A beast slumbered in every man.
Kairos had seen it time and time again. During a raid, Travian pirates knew better than to break ranks, and they maintained their iron discipline. Even rival crews could trust each other completely.
But afterward, when the fight ended? When they had routed the enemy? The discipline collapsed, and darker emotions flooded to the surface. A sinister rage possessed warriors and turned them into savage animals. Even commanders and skills like [Leadership] could only do so much to keep them leashed.
Kairos had done his best, but ultimately, he could only do damage control.
The town which they just attacked, Ambracia, was a fisherman village located between a hillside and a sheltered bay. It wasn’t as big as Lissala, but still welcomed two dozen dwellings and hundreds of people. While their protective walls and watchtower protected them from land assaults, they could do nothing against a pirate fleet. When their bells had rung upon seeing the Foresight’s sail, their time had already run out.
This was the fourth coastal settlement the pirates had ravaged since they reached the Thessalan League; two from Pergamon, and two from Orthia. They followed the same tactic each time: the invincible Andromache led the vanguard in her monstrous form, scattering the defenders and demolishing fortifications. Then the archers shot the remaining watchmen, and the ships landed on the shores.
Attacks rarely lasted more than two hours. The Travian fleet had remained entirely undetected by coming from the open sea, and Mithridates’ intel had proven correct. The pirates’ targets were lightly defended, usually by local militia; most were [Common] watchmen around level ten, no match for experienced raiders, let alone a Scylla. The fleet hadn’t suffered a single loss so far, and they didn’t even need to use the remaining fire rods.
What followed after the victory, though, left a sour taste in the [Hero]'s mouth.
Kairos had ordered his crew to focus on the plunder and spare civilians, and thankfully they followed through. After the stunt with the Cetus, discipline had improved so much that the Foresight’s crew would probably attack a dragon if he gave the order. They believed in him.
Unfortunately, Kairos only commanded one ship, and the allied crews answered to their own bloodthirsty captains once on the ground. Captain Agron, a mighty minotaur warrior with fur as black as his heart, burned anything he couldn’t kill. Kairos was certain his men would have set the sea ablaze, if they could. The other crews were more restrained, but Cassandra's grim report sent shivers down her superior's spine.
Kairos knew Mithridates wanted Orthia’s vassal cities terrorized, but… such senseless brutality brought the [Hero] no pleasure. He had the bodies of the dead piled up near a house, to be set ablaze as a funeral pyre before setting sail. If he couldn't spare their lives, he would at least grant them a burial.
While Kairos was proud to be Travian, this spectacle shamed his country.
Eventually, his crew gathered in the city square to divide the loot. The plunder was what Kairos expected from a fisherman village’s bounty. Mostly food, copper wares, and some hidden stashes of silver. The Foresight could have ignored the town and not missed anything.
“That’s not much,” Nessus said what was on everyone’s mind.
“The Orthians are almost as poor as us!” a raider jeered.
“Our next target is the city of Boeotia,” Cassandra said. “An important trading port, rich, but also better defended. The bounty we will get from it will be a thousand times larger.”
Kairos didn’t care much for the loot, and he focused on the locals’ corpses instead. He had noticed most of them had strange black markings tattooed around their necks, like hanged men’s ropes. “Why do they bear markings?”
“They’re helots,” Cassandra explained. “Public slaves.”
“How so?” Kairos asked with a frown, unfamiliar with the concept. He would have asked Thales, but the engineer wisely chose to remain on the Foresight, both to study it and avoid participating in the slaughter.
“Orthia has seven slaves for each free man,” Rhadamanthe explained. “But they are not the private property of individual owners. They belong to the state.”
“They are cattle,” Cassandra added. “They labor in the fields, and occasionally serve as target practice or reproduction mares for Orthian hoplites.”
Though Kairos loathed the killing of slaves, he wouldn’t shed a tear at slaying Orthian freemen. “If there are seven slaves for each freeman, why do they not revolt? Our ancestors challenged Lyce without these numbers.”
“You can’t compare these weaklings with us Travians, captain,” a raider said. “They have milk for blood.”
“Fear and magic keep them in line.” Rhadamanthe pointed a finger at the tattoos around the corpse’s neck. “These are slave brands that inflict great pain if the helot disobeys a hoplite’s order. It can even cause death.”
