Quest

Author: Seria


Wren had just closed his eyes and was about to fall asleep when there was a knock at the door.

‘now what?’ He thought.

Tulla got up to answer it. It was several seconds before she came back, a thick scroll of paper in one hand.

“What is it, Woman?” Ios asked hoarsely.

“A letter. Or a message, really. For Wren.” She hadn’t cared about being called ‘Woman’ for a long time now, she’d gotten so used to it. She handed the rolled paper over to him. In the dim light that flooded the small hotel room, he could just barely make out the words.

The usually slept aboard the ship, The Raef. But, since it was dangerous to travel the streets that late at night, they had taken up lodgings in a room above the tavern where they’d eaten dinner.

Wren studied the message for a long moment, then shrugged and held it out in front of him.

“I think it’s for one of you. It’s addressed to me, but it doesn’t sound right.”

“How can you tell?” Tulla asked.

“I don’t know people named Yellow-Wing and Xena.”

“That would be mine.” Nidlar said taking the note. He read it over quickly, then again, as if he’d missed something. Then his eyes got big around and he seemed to freeze.

“What is it?” Wren asked seeing the worried expression on his friends face. Without saying a word, Nidlar passed him the note.

Wren sighed and closed his brilliant greens eyes against the world for a second. This was surely going to be one of the more trying parts of his voyage.

“Are you sure that’s what you want to do? I mean, you’re aware that your actions are strictly permanent in this situation?”

“Yes, Wren.” Nidlar replied. “I’m very sure.”

(another painful sigh.)

“Nidlar, you’re one of my best friends, and, therefore, I have to respect your decision. I hereby release you of your duties and of your position as crew member aboard the good ship the Raef.” He dutifully extended a solemn hand.

After the two of them shook, and it was final, Wren continued, trying to sound as un-fazed as possible.

“Well… You’re on to bigger and better things, I suppose.”

“Indeed. King of the Monkey Birds.” He waved a hand importantly over the table.

Ios had to cough into his fist and turn his head suddenly. Nobody was quite fooled. Nobody was meant to be.

“I’ll have you know it’s a very prestigious title, thank you.” Nidlar craned his neck proudly.

“I know. I know. It’s just going to take me some getting used to, that’s all Your Highness.” Even Wren had to laugh slightly, and the bird himself almost let on a smile. “I still can’t believe they’d let you take the throne. But all in all… I guess you haven’t been as bad as I though you would. And I have to admit, you’ve slowly become one of my few friends in this world. And I wish you good luck wherever you go.” He extended a hand across the table.

The bird took it. “Ay. And I wish you the same luck.” Then, speaking to Wren, he added, “May the twenty seas be kind to you in your quest.”

He nodded and shook hands with Tulla, then left them. As soon as he was gone, a deep silence settled over all three of them. Finally, Tulla, ever the rational one, broke the silence.

“We’d better be going. Still three treasures out there. And we still have to get the first ten back from Bloth.”

“Right.” Wren said. The sad look in his eyes slowly dissolved. “So, who’ll cause the disturbance this time?”

Ios smiled and leaned back on the stool. “I think I’m having a bad influence on you, Wren.”

Wren smiled back. “I’m learning.”

“Whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be determined.” Tulla said. Deep Silence reigned.

“This was a lot easier with four people.” Wren commented.

“That raises another topic.” Tulla reasoned. “We could barely steer the Raef with four… Three will be really hard.”

“For now let’s just get out of here. We can get out to the ship and think of options then.” Wren instructed.

“Ay, captain.”

Wren was right. The disturbance would have been hard. But they didn’t need it. Fortunately, the door-guard was a korb, and Tulla was able to… persuade him to let them out. And, as good as Tulla was, the giant insect warriors weren’t that hard to convince of anything. A rather dull race. Once they got outside, she breathed a deep lung full of the air and let it out slow.

“Ah, Jungatown. Filthiest air in the world… A more wretched port I never knew.”

Ios cut his eyes towards her and smiled, but said nothing. The comment went other wise unnoticed. They had anchored the ship alongside the dock nearest the tavern. It was low tide and the divers were already at work. They could only work during a few select hours every day.

“What’s that they’re bringing up?” Wren asked squinting against the sun.

“Piranha clam.” Ios answered.

“What’s a piranha clam?”

“An extremely pissed-off shelf-fish.”

About that time one of the divers surfaced, slinging his hand around and screaming crazily. The others around him laughed good heartedly and a few came to inspect the cut.

‘ah…leave it to Jungatown to harvest something like… like that from their waters.’ Wren thought.

They were diving a good thirty feet to the bottom, staying down as long as possible, then bringing up their haul. Then it was dumped into the common wealth; a canvas bag that hung in the water supported by a floating ring, with a weighted flap to cover the top. As our heroes stood watching the call went up that tide was coming in. Someone unhooked the common-wealth and they began swimming in. It would be the first time some of them had touched solid ground in hours. The one that got cut was favoring the one hand, and it was swelling already.

“How lethal is their poison?” Wren asked watching from in front of the ship. He was beginning to understand that in the piracy business, any thing could be made into a defensive weapon, especially venom.

“Not as bad as Pyethen, but worse than Teinay.” Ios answered knowingly.

“There used to be an old wives’ tale.” Tulla continued for him. “Said if you had been doing that kind of work all your life, even if you never got bitten, you’d be immune to the venom. I don’t know how much truth there is to it.”

The group was now making their way over the oily sand, up the beach and towards the store front. Most of them had deep, dimpled-in looking scars up their for arms. One was a little girl, not older than three or four. She turned to look back out to sea and pointed excitedly to a big cargo vessel on it’s way into harbor. One particularly tall diver, at least head and shoulders above the rest, hooked an arm around her and swung her up to his shoulder. She began laughing and waving at the ship. When it sounded a loud, tenor bell in response she nearly fell off, but the man caught her in the crook of one enormous arm and laughed heartily.

“C’mon you two.” Tulla called from the deck above them. Both were surprised to find she’d already boarded. “You just going to stand there all day?”

