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|More ships, more danger, more magic and one big storm.||
Of Ships and Syracuse
Niell found himself staggering rather unsteadily across the deck of the Akkadian, precariously avoiding the salt-encrusted men who moved easily on the heaving vessel. Apparently the stereotypical abilities of the Promised: poise, grace and speed, had been filtered out along with his memories.
Ever since they left the calm waters of the coastline, the waves had increased daily, some to the point of crashing over the sides. His clothes had long gone stiff from the salt spray and his skin was as rough as the wood beneath his feet.
Although walking was like trying to stand on a moving ball, he was thankful for one thing: he had yet to be sick.
A twospan from the railing, Niell lurched one final time, clutching onto the sea-smoothed timber. The dark green waves, capped by white foam, swirled beneath the ship’s bow. Grateful to be holding onto something firm and steady, Niell lost himself in the infinite depths of the water.
He jumped as something swept beneath the boat, disappearing in a matter of seconds despite its considerable size.
Niell turned to call out to someone, only to see Dakan striding towards him, heedless of the swaying floor beneath him and with a sense of purpose in his eyes. With one plate-like hand, he carried a large, rusted canister over one shoulder. Protruding out, was the sharpest, and deadliest, instrument of pain Niell had ever seen and it was pointed straight at him. Niell realised not a single person onboard was making a sound.
Dakan’s ire was a dangerous thing, as Niell had seen on the few occasions a sailor had been drunk enough to call attention to himself. At those times, even Niell was cowed by his dominating presence. Any transgression earned his direct attention and once aroused, there was no placating the man.
Unfortunately, there were few places that he could avoid Dakan, even on a ship the size of the Akkadian.
Niell tried to release his grip, but his body refused to hold itself upright on the pitching deck.
“Step away from the railing, Niell. Now.”
It took Niell a few moments to realise he wasn’t the one about to be skewered like a piece of meat from the local vendors in Kailas’ docks. By then, Dakan had reached him. Still, Niell could not move, but Dakan’s one free hand merely grasped his shoulder and wrenched him to the ground behind. Niell fell ungraciously, his knees and hands scraping across the planking.
From the ground, Niell saw various other sailors gathering together, some on the rigging, others on either side and yet more on the poop deck. Only a skeleton crew, to ensure the ship stayed on course, were unarmed and actively moving about. The rest held contraptions on par with Dakan’s. All this was done in silence; the only sound that of the wind whipping the sails.
With a creak of metal and wood, a small catapult, not much bigger than a man, was hauled to the balustrade nearest Niell. Behind it came two sailors, heaving a fleshy, rotting carcass of what Niell could only assume used to be a camel. Mere seconds later, the remains were sent flying, leaving a gruesome path of entrails and blood spattered across the surface of the ocean, until it splashed a fiftypace from the boat.
It floated obscenely, bobbing in the waves. As the Akkadian sailed on, leaving it ever further behind, Niell climbed to his feet and grabbed onto the railing to watch it. Dakan again pulled him back a few paces, but held him upright. The silence continued, an expectant hush over those crowded on the deck.
In a explosion of blood, teeth and water, a twentypace leviathan launched itself into the air, the carcass gripped firmly in its jaws. In a flash of aquamarine scales, the denizen of the waves crashed back into the ocean, jetting up water from either side of it. The swell, even at that distance, sent the Akkadian into a series of sudden drops and climbs.
With the last of the waves subsiding, the men began stowing their weapons and then continued with their jobs to keep Dakan’s ship sailing smoothly.
“What in the Gods names was that?”
“A nereus.” He said this so nonchalantly that Niell questioned what he’d just seen. “If ye’ll excuse me, I can’t be here jawing all day. My ship won’t run ‘erself.”
“Wait!” Niell grabbed Dakan’s arm.
Dakan turned, clenching Niell’s hand in his. “When on board my ship, ye listen to my orders. I ‘ave a job that needs doing, and I can’t be here speakin’ to you all day.” His tone was the epitome of politeness, but his grip, slowly crushing Niell’s hand, conveyed a message all of its own.
Dakan about-turned and continued up to the poop-deck where he’d originally been heading. Thoroughly chastised, Niell stood there, loosely shaking his limp hand till a sudden wave sent him sprawling. In his two weeks aboard, he had picked up quite a few of the sailors’ words, and he used them to full effect now.
Niell saw Inari and Terraic laughing at him from the stern; they had had little trouble adjusting their footstep to the rocking of the boat. Terraic getting by with experience from his previous times on the open seas and Inari’s grace from dancing serving her well enough.
As he climbed the few steep steps up to the stern to talk with them, Terraic called out.
“Beautiful, was it not?”
Niell hauled himself up the last step, moving out onto the open deck. “Beautiful? It could have destroyed the Akkadian as easily as it took the camel.”
“I said beautiful, not harmless. They’re majestic, intelligent creatures. Dangerous, yes, but not particularly so when treated correctly. Besides, they know Dakan; he has a limited form of communication with them via magic. He feeds them and they chase off other predators from his boat.”
