18. There’s something in the water
13th of Lamashtan – Starday – 22nd day at Sandpoint
The Rusty Dragon
Our party arriving to Rusty Dragon all bloodied and looking thoroughly fucked up had become quite a typical sight so Ameiko didn’t really mind when we got back from the boar-hunt-turned-dire-boar-slaughter. Alfred was guffawing and made his way to the bar and ordered a beer. Ilori slumped to an empty chair next to our table (our group had a designated table, that for some reason was kept free for us) while I picked up a carafe of red wine from Bethana and sat before our carmine lady. Without a word, I poured two glasses full and pushed the other to Ilori. She thanked with a weary nod and took a long sip, savouring the taste. I swirled the wine in my glass patiently, and then had a taste. We just sat there for a while, as Alfred was already sharing his heroics with his local buddies.
She looked at her glass, then at me. “You knew right away that they were dire boars, didn’t you?” She asked, sounding serious, even accusatory, but I saw the smile in her brown eyes. I took another sip, lowering mine. “I might have”, I replied innocently. She laughed lightly. “For a moment there I was sure you and Alfred would end up dead.” She didn’t add ‘like Vidarok’, the fact still too painful for us both, but I replied with some humor. “Why, and leave you to fend for yourself alone against the beasts?” She smiled at me mischievously. “Bah, I’m the strongest in the party, and you’re always in the way of my powers anyway.” I nodded and drank more. The wine was getting to my head unusually quickly. “That is true”, I commented with a straight face. Ilori was only half-joking of course – she was the most powerful individual in the party. But for us to survive, for her to survive, she’d have to stay behind with us in the front. There, looking at her, I wondered what would happen the day we would not be there.
“You’re staring, Alpharius”, she said and brought me back from my thoughts. I blinked and apologized, but couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “You get that a lot anyway”, I added. She frowned. “What do I get?” I smiled shortly. “Looks. Stares.” She rolled her eyes. “Don’t start with that again..” I raised my hands defensively. “Hey, I’m just stating what I see. A woman like you-” I said but she cut in. “Stop”, she said sternly. And I did. Bethana brought us supper in the form of potato and pork soup, and we thanked her, and started eating. We were both the not-so-talkative type, but after a moment of silence, I had to say something.
“We’ve never told each other where we come from.” A half-question, half-statement. She took it as a question. “I’m from around. I’ve been travelling alone for years, since I was a very young girl. Hearing that, I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “What, you’ve walked through Varisia alone? With all the thieves, murderers, rapists, slavers and monsters about?” She just smiled confidently and her eyes flickered ruby red. Out of nowhere, three candles on our table caught fire. Of course, I thought to myself, scolding. I was still struggling to see past her stunningly beautiful exterior, to appreciate the raw power and survival skills she had. “To be serious”, she went on, “I know the world can be harsh and unforgiving, but it is not as harsh and unforgiving as you see it, Alpharius”, she explained, referring to my bleak, gritty worldview I rarely failed to share. “I’ve always kept a low profile, like I imagine you have. But if you are nice to people, they generally are nice to you. That way, you don’t have to fight for everything. Life becomes easier, less of a struggle.” I leaned back and folded my arms. “If you trust people, that is”, I replied. I trusted very few people. She seemed to read my thoughts. “You need to trust some people, Alpharius.”
The next day
I had applied some bandages and healing potions on my wounds and bruises in the forest the earlier night, but the next morning was spent in the care of our cleric. He was grumpy, a bit hungover, and condemned us for our recklessness, and but nonetheless summoned his powers to our needs. After he had channeled considerable amounts of positive energy, he emptied a pint of beer in one go, to help with the hangover. We sat down for breakfast to plan our next moves. We had just got to the table when Alfred marched in and joined us without really asking anyone’s permission. I opened my mouth to say something, then noted Harsk nor Ilori were not protesting, and closed it. I didn’t really know what to say about the sellsword – he was quite talented and well-equipped, but I had my doubts and my normal ever-present and subconscious suspicion lurked. Then again I couldn’t really tell him to piss off if Ilori and Harsk were fine with him. And it wasn’t like we had a code, or an organisation, or a treaty between us. We remained together because none of us had decided to get up and leave. Except Frank, that is. We were truly an ad-hoc ensemble.