“Suggestions?” Wren asked sitting at the long wooden dining table.

“I’ve got one.” Ios said sitting up straighter and leaning over the table. “We track down the Maelstrom, get on board, take the treasures from Bloth, and,” he looked over at Tulla, sitting at the head of the table, “teleport out as soon as we have them in hand.”

She considered this for a minute, knowing it rested with her. She shook her head resolutely.

“You know I couldn’t set up a teleport that fast, not on a moving ship. And especially for the three of us. Not to mention he’d have a track on us from the start. The whole ship has a spell alarm on it, I’m sure. All they’d have to do is get someone to follow us and it’d be over.”

“Any others?” Wren asked.

“Maybe,” Tulla said, “We could come up through the constrictus tunnels, without getting eaten preferably, and get back down the same way without being noticed at all.”

“No way.” Ios rejected. “We wouldn’t get five feet before the beasts found us. And no one here knows how to navigate the tunnels safely. Wren’s the only one’s been through ‘em, and even he can’t remember clearly. They’d be all over us in seconds. We’d never get out.”

“Any suggestions that won’t get us killed?”

Silence.

“You know, that’s kind of sad.” Wren remarked.

“How’s that?”

“It’s hard to believe that an Ecomancer and a professional thief can’t come up with a plan to get onto a ship and off again safely. You’d think that with our ‘talents’ combined we’d be a little more resourceful than this.”

He instantly rebuked himself for having said it. He’d been making an ass of himself since getting aboard the ship. He knew they were trying, and he didn’t have anything himself. But it’d been a hard day. He also knew they understood his irritability.

“Well, maybe we’ll have something in the morning.” Tulla said getting up.

“C’mon Wren.” Ios pushed back from the table. “You’ve had to go through a lot in the past few hours. Go get some sleep. I’ll serve first deck watch. Tulla and I’ll switch out tonight. Sleep as long as you want.”

“Thanks guys… Sorry.”

‘they may be the most miss-matched crew ever to sail together,’ he thought, ‘but their loyal. that’s for sure.’

Wren wasn’t sure what had woken him up. He sat up, stretched a sore muscle in his shoulder, and went to the window. It was just after dawn. The sky was still rosy pink. Then he smelled it; Smoke.

By the time he got up the ladder and through the hatchway the deck was already a mad rush of smoke and people. It took him several moments to realize it was only Tulla and Ios. It seemed like so many more. They already had a firm grasp of the situation.

“Ios! I’ll watch the gang plank. Un-latch the sails and get ‘em overboard!”

Wren was still slightly confused when Tulla rushed past him.

“Wait a minute!” He grabbed her shoulder. “What’s going on? What happened?”

“The ship’s on fire!”

“Well I can see that! How’d it happen?”

“Couple punk kids shot a flaming arrow into the sails!”

“Why?”

“It’s a trick they have. They set the ship afire, then come aboard to help put it out. Really, once you let them on, they go through the rooms systematically and take everything they can get their hands on. Hurry! Get up there and help Ios! I’ll keep ‘em off!”

When he got up to the top spar, Ios already had nearly half the hooks un-done. The sails had been fitted with metal latches that fit over the spar, just to be able to detach quickly; just for this occasion. But it was extremely hard to lift the canvas enough to un-hook them. The kids had known this, and waited until the dew had settled into the fabric, making them even heavier. And to make it worse yet a good portion of the material was already ablaze.

It took him a minute to get his balance amidst the flames, but then he was quick as a cat. In just a few moments he had dodge the tongues of flame and was helping Ios lift one of the heavy hooks over the spar. The flames had heated the metal enough to leave blisters on the palms of their hands.

After they got the other hooks off, the sail fell. Luckily, a wave tipped the ship just at that moment, and the flaming canvas missed the deck. It hit the cold gray water and sizzled for another few minutes, then sank to the bottom of the harbor.

It was nearly noon the next day before Wren woke up. His arms and legs felt like lead, and the blisters on his hands were starting to crack already. After checking the time by the sun, he walked down the narrow, dark hallway past the galley, and finally up the precarious ladder to the deck.

The Raef was a small ship, roughly forty feet from bow to stern, slightly over twenty from port to starboard. She had one mast, and one main sail. Others could be set for certain circumstances, but weren’t usually needed.

When he arrived on deck he thought it deserted. But upon further inspection he found Tulla on deck watch. He couldn’t help but notice the dark circles around her eyes and deep hallows on her cheeks and neck. She seemed almost hypnotized when he talked to her.

“Tulla, is everything all right?” He had asked.

“Hmm? Oh, yes Wren, it’s fine. I’m just… recovering from the fire.”

He at first thought she was telling the truth, then noticed the intent look of her eyes on his. She also seemed to be muttering softly. A wonder he hadn’t noticed before. He shook his head to clear it.

“Stop that! Don’t try making me believe your lies this time! I’m tired of your mind tricks. If you insist upon lying to me, don’t use your spells to inforce it.”

“Sorry…” She let the word hang a little at the end. For a moment he thought she would faint. Now he was really worried.

“Tulla, how long have you been on deck-watch? Where’s Ios? You need some sleep.”

“Oh, he went after the new sail. And food. We haven’t any left aboard…” She let the words drag themselves out again.

“Answer me.”

Only in the writings in the log was he captain of the ship. In truth, he was friend, peer, brother, mentor, and sometimes student to all aboard. But he couldn’t abide his questions being hedged so.

“Tulla, how long have you been up here?”

“Hmm… I was on duty when the kids came by, then I went to… I lay down for a few hours, then he came in to tell me he was going after the things, and I’ve been up ever since.” She looked at him and forced a laugh, patting him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry so, Wren. I’ve had plenty of… Oh, stop it! I’m fine! I swear Wren,” She took his hand in earnest, “I’m fine.”

He suddenly realized what was wrong with her. Sure, it was as she said. She’d had plenty of time to sleep. But she hadn’t slept. And he thought he knew her well enough to know why.

“You haven’t been dreaming again, have you?”