“So why the weapons? What were they, by the way?”
Terraic scratched his beard, trying to remember. “Oh, the harpoons? They’re his safety measure: reinforced wood with sharpened stone heads. If it comes to it, Dakan’s more than willing to defend himself, though he would rather see them go unharmed.”
“They really are beautiful creatures. Their scales fetch a fine price on the market back at Kailas; there aren’t many left now.” Inari sounded wistful, though whether that was from talk of Kailas or the nereus, Niell wasn’t sure.
“Count yourself lucky that you saw one, had we not been sailing with Dakan, they would likely not have appeared. They’re normally nocturnal, though they have been known to play at the surface in unusually rough storms.” Terraic glanced back, as though hoping for another glance of the graceful giants.
“Just how big do they get?” Niell couldn’t get over how huge it was. There was something frightening about a beast that size free to do anything it wanted when they were out of sight of any land.
“It’s impossible to tell. Some say they never stop growing. That’s a load of nonsense if you ask me, but the biggest ever captured by the nereus hunters was over fiftypace. There’s not much in the world that can compete with a monster that big.”
Niell nearly choked.
“Don’t fret, Niell. Dakan knows what he’s doing. The only thing we have to worry about are the scout ships of Syracuse.”
“Well that’s a lot of help, I feel so much more secure. Why do we have to worry about them?”
“They’ve been known to attack first and then worry about who it was. Especially when the ship comes from Ishtar.”
Now Inari choked. “I didn’t know there was still hatred from the Border Feuds. They were over a hundred years ago. How likely is it we’ll be attacked?”
“Time, it appears, does little to appease things. As you’ll see, their very existence was almost destroyed by the Ishtarians. However, although it is possible, it’s unlikely that we’ll be attacked. We have no blades nor other weapons aboard, something their mages check for immediately and the flag of Soleil should give us some safety as well, if not much.”
~ * ~
Three weeks into the journey and the Akkadian had travelled south down the west coast of Ishtar, before following the setting sun to skirt the Badlands, the unmapped and unpopulated desert of south-western Ishtar. Now, they moved ever closer to Syracuse and were expected to sight land within twoday.
Niell had finally mastered the movements of the boat and walked about as easily as the others. Besides a few nights disturbed by his nightmares, life aboard the Akkadian was simple. Breakfast was a simple affair, if enjoyed at all. It involved one or two pieces of dried fruit and several hard ship biscuits. Lunch was sometimes taken, consisting of much the same as breakfast. Dinner was the only time they had meat, always dried and salted. It wasn’t too bad, Niell reflected, though he gagged at remembering how difficult it had been to swallow the salt-coated meat for the first week. It had almost been as hard as the biscuits.
Peace had been made between Dakan and Niell, primarily on Niell’s half to appease his own guilt. Not that Dakan had ever taken much offence, indeed, he’d almost forgotten it as soon as it had happened. He had a ship to run and even with the magic of the Promised, it was a full-time task.
Life was pretty good, Niell thought, as he stared into the waters beneath. There was a certain allure about the mysteries of water, something that kept dragging him to the sides as they sailed onwards.
The waters racing past reflected a dazzling display of liquid light, mirroring the cloudless sky above them. The ropes creaked and strained, reigning in the billowing sails that caught the northerly winds. Somewhere back, a particularly rowdy sea-shanty was encouraging the sailors to rig up the spinnakers to make full use of the latest wind called up by Dakan. All this was picked up by Niell as he gazed out from the bow.
Standing alone, trying to fathom out his past and dreams, Niell was not the first to see the approaching ship. Nor did he immediately realise what the shouts from the crows nest meant. When he did catch sight of it, however, he understand implicitly the meaning of the red sail flying proudly on its mast.
The others on board caught on quicker, though. There was a sudden scramble to ensure all available sails were up and secure. Groups of two or three sailors swarmed the rigging to guarantee the sails were fastened on tightly. Others prepared crude implements to fend off boarders, since no real weapons were on board: the few doors available were broken down into spars, brooms were requisitioned and even their knives from dinner were assigned a secondary function.
Dakan oversaw it all from the stern as he began making measures for the elements to help them foil the incoming attack.
Niell found himself pushed into the sleeping quarters, along with Inari and Terraic. The inexperienced and elderly were definitely not wanted in the way at a time like this.
“I thought you said they wouldn’t attack!” Niell’s movements and thoughts were flustered.
“To clarify, I said they probably would not attack without due reason.” Terraic sat still, conserving his energy and preparing himself for any magic that would be called upon shortly.
“Well, so much for due reason. They’re attacking, aren’t they.”
Inari sat still on a bunk. Only the relentless tapping of her foot gave away her nervousness and tension.
“Perhaps they have a reason; maybe they took gratuitous offence at Ishtarians in their waters, or scried a small blade.” Terraic shook his head slowly, thinking everything through.
