Areia’s Wake sailed along the shoreline of a strange and exotic coast. Island after island of sound infested, wild, untamed mystery. Thrak had learned from his days on board pirating vessels in Far Realm, that shallower waters meant dangerous waters. He knew now that on this voyage, they had gotten lucky. Since luck was the most precious of natural resources in the dreaded isles, today’s conditions were a bounty to be thankful for. The treeline, full of mangrove and man-catching trees hugged the shore, right to the water, but there the sea was dark blue. Sheer underwater drop offs hid below the calm turquoise at the top, and this meant a safe path to sail along. They just had to be careful that the winds kept them some distance from shore. In this way, they would be less likely to be seen than if they were to travel in the middle of the currents between isles. Thrak twice jumped into the sea, and used his massive tail to swim ahead, making sure of certain underwater obstacles. Conditions were perfect, and the day couldn’t have been more calm. They were making good time. It felt good to be out again, off the isle, “adventuring”. The others shared many stories of Enceladus, and Far Realm and Silvershore.
“Remember when that minotaur came in on the Oorst ship from Xilandros?” Areia was in her usual happy place at the top of the prime mast, in the crow’s nest. She was careful to remind them that the ship, as well as the harbor, had afterwards been named for her. Usually, back in Areia’s Landing, she couldn’t gloat in the wonder of hearing her name spoken quite so much because she was constantly, mostly, in the guise of a Ceillini brother. There, the others began calling it The Landing, mostly because it was the only way they had found to annoy Areia back. And as Iricah pointed out one evening at The Three Harbors Theatre, without a good attack, Areia’s verbal jabs were as difficult to take as her literal stabs.
They were a mix of thoughts and memories swirling in the wind. While the mist of the morning evaporated upon the sea before their prow, they rounded a cliff. Large massive chunks of sedimented rock, jutted out into the sea. It’s eroded edges were now towers falling into the dark blue water. The tops, like a fine layer of frosting upon a Cillandrial cake, held more of the dark green trees and shrubs that choked the islands.
“Sail!” hollered Areia, and she hopped over the rail of the nest, sliding down upon a halyard. Thrak was at the wheel. She placed a hand on his shoulder, and thrust her dagger into the wood of the ship’s wheel. “Let me take over a bit, big and beautiful,” she said. And twisting the dagger she steered the ship closer to shore, while the view of the sail disappeared behind one of the cliff towers.
“Areia, what do you see?” asked Zy’an. As he had honed a sense for these things, he sensed the shift of the vessel while belowdecks, and bound up nearly instantly with the aid of his magical ring.
“Well,” sighed the rogue. Her eyes flashed with her usual charm and devilish wit, “either there’s a serious buffet being served out of that ship’s cargo hold to rival the most hipster of food trucks in LA, or else we’ve got a slave ship, friends.”
Frank was about to ask what an “el lay” was, but decided it would be counterproductive at the moment. He looked to the others, and in that instant, if he hadn’t already known, he knew that this was as much their mission as the monastery. “What is the plan?”
Creeping along the treeline in dry heavy sand, careful to avoid the more menacing of flora, Zy’an wondered. He wondered if they had been successful in avoiding detection of whoever operated that vessel. They had tacked immediately upon sighting the sails, but one never knew out here. It felt sometimes like eyes were always on you. When most, including Frank, had made the decision that slavery was not something they were going to sail past, there had still been a question of how much they would be willing to involve themselves in the situation. But Thrak changed all that when he saw Iricah’s face after peering through her spyglass. She tried to casually place it back into her bag, but the lizard man was too quick. He snatched at and saw who the prisoners were.
There was no turning back now.
Zy’an knew that this was going to be a battle that would test them, for he knew the Sassers were a foe that scared the most noblest of Celns. They were still an unknown to most, but he didn’t wonder what they were. He knew.
Sassers. He thought. The embodiment of The Host. The same embodiment, whose remnants may dwell in me. Zy’an’s thoughts ran back to the woman in Silvershore. The thief who had wound up as Chlamydia’s torture object. The one who could call on a power. A power he could as well.
The monk crouched, and waved to the others to do the same. There, behind an outcropping, they peered down on the alien ship anchored at the shoreline. And saw a sight that froze them cold.
The ship was black and it’s sails were the least striking parts of the vessel. Something about it made it look wrong. Large plates of metal seemed like a thick skin it shouldn’t have and it was altogether too metallic for a ship. Can’non were placed at various places along the railings. But the ship itself looked bloated, as if it had eaten it’s full, and were laying along the sand to nap after a huge meal. The moaning and groaning from within it’s hold, told them what it had eaten. Slaves.
A few dark haired men and women wearing an attire that seemed odd walked around the ship. They were leading gangs of lizard men, shackled in groups towards the ship. A few bodies lay around scattered in various places. Several were hacked and some simply looked like they had collapsed there. There were splotches and pools of blood here and there.
The men and women wearing the odd garbs were The Sassers. Zy’an knew that. As did they all. They didn’t speak. Nor make noises. The only noises were the lizard folk, who were cursing and fighting against their bonds.