There was a moment of silence where he again thought she would faint.

“Wren… I’m sorry. I didn’t tell you because you’ve been through a lot lately, and I didn’t want to worry you more, and… and… they probably don’t mean any… anything. I just didn’t-”

He was surprised at how close to tears she was.

‘What’s wrong? It’s not like her to act this way…’

“Tulla, c’mon now. Get a hold of yourself. This is pointless.” He took her by the shoulders and at first meant to shake her to her senses. Then changed his mind. He held her up in front of him; without his help she felt like she would crumble away to nothing. She stopped sobbing and looked at him, almost scared. His jaw was set firmly into a frown and his eyes firm.

“You need sleep. And you should have told us about the dreams.”

“It’s all right. They’re just dreams.”

“Coming from you, that’s rather scary. The last time you had a dream, I ended up behind bars.”

She laughed weakly for the first time in weeks.

“Now, go get in bed and sleep.”

“You’ll wake me up for the watch?”

“Of course.” He lied.

In a day’s time they had the supplies they needed and had left the shore once again. Wren hadn’t bothered to ask Tulla what she’d dreamed; He’d learned it wasn’t necessary to know everything before it’d happened. But it did make him stay on his toes, so to say.

They’d been at sea only thirteen hours before the storm hit. To keep from getting blown off course, and since they had plenty of time anyway, all sail was taken off save the storm sails at the jib and aft the main mast. But they were still taking a beating. All three of them were aloft, when the rope that had held the wheel straight gave way and the ship started to spin on her keel in the rough water. Wren was first to notice. More falling than climbing, he managed to get half way to the deck before something red, wet, and slightly warm smacked into him and they both fell to the deck. He landed hard on his back, and it was several seconds before he could draw a breath.

“Ohh,” he recognized the voice even from that first syllable. “What were you thinking sailing into this!?”

“Nidlar!”

“Yes, it’s me. You’re going to get us all killed one day.” He was still rubbing the back of his head. “Who’s idea was it to come here, anyway?”

‘mine.’ He couldn’t help reminding himself.

“HIS!” Both voices rang out from above them in perfect unison.

Just then, the whole vision of what was going on flashed through Wren’s mind, and the humor of it all hit him harder than the deck had. The next thing any one knew, he was lying on his back, exactly where he’d landed, gripping his stomach and laughing like a mad man.

Right then and there, with the lightning flashing all around them and the rain washing over everything in torrents, and their little ship tossing about in the gail, the spell of hard ship that had come over him in the past few days washed off in the waves, was spilled over the deck side, back into the ocean.

Ios and Tulla came to see if everything was okay, having re-secured the wheel on their course, with some difficulty, and managed to keep from getting swept overboard by the invading waves. At first they didn’t know what to think. Finally Wren stopped laughing long enough to glance at their startled faces.

“Noy’GiTat Wren, do we put you out of your misery or join you?”

That set him off again.

The storm washed away more than Wren’s mood. It meant Bloth would lose their wake, which was a good thing. It also meant likely no dark water for a few days. It didn’t occur to any of them that Bloth still had ten of the treasures, and the compass. For the time it just seemed good to be away from him. Nidlar finally admitted it wasn’t just the storm that’d blown him back to the ship, and agreed to stay with them, for a while longer at least. For once food was plentiful, and truly fresh, for a few days. Tulla made an excellent recovery after a few straight days of sleep. Everything gradually slipped back to the way it had been.

It was on one of these easy days, or as easy as life can be on a ship, when they all heard a long, low whistle from above.

“Maelstrom off port stern!” Tulla reported from her position at the crow’s nest. Now the peace broke.

Wren, Ios, and Nidlar ran to the port railing and looked where she indicated. There were heavy fog banks all around, and visibility was cut down to under thirty feet at sea level. For a few seconds after they got there, everything was mercifully still and calm, then, with one surge of the waves, the huge prow of the Maelstrom rolled out of the fog, like some giant dragon emerging from a cloud field. The giant sun bleached bones glistened in the fog. The larger vessel had switched course from where Tulla had last seen it and was coming at them head on. Immediately every one jumped to their positions.

They were in deep water and there was a good current, but no wind. With one quick, sharp turn of the rudder to starboard they pulled out of the way and they pulled around to beside the ship. Running form this one wouldn’t accomplish anything, though it’d be the smarter choice. They had to get the treasures and compass back.

“You’d better not abandon us this time!” Tulla called to Ios as they prepared for the boarding.

“Who, me?” He called back, smiling.

“It wouldn’t be the first time you sold your friends out!”

“It’d be the first time I got paid for them!”

As soon as they got aboard the Maelstrom her crew swarmed about them. Several minutes into the brawl, Wren noticed Nidlar had disappeared from the deck. He didn’t have to question where he’d gone. But while he was distracted by these thoughts, before he could drag his mind back to what he was doing, a huge, cold hand came out of no where and grabbed him about the neck. It was a huge man, taller than any he’d ever seen, with a shaved head, long mustache, and earrings hanging from both ears. There was one long, curving scar stretching across his whole face from his right temple to the left side of his chin and around to his throat. It was a wonder such a wound hadn’t killed him. Quickly, with out having to think about it, he’d pushed Wren backwards into the huge mast, tipped back his head even farther and lifted him up off his feet. Between struggling gasps for breath Wren saw a wicked, malicious grin spread across the man’s scarred face, then freeze with a slight twitch as something heavy came down on his skull. He leaned away from Wren, letting him fall to his feet, then crumpled in a twitching heap to the deck. Ios stood behind him with a club in hand.

“You owe me.” He said before stepping back into the crowd.

Not long afterwards, a sharp, high pitched scream rang through the air. The signal. Of one accord, Wren, Ios, and Tulla started edging their way backwards toward the Raef. Dodging blades, arrows, and even the occasionally hand gun, they somehow made it back to their own decks. Several people tried to follow them but they had already caught a wind and were pulling away from the other ship. Wren and Tulla rushed to the bridge, just to make sure. Nidlar was there, a canvas sack leaning against the wheel. He had to stand on a upturned box to see past the prow of the ship.