“A childish spell,” Andromache said, blood dripping from her hound-heads. Out of all the crewmates, the Scylla had taken the most pleasure in the slaughter, feeding on watchmen like pigs. Kairos suspected she spread pain to alleviate her own frustrations.
“You can remove them?” Kairos asked, sensing an opportunity.
“Certainly,” the Scylla replied casually.
“Then this changes everything.”
“It could be an opportunity,” Cassandra agreed with a nod, immediately guessing her captain’s intent. “We need manpower to farm and develop our new colony.”
“Next time we raid a city, we take as many prisoners as we can,” Kairos told his men. “We will offer helots their freedom, in exchange for service in our colony. The freemen, we will ransom.”
His words were met with nods, and the crew started bringing their share of plunder to the Foresight. After devouring the Cetus’ remains, the ship had undergone a new transformation. Blue scales covered the entire hull, with the exception of areas with feathers. The oars had fused with the ship itself, their ends shapeshifting into translucent fins.
And most importantly, they now moved without human hands.
The Foresight had become a living being, albeit an extension of Kairos himself. The ship answered the captain’s wordless desires, moving in the direction he wished. The transformations allowed it to move faster than any normal galley, to the point it almost glided on the water. Kairos had needed to tone down the speed not to outpace the rest of the fleet.
But most importantly, now that the Foresight didn’t need oarsmen and regenerated from damage, it reduced the need for non-combat staff. While Kairos would keep a few rowers on standby, in case whatever magic that animated his ship failed, he would have them assist in boarding vessels.
Finally, with the ballista’s destruction, the captain allowed Thales to make modifications to it. The engineer had replaced the wood parts with metal ones with his advanced Crafting Skills, believing it would improve the range and accuracy. He also voiced interest in cooperating with Andromache to enchant the device, though he needed more time to follow through with the proposal.
The captain remained behind for a few more moments, overseeing the burning of the dead. The Travian people’s ancestors had been escaped slaves of Lyce, so he felt pity for these villagers.
“You seem troubled human.” Kairos looked over his shoulder to see Andromache, shapeshifting back into her human form and putting on clothes her size. “I thought you enjoyed the thrill of the hunt.”
“We destroyed a village of slaves,” the captain replied dryly, focusing back on the pyre. “There’s nothing to be proud of. I’m starting to wonder if our reputation as barbarians abroad isn’t entirely undeserved, and it saddens me.”
The Scylla let out a snort. “Humans have always been beasts with intellect. The gods destroyed mankind more than once, and each generation was crueler than the last. If anything though, you are a throwback to your most exalted predecessors.”
“Is that a compliment from you?” Kairos asked with a smirk.
“Do not grow proud,” Andromache replied with a frown. “But I will admit that most of your kind would have slain me outright. Humans do not spare each other their cruelty. To those outside their species, they give no quarters.”
“And this has to change,” the captain replied while crossing his arms. “I think my people can be better than beasts with intellect, as you call them.” By Persephone, their reputation for brutality was the reason they even got the job from Mithridates. Nobody offered the Travian people non-violent work.
“Even the gods could not change human nature,” Andromache replied. “Trust my advice. You should accept the situation and adapt to it.”
“I’ll take your opinion into consideration, but with all due respect, I think we can change our culture. Maybe not overnight, but I’m certain we could rise to higher standards.”
“Are you truly so different?” Andromache asked, her gaze reminding Kairos of a shark peeking over the water. “You led your people here. You could have refused and chosen another path, but in the end, you decided to spill blood for a fistful of coins.”
The [Hero] opened his mouth to protest, before realizing she had a point. He could have said poverty forced his hand, but in the end, he had accepted Mithridates’ offer because it was simply too good to pass up. Yes, the change should begin with Kairos himself.
The [Hero] had the feeling the colony would be a case study. If he could build a functional Travian city that did not entirely rely on raiding, he could refocus his people’s desires towards more productive ends. Opening it to other cultures, even slaves from Orthia, would also soften the Travian’s warmongering ways.
“Anyway,” the captain said as they joined the crew and climbed on the Foresight's deck. “I think now is the time.”
“You are ready to learn, human?” The witch gestured at the front of the ship, where they would have limited privacy to practice.
“Yes, but I have some questions first.” Kairos knew one needed to have at least a D rank in [Magic] to use magical items, and C to cast spells. But he had no idea what would happen afterward. “What will a B rank in [Magic] and above do for my class progression?”