We had been talking about going to Magnimar, to find this mistress of the Seven called Xanesha who had instructed Aldern about the killings in Sandpoint, and over breakfast, we decided that we would travel there as soon as possible. Between bites of bacon, Harsk mentioned that since we were leaving, he was looking for someone to work for him, to maintain and clean his budding chapel house for Iomedae. Alfred suggested to find a helping hand in the orphanage – he surmised there Harsk could find a boy or girl old enough for such work. After eating, the others headed there, while I went to see the bowsmith Savah.
Savah was happy to see me, no surprise given the amount of business we had had. I sold her my old composite longbow, and asked her for any special types of arrows, showing the bowsmith the elven bane arrows as reference. She shook her head and told me to go to Magnimar for such items – she didn’t have the materials and expertise to produce them. Another reason to travel to Magnimar then, I mused.
My business with Savah didn’t last long, so I walked through the town to the orphanage, where the others were still waiting. Harsk had found a suitable young boy, fourteen or fifteen, called Zack, whom he had hired. They had heard rumours about ghosts and whatnot in the orphanage, but we didn’t pursue them as Alfred dismissed them as children’s stories. I met with the orphanage master called Chask Halladan, a kind, bald and grey-bearded man. He divided his time between running the orphanage and a bookstore nextdoor. The store was a peculiar one though, as old Halladan wasn’t really keen on selling anything. With us planning to travel to Magnimar, I was however interested in browsing his books, which he happily let me do. I spent a couple of hours going through literally thousands of old and new books, searching for information about the city. I tried to find maps, but didn’t see any – old Halladan recommended me to visit a mapmaker and cartographer near Northport.
The Way North was run by a pipe-smoking gnome called Veznutt Parooh. Another old traveller, he had personally drawn a majority of the maps he sold. I got one showing the towns and cities from Sandpoint to Magnimar, and one pretty detailed city map of Magnimar. Both should come in handy, I thought to myself. After getting a case for the maps from Vorvashali Voon, I headed back to the Rusty Dragon.
Over early dinner, we talked about Magnimar with Ameiko. Ameiko told us about her family’s mansion in the city , and Harsk talked her into letting us use it while we were there. Apparently the house was vacant, which suited us perfectly. I showed the others the maps and suggested a ride along the coast road. I’d learned not to like sailing – I knew how to swim and like it so wasn’t like I was afraid of drowning – but being confined to a ship did not suit me. Also, with the map of South-western Varisia, I would’ve liked to explore the small towns – and do some scouting for any, any signs of my brother. My suggestion was dismissed though, as everybody else wanted a smooth, quick boat trip.
The trip, as it turned out, wasn’t really that smooth.
We departed at sundown the next day. Our ship and its captain were familiar to me. The Tall and Handsome, commanded by the rowdy Captain Jack, was taking me once more to Magnimar. When his merchant ship slid from berth, he promised us that we’d be in the city by morning. The skies were clear and so I remained on the deck, sitting down at the bow, watching the stars and the sea with Faroth as my company, while the others went below decks, to have supper, play cards and sleep. The ship was going at brisk pace, fair wind filling its sails. The ship became silent as one by one all but Captain Jack and few of his deckhands had gone to sleep. Eventually I retreated below decks as well. On my way down I nodded to Captain Jack who was at the helm, but he was talking with his crew and didn’t notice me leave. I found the others sound asleep, rolled open my bedroll and sat down on it. Faroth set down close to me and I patted him. Harsk and Alfred were both snoring and moving around, but the carmine lady was sleeping peacefully. I watched her sleep for a moment, lost in my thoughts about our previous conversation at the Rusty Dragon. You need to trust some people, Alpharius, she had said. But trust did not come easily with me – I had lived so long in a world where no-one cared about you, not really. No-one except my brother. I let myself rest, closed my eyes and let the sleep come.
I’m coming for you, Alpharius.
I opened my eyes, startled and shaking. A bead of sweat fell down my forehead.
Something had woken me up. It was night and we were still at sea, in the move. I must have slept for less than an hour or two. In the darkness I strained to hear anything, but there was nothing else than the groan of the ship’s wooden superstructure, the sea and sounds of sleeping people. Allowing myself to relax, I realized my bladder was screaming for a release. I got up, put on my cloak and ascended the stairs to the deck. The night was still clear. I paced to the edge of the deck, loosened my belt and after lowering my breeches, heeded the call of nature.