‘something’ll happen now to ruin it. that was too perfect.’ He told himself.

“Did you-?” Tulla asked impatiently. He nodded smiling to the bag.

“Where’s Ios?” He asked. Then it hit them.

‘bingo.’

All three of them saw it at the same time. The Maelstrom was falling back into their wake, and the fight was still on deck. All their force was concentrated on one spot, near the rail, just to starboard of the bow.

“Tulla! Get to the helm and bring her ‘round. Nidlar, get their attention but stay out of range.”

“It’s really hard to do both…” But despite his complaining he took off before Tulla had time to turn the ship.

“Tulla!” He looked around for her. He couldn’t see her but heard her.

“Ready! Hold on.” As soon as she’d finished speaking the Raef took a sharp jolt when she missed her timing, or forgot to check it at all, and they turned wrongly into a wave. But it smoothed back down to the normal rocking motion and leveled out with the Maelstrom’s starboard to their port.

There was no time to bring the ship around to be moving with the Maelstrom. As the two ships neared each other, Wren hurried to stand at the helm by Tulla, diligently searching the sky. After a few seconds, he caught sight of a red flash, just a gleam of sunlight off the crimson feathers, but it was enough.

For a few seconds, as Nidlar swooped low over the deck, just out of range of the fight, all attention was focused on him. Then everything happened to fast to see. In just a few seconds, that seemed like years to those waiting on the Raef, Ios had broke out of the pack of huddled sailors, Nidlar turned in mid-swoop, and both headed for their own deck. Wren was waiting near the railing still, and as Ios jumped from one ship to the other a wave rolled under them and sent both men sprawling across the deck.

“I owed you.” Wren said jokingly after they’d caught their breath.

“Debt repaid.” Ios replied.

With the first ten treasures back under lock and key, the compass back in the hands of it’s true owner, and the ship well under way to the eleventh, they where able to relax slightly. Only slightly.

Once, just after midnight, Wren and Ios had deck watch. Night and day didn’t matter any more. Some people were always asleep, and some were always awake. Wren stood lazily at the helm, occasionally correcting their direction. Ios was on the deck below, leaned up against the mast, casually flipping a dagger and looking out to sea.

They were in warm waters, and the night was like moist velvet pressing in around them. A warm, blood moon was slowly, deliberately rising behind them, somewhat to port. Not a breeze had stirred their sails for the past three days. But current was good, and they moved slowly and steadily towards their next destination. For several hours the slapping of the waves had been the only sound.

Suddenly, as if out of no where, a cry for help rang out. From the same direction a gun shot rang out, followed by a blast of orange in the dark night; A flair. Another cry for help came to them.

It didn’t take long to man a life boat with the necessary supplies and awaken the others. Leaving Tulla and Nidlar to watch the ship, the two men set off in a well stocked jolly boat in the direction of the cries. After a few minutes rowing the glow of a lantern came into view.

When they pulled along side the ship everything seemed deserted. They secured the oars beneath the seats, then stood up trying to see better. The ship was very similar to the Raef, only the sails were set different. The two could have been built in the same port, perhaps even by the same carpentry team.

“Ahoy there!” Wren called to no avail. “Ahoy! Is any one aboard?”

Several seconds after he had called, a rope was flung over to them from invisible hands. Already feeling uneasy, they took the rope anyway. The earlier cries for help still rang clear in there minds. After the jolly boat was secured, a rope ladder was dropped over the ship’s side, and the two of them climbed up.

‘this is not good.’ Something inside him screamed.

Once on deck, everything still seemed abandoned. After only a few seconds of investigation, an eerie feeling began to edge it’s ways into their hearts.

“C’mon Wren, nobody’s here… Let’s go.”

They turned to leave, and found their way blocked by four immense men, each with their arms crossed in an air of steadfastness. Wren and Ios both took an involuntary step backwards, mouths open from the shock. Then they wheeled simultaneously to bolt for the opposite rail, but found their way blocked here to. In the shadowy light, and in complete silence, a human wall had erected itself around them. About fifteen men slowly moved in to encircle them. Then, just as they realized they were trapped, a shorter figure stepped forward from the wall, followed by an even shorter. One of the men opened more of the slots around the sides of the solitary lantern, throwing a bit more light over the scene. The first figure was a young woman, about shoulder high with most of her companions. The other was a red-brown dog, bigger than any Wren had ever seen, who stood protectively beside her. The woman smiled. She was a young girl, dressed much the same as most sea faring men. Even with the elbow length coat and long canvas pants, it was possible to tell she was easily as strong as any man around her. She had long, slightly wavy, nut-brown hair, and eyes the color of a glass of ale with the sun shining through it.

‘nope…not good at all.’

“Evenin’ boys. Now, if ye’d be so kind as to give us all yer cargo… Skip the fightin’ and we might slit yer throats. I guarantee, it’d be better than what the sharks’d do to ye.”

The dog growled right on cue, bristling and baring his teeth. Several of the men drew weapons. Wren began looking about for a way out. To his surprise, Ios laughed. This caught the woman of guard. She obviously wasn’t used to this reaction.

“What? D’ye think I’m joking? I assure ye I’m not!”

He laughed again, not quite as loud this time.

“What are you doing!?” Wren hissed between clenched teeth. “We’re about to be robbed and killed, and your laughing?”

Ios didn’t answer the question. Instead, he merely nodded slightly towards the girl. “There’s a face I haven’t seen in a while.”

“Excuse me?” She said squinting at him through the thick night air.

“You mean to tell me you know the woman who’s about to kill us?” Wren mumbled shrugging. ‘why am I not surprised?’

He laughed again, crossing his arms.

“I thought they’d have married you off years ago, kid.”

“What? Married me off… Who are you? How do ye know me?” She took a step forward, drawing a cutlass as she did so.

“Wait a minute… Ios? Twenty Seas, I thought ye were dead!”

“Dead! What gave you that idea?”