“They will have this lot loaded in minutes,” whispered Iricah. “If they do, they will be locked up in the galley with the others. Could you set them free Areia?”
“These ships are an unknown to me, and if they are anything like what I would construct, I’d make it real hard to get them out. Slavery is their business. They make nothing by them escaping. The rule of lockpicking is to go for something that no one needs locked. Or thinks they don’t. If you are thinking of freeing them to increase our numbers, we better do it now, before they are put away for the night.”
They looked at each other and nodded. ‘Where’s Thrak?” Asked Zy’an. Cursing, he knew before he peered over the rocks once more and saw the warrior raging down the sand towards the enemies, both axes held out. Thrak’s tail was wagging happily behind him, swishing and swirling.
“You just can’t keep a good lizard down,” said Areia and she jumped over the rocks and raced towards the ship. Confession, I knew he had left, I just wanted to start stabbing these damn bastards before you all talked our ears off!
“Damn that fool of a reptile!” spat Frank. “And damn the rogue to Ket!” He hopped up as well, or at least tried to. His armor clanked around him and wedged awkwardly in places as he tried to take off down the hill with the others. Instead, he sommersaulted over himself, falling down the hill. He looked like a wind dervish, throwing sand in all directions.
At the bottom, he fumbled for his shield and mace, just as the enemy came for him. He could feel the sand draining out from inside the tunic under his armor plates.
Zy’an jumped over his head and landed in front of him, kicking and punching one of the silent slavetakers. He fell before Frank, who was just pulling his mace free. It began to glow, too little too late. Thankfully, Zy’an’s weapons had no clasp.
“Hypocrites,” sighed Frank. “Why does it always have to be hypocrites.”
The enemy was not what Iricah had expected. Besides darker hair and complexions, they were no different than Celns. The Sassers were elves and humans and one was what looked like a dwarf even. What they were wasn’t in their race. It was what they were together. Their garments were robelike, but there was a pant sewed into the garment as well. None of them seemed altogether different in their dress. Each carried basic weapons. Long wicked rapiers and steel bucklers.They used a crossbow that seemed well suited for close quarters.
When the urchins waded into battle, the lizardfolk clawed and kicked out at their slavers, but could not move against their bonds. They tried to coordinate their attacks, but the bonds that held them fast wouldn’t cooperate. That was as one would expect.
But the slavers themselves. Well, they had never seen anything like it. Together they moved as one, coordinated, as if they were ants sensing something lying on the beach and attacking it together. Some boarded the ship, while others crept closer, drawing their weapons. But none spoke. It was as if…
It’s as if they can read each other’s minds thought Iricah.
Hypocrites, for sure thought Ariea. She was already well ahead, ducking and diving below wicked swords. She was searching the clasps and bindings of the slaves, who were strung together on massive metal rods in long columns. But she wasn’t finding a way around them. They know how to lock up their slaves she sighed.
“Let’s see if they can parry,” she snarled out loud and she lept towards the nearest. The man’s eyes rolled around towards her, while he thrust his sword out to block her strike. In them, where pupils should be, were none. The eyes were solid white!
A voice from farther away spoke to her. “You’ll make a proper embodiment for the host.”
Somehow, Areia knew it was for her. To her. But how? The voice came from another part of the fight. From a vantage she couldn’t see, nor could the speaker, she knew.
She thrust out once more, and this time found her mark. The white eyes of her target stared at her, and the mouth that belonged to them opened. “The host awaits you.” And then, the white rolled back, as a pupil came back into the eye. It began to change as well. The eyes before, which were blank and staring, now were full of fear. There was a new expression on the face, a look of shock. The body slumped over, and fell upon the sand.
Zy’an had been right. This was to be no ordinary fight. While Areia and Thrak were cut down, and Zy’an nearly as well, Frank called upon the power of the flame. He somehow kept them alive, while spells and bolts zinged around them. But the Sassers also slashed, and struck with vicious attacks. Each thrust was full of an energy that seemed beyond any one of them. Each spell more powerful than what one could conjure alone. The Sassers were a formidable foe. Whatever powers they possessed, they seemed to share. A fireball came not from one, but from any of them. Zy’an thought he now understood their garb. They could be anyone of them. Whoever the host is, it is using them all.
But the urchins were formidable as well. Iricah sang on. Wading amongst them all, she granted them an energy they too shared. While Areia was finally able to work out the locks of the slaves, Frank struck down the last of their number. Hypocrites he deemed, all of them. The battle was won.
“Slaves of one kind or another,” said Iricah. She was staring at one of the bodies, lying upon the sand. The blank look upon it’s face was gone. This had been an elf. An elvish woman whose look in death was very different than her look had been in life. She looked afraid.
Iricah turned around to see the lizardmen standing behind her. One of them hooted at the others, who hooted back. Through the treeline came more. Nearly a hundred in number. The largest, a monstrous warrior with a red crest opon it’s head walked forward, and pointed a claw at Thrak.
“You were saying, bard?” said Frank.