At the periphery of my vision I noticed Captain Jack frantically giving orders to two of his deckhands astern. I turned my head to see better and frowned immediately. Astern, at port and starboard sides the deckhands had manned two massive weapon platforms that looked like ballistas. The port side ballista launched a massive spear and I could hear Jack curse the deckhand’s aim. They were shooting at something or someone. I lifted my breeches, tightened my belt and started towards Jack who was still at the helm. “What’s going on”, I shouted to him. He turned his head towards me, noting my presence only then, and I could see the tension in his features. “Go to sleep lad, there’s nothing wrong here”, he replied, trying to sound his relaxed and jovial self but I could see through him. “What are you shooting at, Captain“, I pressed on and continued to pace towards them. The deckhands were hurriedly reloading the ballista. They were half-panicked. I tried to see what they were aiming at but the structure of the ship blocked my view. Jack was trying to stay firm, looking back and forth at me and behind the ship. “Really, lad, go back below decks-” but then it came to view behind the ship. It was massive.
“What the hell is that..” I gaped, watching a form of a giant man made of water wade through the waves towards the portside of the Tall and Handsome. I sensed the ship shudder only so slightly as the ballista fired once more (I realized that had woken me up) and the spear lanced straight through the giant made of water, barely slowing down, pushing a fountain of water from the exit ‘wound’ on its back. It opened something resembling a mouth but no scream erupted. “Get back to sleep, half-elf, this is nothing to worry about!” Jack was yelling at me, furiously turning the helm to evade the incoming elemental. No way, I thought, but turned in my heels still, and ran below decks. Already in the stairs down I was yelling for the others to wake up. Faroth snatched his head up and loped to me. Harsk woke up with a bellow, and Alfred his drowsy head towards me, wondering what the commotion was about. I ran to my backpack and started to fix my scabbards into my belt. “Wake up! A water elemental is attacking the ship!” I roared as I fumbled my equipment in a hurry, swinging the bow and quiver around my head to my back. Harsk was groping for his sword and crossbow, cursing in gusto. Alfred took cue from us and started to grab his weapons and armor as well. Ilori was still asleep – I think she had turned her back to me when I had come running down. I took a step and kicked her, albeit relatively gently, on her bottom. That stirred her into wakefulness. “Wwhat the devils-” she mumbled and turned around to see us equipping us frantically. “We’re under attack. Get up and gear up”, I told her simply and having gotten all my weapons and arrows with me, paced back up to the deck, leaving the others.
When I got back up, the giant was already reaching the ship. Up close, I realized it stood easily almost thirty feet above the sea. Its moves were slow and lumbering but that didn’t make it any less threatening. The star and moonlight reflected off its watery surface – it had been borne of the water. I heard one of the deckhands scream as the giant swept with its other “hand” across the astern. Jack ducked at the helm, but the deckhand was not as quick. The huge hand struck like a wave and the deckhand flew like a ragdoll. I lost sight of him but heard the splash he made. He was lost, Jack had no intention to turn around to pick him up from the sea. Good to know, I thought.
Focusing, drawing deep breath to overcome my awe and shock, I pulled two arrows in one motion, aimed, and fired. They both hit the monster straight at what I could say was its head, but went cleanly through it. The elemental shook its head, large droplets falling off its form. I could see I had gained its attention thus harmed it, but to really combat it, we needed magic. Fire magic, to be more precise. A third arrow sprung from my bow, and I hit its bulk again. “An easy target”, I commented to Faroth, who was angrily hissing at my feet, not looking away from the monstrosity.