“Saw a bullet go through your chest…” She answered bluntly, slipping the cutlass back into the wide sash around her waist. “In fact, I could’ve sworn ye were dead.”

“I’m sure the whole crew wished I was.” He held his arms out to either side as if to prove his point. “But, as you can see, I’m not. I’m live as you are, if not more.”

She still looked indecisive for a moment, but then brightened considerably and laughed herself.

“Well yer right ‘bout one thing. Most of ‘em did wish you dead. Only the more ‘loyal’ of ‘em, of course… So, does he know yer not dead?”

“Yes, we’ve… um, met a few times since then.”

“Oh? And who’s yer friend?” She nodded towards Wren.

“My newest captain.”

As Wren soon found out, Ios wasn’t the only ‘escaped’ member of Bloth’s crew. Neither Wren or the young ‘Captain’ Annie ever found out just how he’d faked his death. No doubt Bloth had guessed the trick long ago. He did find out, however, that Annie had also been one of the crew aboard the Maelstrom. Apparently she’d gone by the name ‘Leein’ then. After the first time her hat blew off and the shirt she wore got blown up against her chest during a storm, that disguise was seen through. They then tried to hang her. By that time she’d decided it was a good idea to jump ship. After finding themselves among friends, the two men relaxed and finally accepted an invitation to a rather early breakfast. Soon the talk turned to older days. Wren could only sip the ale he’d been presented and listen absorbed to their tales.

” ‘Member that last duel ‘tween you and Bloth? I’d still love t’ know how ye pulled that’un off. I could vow and swear that bullet went straight through ye!”

“It did.”

“We all thought ye was crazy when ye challenged ‘im. Lord knows yer no good with a gun.”

“I could have been.”

” ‘Could have.’ Hum. By the two moons, why didn’t ye ever learn? Twist m’ soul, yer the best aim I’ve ever seen with a knife.”

“I’ve told you before, Ann. I like to be in the fight, not just stand a few yards off and aim at it.”

“Well there I agree with ye. Yer the kind prefers close fightin’. And I don’t pretend t’ blame ye. But all the same, a gun’s a good thing in a tight spot.”

Ios was about to ask what kind of tight spot she meant, when the dog, who had been laying defensively near Annie’s feet jumped up and began smelling the air tentatively. Suddenly every hair on his neck and back stood up and growled at nothing in particular. As soon as he reacted Annie was up and out the door, followed by the dog, Wren and Ios.

The dog, who apparently was just ‘Dog’, immediately ran to the ship’s side and started barking off towards the East. The Maelstrom had come to lie right beside them. In one swell of the waves it had crushed the tiny life boat the boys had used.

Back on the Raef, Tulla leaned anxiously over the railing, staring at the sun rising in the direction the others had disappeared in. Finally a breeze had stirred. It’d been several hours since they’d left. Those who remained had hardly spoken a word since then. Tulla continued to stare out over the sea. Now that the wind picked up it became deathly cold. Nidlar sat huddled against the chill, watching her from just before the mast. Finally he spoke up.

“Tulla,” he said softly. “come here a minute. They’ll be fine. I have something to tell you.”

Instinctively expecting the worst, she did as he asked. For a few more minutes the two sat side by side, not looking at one another, not speaking. After what seemed like an eternity, Nidlar spoke again.

“Tulla, I know all your life you’ve been trying to find the other survivors from your village. Your mother and father, all your sisters and brothers… Tulla, there are none.”

She was silent a moment, as if she’d already known.

“How do you know? If I survived then…”

“I was there. Back when I was Bloth’s slave. I saw everything, Tulla. There are none. You’re the last.”

Again she was silent. Then she shook her head slowly from side to side, still shivering from the cold.

“But how do you know?” When he didn’t say anything, a thought struck her. “Nidlar, did Bloth make you help when they-?”

“…No. That was my choice and I made it myself. Back then it was just another day’s meal and bed. I had no idea… Tulla, I’m so sorry.”

“Where is it?” Bloth thundered across the sea to them. He stood braced against the sea’s rocking, a band of swarthy bandits barricaded behind him.

“We don’t know what you’re talking about!” Wren yelled back.

“The Eleventh treasure, blast it! Where’ve you put it?”

“We haven’t got it!” Ios called.

“Liars!” He shot. ” I’ve been to the place marked here.” he held up a scroll of paper, “There’s nothing!”

After several seconds of this arguing a fight ensued. Somehow during all the chaos, Wren found himself in a room with one door, and found Bloth blocking it.

“You’ve stole from me your last.” He growled stepping forward. “For seventeen years I’ve sought to kill you, Brat! Now I get that chance!”

“You killed my father, Bloth, and all my family. But you won’t have the pleasure of my death.”

“We’ll see about that, Boy.” He took another step forward. “But you don’t know the whole story, I believe.”

“What are you talking about?” Wren asked in a low snarl of a voice.

“Foolish Child, haven’t you guessed yet?” His voice was softly amused, almost like an uncle’s. Then it returned to it’s normal harsh rumble.

“I didn’t kill your father. He did that to himself, the unworthy braggart! For years I’d suffered his insults and foolish, empty claims. I’d been shamed a thousand times at his hands! But such an insult to my Pride, as was that last one, was too much to tolerate! The wretch bought his death at a good price, I’d say! Whatever harm came to him was his own doing. If he’d wished to spare his sons he should have curbed that tongue of his a few more times. As for you, thank ‘Daddy’ for what’s about to happen! And don’t worry, I’ll make Octopon proud.”

Wren took an involuntary step backwards. His father a bragging old wretch! An insulting boaster! Never had he imagined Bloth’s vengeful motives.

‘it’s not true… it can’t be. It can’t-’

“What’s a matter, Boy?” Bloth drew a long bladed knife and took another step forward. “Never thought your perfect father could have any faults? Never envisioned a single flaw in ‘Octopon’s Greatest Gem’?”

That was too much for Wren to bear.