Niell snapped his mouth shut. He had suddenly just turned very cold. The dirk.
Outside, on the open waters, the Akkadian was just close enough to make out their soon-to-be combatants. Bronze reflected golden from their weapons and armour and the culmination of a war-chant rang across the waves.
Terraic immediately sensed Niell’s change. “Niell? What’s wrong?”
No response could be elicited from the silent Niell.
“What is it, Niell? Tell me!” Terraic leaned across to grab Niell’s shoulders and shook him hard.
He mumbled out a few, incoherent words, then spoke a littler clearer. “Riling. He gave me a dirk.”
Terraic’s response was swift and decisive. “You fool of a boy!” He slapped him across the face, leaving an vicious print behind. “You’ve risked us all with your selfish attitude. I told you to bring nothing. Nothing! You have only yourself to blame for this in this endeavour.”
Niell clasped his hands to his face, attempting to ease the pain and control his raging emotions.
With only a hundredpace measured between the two ships, the reflected golden bronze of the Syracurians’ armour waned rapidly. Overhead, clouds gathered en masse in a swirling tempest. Darkness covered the ocean, turning blue water to darkest green. The beginning sheets of lightning ripped across the sky, lighting up the two rain-drenched vessels.
For an instant, all eyes were on the storm that had appeared. Dakan, likewise, watched the encroaching storm. He was amazed at its raw energy, its unfocused nature. Unguided streams of power poured out into the firmament where they were absorbed by the already angry clouds, increasing their ferocity immeasurably. Whoever was controlling it, they had no training at all but enormous potential.
As the rain poured down, the large drops exploding over his body, drenching him immediately, Dakan thought to the Akkadian. She would never survive such a squall with all her sails up, her mast would be snapped as easily as a twig, but there was little he could do at this late stage. Instead, he delegated control and sent his own mind spiralling up into the sky in an attempt to reign in whatever power it was that had called the elements together.
Niell’s vision tunnelled as the first of the waves were sent cascading over the Akkadian, propelled as they were by the raging winds. His felt the energy springing from his body, but could direct nothing. He vainly wrestled it, grappling with the power that railed against his will. Eventually, he lost all control and it sprang out unhindered. The master turned to mastered as Niell fought the urge to submit to the darkness, struggling to remain conscious.
Terraic immediately sensed the surge of unrestrained power and even Inari jumped up, startled by the tangible sense of magic in the air. Like Dakan, Terraic was startled by the immense power emanating out. “Fire, wind and water? What else do you have to show us, Niell?”
The ship rocked as a series of waves crashed into it, followed by the unmistakable crack of a mast snapping.
Dakan only half registered the resounding fracture of one of the Akkadian’s three masts. His mind was busy attempting to control the storm above. It had caught both him and the Syracurians unaware, and the results were devastating. All thoughts of boarding and repelling had disappeared.
Lightning had struck his enemy’s ship, igniting a fire too hot for even the rain to douse. Sails flapped wildly in the air, having torn loose from their mainstays and sailors clung onto whatever they could find to avoid being swept overboard.
Waves, flung up by the tempest, knocked both boats around, sending them in new directions almost as soon as they had been heading in a different one. Above, the black clouds swirled in a deadly dance of nature.
It was to the final plummet of his heart that Dakan felt the coming of the nereus. Two, if he wasn’t mistaken. With a quick prayer to the Ancients, Dakan cast caution to the winds and focused his direction and will on the nereus. He couldn’t allow them to destroy his boat in their innocuous play.
The Syracurians did not have a similar safety measure. As the first nereus leapt out of the water, it clipped the starboard side of their boat, it’s scales gauging a hole in its side.
Hearing the yells of those outside as the nereus cavorted in the storm and yet another mast cracked, Terraic took the only option left open to him. Tracing the radiating power back to Niell, Terraic brutally slammed down, returning the flow back to its source: Niell.
Niell collapsed to the ground, limbs akimbo.
Removed from its power source, the thunderstorm quickly rained itself out. As the clouds turned from black, to grey, and then to white, the burgeoning sunlight lit a terrible scene. Sailors from both vessels clung to the wreckage in the water: broken spars, floating sails and fragments of the Syracurian ship, Belmira, splintered by the two nereus.
That ship was impossible to repair, especially on the seas. A fire still burnt steadily, slowly making its way down to the deck and all their sails, shredded in the howling winds, were now half-submerged in the water. The Akkadian had suffered a similar fate, although thanks to Dakan’s efforts, it was still sea-worthy to an extent. Two of its three masts were snapped, and all but one of its sails were shredded. The main hull, though, was still intact as was its rudder.
A rescue team was quickly organised, collecting both Ishtarian and Syracurian sailors washed overboard as well as the items needed to repair the Akkadian to a sufficient level to make it to Syracuse.
Considerably lower in the water with an extra crew and waterlogged as she was, the Akkadian limped south to the shores of Syracuse.
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