By then, Alfred and Harsk both had made their way to the deck. Both were as astonished as I had been – Harsk was calling for the blessings of Iomedae and Alfred was murmuring profanities, probably cussing his ex-wife. “Shoot it!” I ordered as I was reloading, to which Alfred sneered. “Unless you want to challenge it in close-combat!” “Not this time”, I replied and let loose another duo of arrows, merely irritating the elemental. Harsk joined the fight with his crossbow and Alfred with his composite longbow – a crude piece of work compared to mine. “We need Ilori..” I told between my teeth the others as the water elemental finally reached the portside of the ship. It tried to grab the ship, but failed, as Jack expertly turned the helm and steered the ship starboard just at the final second. In response, the elemental pushed forward with its other hand and grabbed the other remaining deckhand, who had ran to replace the first and was trying to reload the ballista. His scream was drowned literally as dozens of barrels of water fell onto him in the form of the elemental’s grasp. The ship lurched and the bow rose noticeably at the sudden increase of weight at the stern. I could hear Jack cursing. Harsk, true to himself, changed from offense into defense and launched into a run towards the stern. The air around his head and eyes was already blazing with pure white light – his powers of positive energy. The elemental lifted its watery hand, and in its rush to attack us, the ship managed to gain some lead.
The hairs on my neck rose and I knew without looking that the carmine lady had arrived to the deck. Overhead, a powerful stream of magical fire arced at the elemental, hitting square in the chest first and then its arms. Part of it superheated violently, creating an explosion of steam. We had truly gained its attention now. Through the fog created by its own destroyed form, it waded along the side of the ship, more forcefully now. It was almost half as tall as the mainmast, I realized as it loomed above us. Ilori had the sense to step back but I and Faroth had no time to evade it. The elemental, motivated now by a sense of self-preservation, brought its hand down with surprising swiftness on the deck. I was on its way with my animal companion. Faroth bore the brunt of the strike – momentarily underwater as he succumbed within the form of the elemental, I saw him get slammed against the ship’s mainmast. The elemental’s force had thrown him aside like a player had pushed a piece off a chess table. Immediately I too was pummeled by the sheer power of the attack. It felt like a gigantic hammer fallen onto my head – and it was what literally happened. I was brought low and the ship shuddered violently from the hit. The hand made of water remained coherent, but the pressure on me then eased as quickly as it had came down on me as the elemental lifted its unnatural arm. On the deck I rolled, coughing blood and water in equal measure. I had broken ribs, and my pelvis wasn’t feeling right. The deck was soaking wet and I struggled prone towards the unmoving, wet Faroth. He had broken bones too, I could see it right away. Alfred was calling us to pull back, away from the considerable reach of the giant. Sure, sellsword, come and pick us up, I thought in pain there lying face down on the wet wooden deck.
Another stream of fire, ever more powerful this time, wooshed over me. I turned my head to see what the effect of Ilori’s powers were. I was just quick enough to witness the head and torso of the water giant superheat in a blink and explode into steam right next us. The boiling steam rushed over us, I covered my face to protect it but Alfred, standing there, roared in pain as the steam burned his bare skin. Ilori merely stood there and the steaming inferno just flowed past her like it was nothing. As the fog cooled rapidly and passed, I heard Harsk shouting, asking how we were holding up. I crawled over to Faroth, who was on his side whining and breathing laboriously, but was thankfully still alive. Alfred and Ilori came to us, concerned. I gestured we were OK. I didn’t see Harsk but I could feel his positive energies worming around us, touching us and healing our injuries. Within moments, I got up, and Faroth too rose on his feet, shaking water off his fur and growling in irritation. “I know exactly what you mean”, I said to the beast, drawing smiles from Ilori and Alfred. Harsk whistled. “That was close!” At the helm, Jack was laughing. “That’s nothing, I tell you.” Harsk turned around with a frown. “You just lost a crewmember”, he said, pointing at the now unmanned ballista at the stern behind the helm. Jack looked back and shrugged. “One less mouth to feed and one less wage to pay.” His lack of concern for the well-being of his crew surprised even me. I saw the remaining deckhand flinch but he didn’t say anything. Alfred stepped forward. “How about a compensation for us, for saving your ship?” He started, eager for a payment for services our fire sorceress had mostly delivered. Jack just laughed heartily. “You mean for that little thing? Like I said, that was nothing. Elementals come and go”, he stated and took a sip from a bottle of rum he had produced from somewhere. He grinned and belched. But Alfred was not letting up. He walked up to the stern and began to explain why he felt he had earned a due from the captain.
I was too tired to argue so I retreated below decks to rest. On the way I heard Alfred argue with Jack about the bottle of rum. I wondered whether we’d reach Magnimar at all and remembered how it had been me who had insisted travelling by land..