“You lying old bastard! Weak, thieving double-crosser! How dare you speak such lies about my father! He was a greater man than you’ll ever dream of being, you vile, scum filled-”

Out of rage he had pulled back a fist to strike out against Bloth’s evil. The huge man stepped forward once more and grabbed him by the wrist, pulling him up off the ground, then throwing him to the floor. He slid a little ways on his back, ending up wedged into a corner. He could feel the dull throbbing in his left forearm, he had heard the bones crack. Now he sat leaned against the walls, clutching his broken arm, stunned more by the horrible news of his father than from the blow itself. Bloth took another step closer and raised the knife above his head.

“Now you die, Brat!”

“Take another step towards him and I’ll kill you, Bloth!”

Ios now blocked the doorway. To both their surprise, he had a small hand gun held at arm length, pointed at Bloth. He was breathing heavily already from the fight on deck, with a long, deep red gash down one arm bleeding thickly. Bloth was only caught off guard for a few seconds.

“Come now Ios, surely you don’t mean to kill me with that, do you?”

“If I have to.”

Bloth laughed.

“You’re the most unsteady shot I’ve seen in all my life. You couldn’t hit me three years ago, and you won’t now, will you?”

Ios stared at him through glowering eyes, looking remarkably like a wild animal at bay. He didn’t even blink as he pulled back the hammer. Annie’s words suddenly came back to Wren; ‘A gun’s a good thing in a tight spot…’

“Take another step and I swear I’ll kill you.” Ios growled.

Wren decided later that he’d never seen a steadier shot.

Back on deck, Annie and Dog had done their jobs. Many people from both Annie’s and Bloth’s crew were dead, lying somewhere at the bottom of the ocean with the blues and greens swirling around them. Annie herself lay on her back, the cutlass still clutched in one loosely hand. Dog stood over her, whining as Ios and Wren approached. After a few seconds kneeling over her limp body, Ios picked her up in one arm, patted Dog’s head remorsefully and turned to Wren.

Annie was much smaller than Ios; at least a foot shorter, and being a woman, much thinner in the arms and legs. But now, as Wren saw him holding her against his body, solidly trying to reassure the hound, it struck him how similar the two were. And for the first time since their voyage began, he saw a few tears on his friends face. Only a few, and they were quickly hidden again. Then Ios looked up and Wren met his sullen gaze. Silently, they made their way amidst the bodies to the side of the ship. Of the few people who remained standing, from both crews, not a single man made a move to stop them. Ios lay Annie in the bow of one cutter, lifted the massive dog over the side after her, then the two of them climbed in and launched the smaller boat.

For the moment Dog was content to lay at his lady’s feet and chew an old bone. Annie had stirred little in the past three days. Somehow, probably from the tropical night that had turned so cold, she’d caught a fever, and had been in bed ever since Ios had lay her there. Because the exact cause of the fever was unknown Tulla had only sparingly used what little quinine they had; Probably the reason her recovery was so long. Now she turned and fussed silently in her sleep, her hair falling in long tendrils over her face, a thin film of moisture covering her eye lids.

In her head the duel continued. She couldn’t move, but she saw everything that happened. The two faced one another. Then there was a gun shot. She cried out and tried again to move, but he fell to the deck before she could reach him.

She woke up screaming for the third time that day. But this time she stayed awake. Sweat poured from every inch of her body and her eyes focused for the first time since passing out on the Maelstrom’s deck. Dog started at her sudden cry. Instantly he was standing over her with his legs spread to keep his balance on the soft mattress. His wet tongue was washing the horrors of the night from her warm face.

The door to the little cabin burst open. Tulla rushed in and, seeing the girl awake, breathed a sigh of relief.

“Is he alive?” Annie asked frantically, still panting from the dream.

“What?” Tulla was confused for a second. “Oh, Ios. Yes, he’s alive… It’s you we weren’t so sure about.”

She crossed the room and put a gentle hand to the girl’s for head. The dog reached out his nose to inspect the hand, and proclaimed that it was a good-thing. He let Tulla check Annie’s fever.

“You’re still a little warm, but it’s getting better…” She stood up and moved towards the door. “I’ll bring you some food.”

“Oh no! I mean, I’m strong enough now to get up and eat with the rest. See?” She got to her feet, took a few unsteady steps and weakly fell back into bed.

Finally, after much insistence from Annie, Tulla let her out the door. She did indeed seem stronger after the first few steps. The two of them made their way, with Dog following close behind, to the galley where the men sat eating.

“You seem to be feeling better.” Wren commented when he saw her on her own two feet.

“Much better. Thank ye.”

“At yer service, m’lady.” Ios said, making a low sweeping bow and trying to copy her choppy accent.

She made a move like she was going to hit him, but instead fell forward and wrapped an arm around his neck.

“Ye beat him boys!” She laughed.

“How could you tell?” Wren asked brushing back her hair with his good arm. The other was set and tied close to his body.

“The look on yer faces!” She replied. “Now don’t get me wrong, I’m glad somebody got ‘im, but why ye four? What’s yer fight with ‘im?”

So piece by piece, they told her the whole story; going as far back as Wren’s birth and the scattering of the treasures, to present day. Towards the end a little half sided grin spread across her face.

“What’s so funny?” Wren asked at last.

“Just thinkin’, all this time on a quest, and you haven’t once let ‘im steer you after treasure.” She jerked her thumb towards Ios.

“Actually, they lied to me. That’s the reason I’m with them in the first place.”

She laughed again.

“No, only Wren lied to him.” Tulla corrected. “I’m the stowaway here. I had nothing to do with it.”

“And what ‘bout you?” Annie asked Nidlar.

“…If I did help, he deserved it.”

She laughed again.

“Well, there’s still three more treasures. Which way to the eleventh?” She asked getting serious.

“You mean your joining us?” Wren asked, readily holding out a hand.

“Why not? M’ other crew’s at the bottom o’ the ocean… I got nothin’ else goin’ for me.” She took his hand and that was that.

‘one more bite’s the dust.’ He thought sarcasticly.