“B rank will make you skilled at spellcasting, instead of average,” Andromache taught the young [Hero]. “An A rank will allow you to sense and detect any trace of magic, no matter how faint. And S, the supreme rank, will make you sorcery incarnate.”
Since Kairos had no natural talent and started with a D+ rank, he doubted he would ever excel. “Rhadamanthe told me I would never be as good as a true spellcaster.”
“You will not,” Andromache admitted. “But a [Rogue] with a decent [Magic] stat will gain access to new specializations. One can achieve great power by walking down unconventional paths, and there is might in versatility. Perhaps one of your subclasses will be my salvation.”
Kairos hoped so.
The lesson lasted well into the evening. The Foresight glided on the Orthian waters by itself, while Rook served as their flying scout. The rest of the pirate fleet followed closely, like the wings of a great beast.
First of all, Kairos finally sacrificed ten SPs to raise his [Magic] rank from D+ to C, though he kept the rest in reserve. The pirate didn’t really feel much of a difference, though he guessed he needed to access a casting-oriented specialization to see the results. Andromache then went into an explanation about magic, and its relationship with the world.
“All things obey the will of the Fate System, which governs destiny,” the Scylla said with wisdom. “Magic is the art of locating and bending the secret forces of the universe to one’s will.”
“What about prayers and divine mysteries?” Kairos asked.
“Divine mysteries rely on prayers,” Andromache replied, her face twisting into one of frustration. Kairos realized she didn’t like being interrupted, even to answer questions. “A priest like your minotaur does not force divine energies to bend to their will; he asks. Gods may listen, or they may not; and even in death, some embers of their power remain. You have seen that during the phoenix’s birth. Dionysus might have long perished, yet his rituals can still work.”
Kairos wisely nodded, and decided to remain silent unless his ‘teacher’ invited him to speak.
“Now, a true magician does not ask, they command. Magic is a coin with two sides. Theurgy, most natural and exalted, the sorcery of the gods and the greatest magicians. And Goetia, an unclean path of bloody rites, awful charms, and pacts with wicked things. Neither is more powerful than the other, but one makes the caster closer to the divine, the other to Tartarus. Some powerful witches like Medea mastered both, but I shall only teach the exalted path.”
Andromache looked at Kairos with a hint of contempt. “Obviously, you can guess which path to power your cursed ancestors chose.”
And it served them well, Kairos thought, even if he didn’t voice it out loud.
As he listened, the captain realized the distinction wasn’t entirely academic. Theurgy spells and rituals focused on controlling natural forces like fire or the winds, while Goetic magic manipulated minds, flesh, and daemonic spirits. Goetic magic could be used for medicine, while Theurgic spells could create storms and fireballs. Most Class Specializations focused on one path, or even prayers like priests; some needed a [Spellcaster] to be well-versed in both disciplines.
Most importantly, Andromache shed more light on the nature of spells. Kairos originally thought spells were separated from Skills; that for example, [Pyromancy 1] allowed a [Spellcaster] to learn individual fire spells with a given rank. The [Hero] was mistaken. What Kairos thought to be individual spells were nothing more than an extension of the base Skill. Even Andromache’s fireball spell was an application of her [Pyromancy 3] ability.
In the end, everything boiled down to Skills. For all the complex magical theories, spellcasting functioned no differently than his [Spear Fighting]. Learning the academic side of magic only helped to unlock new Specializations, nothing more.
Though Kairos had to admit the Scylla’s lesson quickly yielded results.
|You unlocked the [Arcane Dabbler] Rogue specialization.|
“[Arcane Dabbler]?” Kairos asked Andromache, recognizing the subclass as one of Mithridates'.
“A [Rogue] with knowledge of sorcery, but not much talent in it,” the Scylla replied bluntly. Kairos could tell that she enjoyed lording her superiority as a teacher. “Better than nothing.”
“I see it gives me access to three Skills,” Kairos said, as he examined the specialization’s features in detail. “[Spellblade], which causes a weapon to inflict additional magical damage; [Magical Knack], which improves my knowledge of magic and enchanted items; and [Invisibility], which allows me to use spells to make things disappear.”
“A paltry result,” Andromache smiled at him, her fangs showing behind her lips. “But not unexpected for a human.”
