgeon to assist Rhadamanthe. He already has his hands full as our navigator.”
“We’ll recruit more at home,” Kairos said. Now that he was a [Hero], he should be able to attract talented people that eluded them beforehand.
Mithridates wanted to terrify his neighborhood.
The Foresight’s crew would deliver.