“Glad to have you aboard.” He took the chain with the compass on it from around his neck and held it up. After spinning a moment, it froze and a ray of soft blue light shot out; Pointing directly at Annie. Wren, Nidlar, Ios, and Tulla all stared bewildered at her, while she looked into their faces, confused herself.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” She asked.

It took a minute for Wren to explain the how the compass worked. Then, she reached around to the back of her neck, and untied a thin string.

“This is all I can figure it’d be findin’.”

She held up a small dirk, abut seven inches from the end of the handle to the tip of the blade. She handed it to Wren. The compass’s beam followed it from hand to hand. As far as Wren could tell, it was a simple steel blade with a bone handle, very plain, tied to a soft strip of doe-skin.

‘this, is the eleventh treasure?’ He asked himself.

“I carried that blade with me from a little girl. I was always findin’ uses for it. Never thought it anythin’ special, though.”

“Mhm. It’s the treasure all right. Um, Annie, I’ll have to put this with the others for it’s own good.”

She watched a little remorsefully as he got up and took the dirk to the locked cabinet where he kept the treasures. He’d barely got it unlocked when the door burst open. All ten treasures inside suddenly rushed out of their own accord, forming a ring in the air and spinning around. The eleventh was snatched from his hand, still on the leather cord. As he stared at the hovering pieces, the compass around his neck floated up. The chain snapped at the slightest pressure, and it floated up to join the others. They continued to spin, coming closer and closer together as they did. Finally, when they were almost touching, the same blue light the compass had used seemed to glow for a second in the center of the ring. Then it contracted, and finally exploded with a sudden force that snapped Wren’s head back before he could do anything.

Wren woke up a few hours later, his head aching and his vision blurred. He found himself in a soft bed with maroon and navy blue velvet cushions all around, and heavy red curtains on the sides. An elderly woman dressed in flowing white and gold robes with a tight knot of silver hair twisted on the back of her head was leaning over him, peering into his eyes as soon as they opened.

“Ah, Your Highness.” She made a low curtsy when he awoke.

“What?” He asked blinking at the sudden light.

“Oh you poor dear… Such a hard life…” She put a hand to his forehead and sighed. Then she pulled back the curtains and left.

Another woman came in, and again he asked her how bad hurt he was, how he’d gotten there, a million other things. She merely shook her head and dried a tear from her eye. And another came, and again he asked, and again she left without answering.

Soon after she did, a younger girl, about twelve, with long, shiny black hair and olive tinted skin much like Tulla’s came in, wearing the same gold and white robes, bringing him a new change of clothes and, after lying them at the foot of his bed, proceeded wordlessly to change the rough bandages Tulla had used to bind his arm.

“Good woman, I can’t remember much. Where am I?”

“Why, the palace, of course… Where our young prince, eh, King, belongs, Your Highness.”

It was clear she’d been told to say these words if he asked. That was all the other women had told him, too.

“How did I get here, though? What happened to the ship and my crew?”

“I’m sorry, Your Highness… I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. A man brought you here. He said your promise was fulfilled, what ever that means… A scurvy thief if I ever saw one.”

‘perfect description.’ Wren thought and smiled to himself. Forgetting his questions for a moment, he leaned back into the velvet cushions and closed his eyes. After she had finished with his bandages he waited for the sound of the curtains rustling together as she left. When it was several seconds and she was obviously still standing there, he opened his eyes. Sure enough, she was standing there beside the bed, her arms folded, staring shyly at her hands.

“Uh, Your Highness, if you wouldn’t mind… Nobody else will tell me… And truth be told, I’d not like to hear it from them any way…” Suddenly she fell to her knees, with her hands together in front of her chest, begging him.

“Please sir, don’t think I’m a rude Brat, Your Highness! I just wanted to know the truth. All my life I’ve been told the legends of a great king and his destined son… Your Highness, what’s the truth?”

He smiled again.

“I’ll make a deal with you.” He said, motioning for her to get to her feet. “You stop calling me ‘Your Highness’ and I’ll tell you.”

“Please don’t think I’m a rude, willful girl…”

“Is ‘willful’ a bad thing here? Maybe I have been away too long.” He looked at her trembling hands and bowed head.

“Listen you me. You can be as willful as you want. Sure I’ll tell you the story. So far your the only person here who’ll really talk to me. You see, on the ship, there was always someone who’d tell me just how bad hurt I was, just how unlucky our situation was. There wasn’t all this stepping around the truth. On the ship, people were different. They were like real people. Sometimes they told me a bit too much, but-”

It took a few hours to tell the whole story. He was surprised at how clearly he remembered it all. Suddenly everything came back. He could even remember every turn he’d taken while trapped in the constrictus tunnels. The girl, who’s name he found out was Andreina, listened intently to every word. When he got to the last part and explained about the compass being the twelfth treasure, she suddenly frowned and interrupted him. She was kneeling on the floor again, but with her head resting on her arms, which were folded beside him on the bed spread. She shook her head and frowned some more.

“But what about the thirteenth? It doesn’t make any since.”

“I know.” He agreed. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot.”

“You don’t think… No. That’s impossible.” Andreina said shaking her head.

“What’s impossible? Remember, I grew up in a light house on the ocean. I’ve missed out on all this stuff.”

She laughed.

“Well, it’s stupid. You see, all the old documents refer to Octopon’s King as being it’s ‘greatest treasure’. But that doesn’t make any since. It’s just old woman’s myth. A figure of speech.”

“I don’t know about figurative speech, but there’s a bit of wisdom to be found in old Woman’s myth. That could be what Bloth meant calling my father… It is possible… Stranger things have happened to me lately.”

Before Andreina could say anything, the first woman, with the knot of silver hair, swished through the curtains and grabbed her by the ear. While the girl winced in pain and suppressed screams, the old woman pulled her to her feet.

“Andreina! What do you mean by bothering His Highness so!? Get out now, you insolent girl. Go on, you fatherless little brat! Oh, Your Highness forgive the girl, though heaven knows she doesn’t deserve it. She’s merely a child, she doesn’t have any manners. We’ve all been trying to teach her-”

Wren didn’t hear the rest of what she said. His head still hurt, and he couldn’t think and listen at the same time.