And she was such a supportive, encouraging mentor too. “Are you kidding? These skills are amazing. I can already see the synergies.”
Andromache frowned at him. “You want to use [Magical Knack] on your feather, but you are a fool. You will never raise more than one person.”
“Maybe not,” Kairos replied with a sour face, “but I could glean useful information. Such as how to locate the phoenix that produced the feather. [Spellblade] will improve my spear’s power, and [Invisibility] is an amazing ability.”
Cassandra approached the duo before Kairos could ask for more information. “Am I interrupting?”
“We are done, for now,” Andromache decided, her eyes turning to her student. “You will meditate on my lessons, and make them your own.”
“According to Rhadamanthe, we will reach Boeotia in the middle of the night, the ideal time for a surprise attack,” Cassandra informed her captain. “I told the men to rest until then and informed the other crews.”
“Good.” Kairos crossed his arms. “Have you reviewed the notes?”
“As well as you did. Boeotia is well-defended, but I think we can take it with minimal losses. We have surprise, magical might, and two [Heroes] on our side. According to our intel, nobody in the city should even scratch you, Andromache.”
“Hmm,” Andromache grunted. “I would expect as much.”
“Boeotia also has a Moira,” Kairos pointed. “We could visit her and ask for a Quest to undo Circe’s curse.”
The Scylla looked at him with surprise, as if astonished he would even suggest it. Obviously, she had mistaken his promise of helping her lift her curse for empty words. “No Quest can undo the will of a goddess,” the witch said.
“Even gods are bound to the Fate System, according to your own tales,” Kairos pointed out. “It costs us nothing to try.”
Andromache snorted in skepticism, but did not argue further.
“There’s also something we need to discuss, Kairos,” Cassandra said. “Our client didn’t want us to target the city only for its wealth and strategic importance.”
The captain frowned. “There is a secondary objective?”
“Yes. Unlike Pergamon and Thessala, the Shield City of Orthia is an oligarchy.” Cassandra raised three fingers. “Two ruling dynasties rule the city-state and its vassals. One king controls the army, the other the priests. And finally, a child born of both dynasties controls the civil institutions, and serves as the tiebreaker. Together, this government is called the Triarchy.”
“The army’s leader is King Lysander; the priesthood, King Pausanias. And the third head of the hydra is their half-sister Queen Euthenia, famed as the most beautiful woman in the Thessalan League. Now, the state enforces a strict military discipline, with soldiers forced to live in barracks and only allowed to see their family periodically. Since Orthian women can own property, their wives usually manage their own domains. Sometimes even outside the Shield City itself.”
“Even the king isn’t above these laws?” Kairos guessed. “Are you telling me that King Lysander’s family lives in Boeotia?”
“Exactly. His wife, Queen Timaea, maintains a villa in Boeotia and raises his son there. He’s too young to follow the Orthian military education.”
The [Hero] found that a bit sketchy. “I don’t get it, wouldn’t it make more sense to keep this family in Orthia itself?”
“According to our notes, Timaea’s family controls Boeotia,” Cassandra explained. “I suppose she wanted her son to grow close to his mother’s side of the family.”
Andromache showed her teeth. “You will make a powerful enemy if you touch them,” she warned. “Kings never take the theft of their family lightly. The city of Troy learned that lesson harshly.”
“The risk is great,” Cassandra conceded. “But we could capture them.”
Kairos thought that the risks far outweighed the potential reward. “Serras already did something similar, and it will cost him. If we kidnap a royal family, we will bring the full wrath of Orthia on our head; and while they aren’t the Lycean Republic, they can’t be underestimated either. Even the potential ransom won’t make up for the eventual fallout.”
“I understand Kairos, but if we attack Boeotia at all, Orthia will retaliate anyway,” his first mate argued. “It is one of their main trading posts, and they cannot ignore an assault on it. While if we keep a queen and prince hostage...”
“We could threaten to execute them if they give pursuit,” Kairos guessed. “You’re not suggesting we ransom Lysander’s family, but that we use them as insurance?”
“It’s damned if we do, damned if we don’t. At least we might get some benefits out of it.”
Kairos considered the matter, before deciding it would wait until the raid itself. The queen and her son might be out of Boeotia tonight, or they could evacuate long before the pirates reached their residence. Mithridates would be satisfied with the city’s plunder, so it was strictly a secondary objective. “I will ask that they are captured alive. We’ll see what we do with them afterward.”
“As you wish.” Cassandra looked at Andromache next. “Will you join us for the strategy meeting? I believe you will have a key role to play.”
“You want me to eat villagers again?” the Scylla asked with glee.
Cassandra frowned at her cruelty. “I do wonder where all the flesh goes. You eat far more than a creature of your size should support.”
“Because I do not need to eat,” the witch replied ominously. “I eat mortal creatures because I enjoy it.”
“Charming,” Kairos replied with a deadpan face. “Cass, could you take a minute to review my potential new Skills? They may factor in our strategy.”
“Certainly.” Kairos detailed his new Specialization to his first mate, whose smirk widened. “Well, you have access to amazing abilities. I’m jealous.”
“Once we get to your Quest, you will be able to raise your Skills’ ranks too.”
“That is not for tomorrow though.” Cassandra crossed her arms. “Obviously, [Invisibility] combined with [Sneak] and [Lockpick] will make you a formidable infiltrator, though guard dogs will still smell you. [Magical Knack] is always useful, and [Spellblade] will improve your strength in general. You’ll become a better asset for the crew, but I don’t see how it might affect our strategy.”
“I think it might,” Kairos insisted. “You’re more familiar with Orthia’s people, so… how do you think Lysander’s family will react to our attack on the city?”
“Orthian women are almost as strong-willed as their men,” Cass said with a hint of respect. “Though they are not trained to fight, they’ve participated in siege defenses more than once. I don’t think Timaea will evacuate. Most likely she will try to rally her city’s forces and fight. However…”
“Her son,” Andromache said.
“Yes, her son. The little one is too young to fight, and we come from the sea. She will either have her son holed up in her palace, or have him evacuated through the land road.”
“In either case, an invisible infiltrator could easily snatch the little prince.” Kairos considered the pros and cons. “But if I do that, I won’t command the troops directly, and they won’t benefit from my Skills.”
Cassandra chuckled. “Not to boast, but I have [Leadership 2], and so do the other captains. Your presence will help, but we can manage. However, if you capture the child and hopefully Timaea, then the city will fold.”
“I will have to go alone though. I can’t make others invisible from what I understand.”
“Yes, that’s a risk to take,” Cassandra agreed. “If we go that way, I suggest you spend your remaining SPs to boost your combat skills like [Heartseeker]. You will have to hoard more later if you want to raise your stats, but you will need stronger combat abilities now.”
Kairos nodded, and reached a decision. “Andromache, how many fireballs can you unleash per day?”
“As many as needed,” Andromache replied with confidence.
“It will be easier if Timaea and her son leave the palace, so you will throw a few fireballs at it. Force them to evacuate to escape the flames. While you attack the city from the harbor, I will sneak inside the city and ambush the queen’s retinue. I will capture them and meet with you afterward.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Cass nodded. “I will command the crew in your absence.”
After reviewing their strategy’s finer details, Kairos finally spent his hard-won Skill Points.
You purchased the [Spellblade 3] Skill. You can enchant a single weapon you carry with magical energy. So long as it remains in contact with your body, it will inflict 60 percent additional magical damage. This effect also applies to projectiles thrown by ranged weapons, like bows.
You purchased the [Magical Knack 3] Skill. You can deduce the nature of spells, magical skills, and enchanted items up to rank 3 when you see them.
You purchased the [Invisibility 3] Skill. You can become invisible, and the effect extends to your gear. Items dropped or put down will become visible, while those you pick up and put under your clothes will vanish. You can selectively exclude some elements from your spell.
You upgraded [Heartseeker 2] to [Heartseeker 3]. You gain an intuitive knack for targeting living creatures’ vitals, from humanoids to beasts. This improves your chances of performing critical hits.
You upgraded [Sneak 2] to [Sneak 3]. You make no noise while you move, and you do not trigger non-magical, land-based traps.
You upgraded [Lockpick 1] to [Lockpick 3]. You have mastered the art of lockpicking. You can overcome any non-magical lock, even if they include traps in their structure.
The expedition was a turning point in the [Hero]’s journey; he could feel it in his bones. A successful raid would give Kairos much power and recognition at home, while failure would be paid with ignominy.
Boeotia would fall, one way or another.