‘what did she called her? Fatherless Brat? yes that was it. I heard somewhere they’d take bastard children into the palace to serve royalty, but I never thought…’

“Wait a minute Woman!” He said, adopting as forceful a tone as he could.

“The girl can stay as long as she wants! It’s you must be going. And if I ever hear any one in this palace called that name again it’ll be my sword at your neck, D’ye hear me? Now go tend your knitting, Chatter Box!”

The woman looked indignant for a moment, then curtsied and left, giving Andreina a sour, green look over her shoulder. The girl smiled smugly and went back to her seat, rubbing her ear.

“Thank you, sir.” Was all she said.

It was several days later, when he was able to get out of bed, that the coronation festival was held, and it was late at night before he had a moment away from the crowds. He slouched down low in the throne, not the most comfortable seat in the world, he decided. Andreina plopped down on the cool tiles beside him, pulled her shoes off and sat rubbing her legs to loosen the muscles. He had appointed the young girl his right hand man, er, woman. While the court officials weren’t looking he allowed her to sit in his presence; Which, by ancient law, nobody was supposed to be allowed to do. She no longer called him ‘Your Highness’, to the utter disgust of the loyal politicians. But he was an elder to her, and she stuck to the ancient custom of calling him Sir. By turn, he called her Andry, finding it easier to pronounce.

“By the two Moons Sir!” He found it amusing how quickly she’d picked up his sailor curses and vows. “It’s ridiculous what they expect of you. A tell you, once you’ve got all your strength back, they won’t even give you the chair to sit in. I had a few chances to rest. And look how tired I am. Can you imagine? Standing all that time. I pity you, Sir.”

“Thank you, Andry. I feel I need to be pitied.”

They were in the middle of having a good laugh at the strict old court gentlemen, when a small hissing sound came to them from one shadowy corner of the room. It grew until it got their attention. Finally it was plain that it was human.

“Hello? Who’s there?”

“Wren? Is that you?”

“Maybe… Who are you?”

The large curtain hanging from the ceiling was pushed back. Annie looked at him a minute, then rushed forwards threw her arms affectionately around his neck.

“Noy’GiTat Wren! I thought I’d never find ye in all these people…”

She took a step back to look at him from head to foot, then let out a long low whistle.

“Ye look real good as King, ye know?”

“Annie what are you doing here? Yes, I’m the King. And if the Men find you here you’ll be hanged.”

“I’ll plead m’ belly.” She said bluntly shrugging. At the confused knit of Andreina’s brow she added, “They won’t hang a pregnant woman, n’ matter what the charge is. And I’d find a way out a’fore they found I was lyin’.”

Oh…” The girl said nodding, obviously impressed.

“Annie, this is Andry. She’s the one person in this palace that’s made my life here bearable. And just think, I’ve only been here a few days.”

“Well, that’s why I’m here.” Annie said. “Ios says they can only wait a little while longer. If yer coming yer to follow me and quick.”

“What do you mean, am I coming?” Then he realized their plan.

He turned back to Andreina. He took off the long flowing robe they’d given him and draped it about her shoulders. It was too long and dragged the floor behind her. Then he took the crown off his head and set it on her’s, having to reset it several times because it slid down. He stood back to take a look at her, like an artist appraising his work. Then he leaned forward and kissed her forehead.

“You’ll make an excellent queen. Don’t let the government get too strong and fire that old witch of a chamber maid if you ever want some fun.”

She stood shocked for a minute, then realized what was going on.

“Wait a minute, Sir. You can’t do this to me. I can’t… I won’t be Queen to these foolish, old fashioned-”

“Well then, you can reform the court for me, eh?” He laughed and kissed her again, which she shrunk away from, rubbing her forehead. He laughed.

“Don’t worry Andry. I’ll be in touch soon. I swear. And I’ll tell you everything that happens. Everything. I won’t stay gone long. Right? Good. Take it easy. And remember, you’re the queen now. Do what ever you want to fix this kingdom right.”

“And if there ever is anything ye can’t fix, give us a call. I’m pretty sure a good-natured piracy threat’ll fix ‘em up.” Annie added.

They didn’t give her time to respond. He and Annie both turned and ran back into the shadows before she could. Soon they we’re outside and on their way down to the docks, leaving her bewildered to face the multitudes. Somehow she didn’t feel worried. She sighed and shook her head, which made the crown fall.

When they reached the ship, Annie hurried on up the gangplank to her position. Wren, still tired from all the ceremony, took his time. When he got to the deck, he found Ios and Tulla at the wheel. Tulla had both her hands on one spoke, and Ios had one of his on another. His other arm was wrapped protectively around her waist. When Tulla saw Wren, she suddenly looked very uncomfortable, made some excuse and hurried off. Ios saw the look on his friend’s face and laughed.

“Well Ios… And How do you suppose Little Annie’s going to feel about this sudden friendship of yours?” Wren asked teasingly.

“Why would Annie care?” Ios said once he finished laughing.

“Well, from watching the two of you together and… I don’t know, I just got the feeling there were some, eh… fond feelings, between you two.”

“What? Fond feelings..” Suddenly the look of confusion lifted from Ios’ face and he laughed again. He laughed until he had to let go of the wheel and hold his sides.

“Well, what’s so funny? Come on, out with it.”

“Wren… Ann’s my sister!”

“You’re… sister?”

“Yes! What’d you think?”

“Noy’GiTat… You never told me you had a sister.”

“Of course not. You think I’d admit to it?” He laughed again, more softly this time. “So Captain, where shall we sail tonight?”

“That way. East.” Wren said pointing and then finding the direction.

“Let’s see. No Dark Water, No Bloth, No treasures to find… Takes all the fun out of it.” Tulla said, coming up behind them. Wren caught her eye and smiled. She cut her eyes away and covered her mouth, pretending to yawn.

“Don’t worry. Knowing us, we’ll find some trouble to get into.” Wren said.

‘of course we will.’

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