"...it must be remembered that the River to the South is home to those who choose to dwell outside the grace of the Samaqel's union. Is it any wonder, then, that those who spend their days there are savage, immoral, and brutish? That violence and degradation are as much a part of their lives as ugliness, disease, and filth? That, without the exaltation of spiritual oneness with their Creator that we take for granted, they are lost, damned souls, forever locked in conflict one with the other, in an endless terrifying round of hand to hand carnage, whose only goal is to enslave all others, or failing in that, to kill and eat them?"
Dwellers in Darkness
Priest and Master of Archives, Do'Samaqel,
in the year 7624 since Creation
Captain Rakas A'Gurdon brought the twelve pound bastard sword around in a brutal swing, hammering the blunted edge hard against his opponents' scored and dented buckler. The small shield crumpled, folding back around the arm it was strapped to like a wet vellum scroll.
A'Gurdon's foe, a burly male yeelar whose deep yellow fur was seamed with hard, whitened scar tissue, snarled a curse that was inaudible over the screams, bangs and metallic clashes resounding from the battle around them.
The Jeopard tried to scrabble backward, but footing on a moving deck is problematic at the best of times, and at that particular moment, the widespread carnage -- strewn bodies, heavy puddles of blood soaking into the planking, and the occasional gruesome splatter of violently relocated viscera -- made any movement at all a distinct risk. The felinoid's backpedaling heel thudded hard into the ribs of what had until recently been A'Gurdon's Third Mate; for a crucial moment, the Cat tottered off balance, leonine tale lashing the air frantically behind him.
A'Gurdon's shoulder muscles shrieked in protest as he brought the bastard sword up from the deck again into a perfect 45 degree extension behind and above his head; the yeelar saw the killing stroke coming, but could do nothing in response but widen his eyes and begin a protesting growl - which was cut cleanly off, along with his lion-snouted head, when A'Gurdon whirled the bastard sword around again, neatly bisecting the Jeopard's flowing mane.
The Cat's furry body and dark-tressed head thudded to the deck two paces apart, the smaller of the two bouncing twice and finally jarring to a halt against the starboard rail. Rakas could smell the yeelar's deathshit even above the blood-sweat-powder-and-piss stench of the battle around him.
A'Gurdon turned away, his upper lip wrinkled in a vain attempt to block out the smell coming off the yeelar's corpse -- mostly from just below the dead Jeopard's midsection, not to put too fine a point on it -- putting his armored back to the rail and the River beyond, scanning for new opponents.
As he did so, he muttered a brief word of thanks to his Third Mate - even dead, she'd been a help.
That could have been a lot worse,, the ebon-skinned mercenary commander thought to himself as he watched the battle raging around him with the battlewise eyes of the 20 year combat veteran he was. Yeelar are bad, and nurkala are worse, but those Samaqel shat darokai are like fucking lightning with fur and a tail. He shook his head. Only the gods-be-cursed Samaqel could be so perverse as to not simply create an entire race of cats walking upright with opposable thumbs, but to make a lot of different types of the shrakking things as well. The leonine yeelar were strong and tough and ferocious as any hellspawn, the tigerlike nurkala were even stronger, and could fucking swim into the bargain, but the leopard-like darokai were horrors to fight. Strong and tough was very very bad in an opponent, but quick as wildfire and elusive as smoke on top of it... it was enough to give an aging mercenary captain nightmares.
The deck A'Gurdon regarded as he thought all this was a-swarm with fighters; a few one-on-one duels clattered and sparked here and there, but for the most part, a huge mass melee that raged like a flickering cloud of lightning between the ship's two masts.
There was, at least, no unengaged enemy to leap into immediate battle with him. A'Gurdon had a moment to be proud of his fighting company - despite the surprise grapeshot volley roaring out of a sudden pea soup fog that had strewn thirty of his people across his deck like sides of beef in a butcher's market, his remaining crew was holding hard against what looked to be half again their number.
Of course, his crew were elite, battle-hardened mercenaries while their attackers were only nameless, scurvy River pirates -
A'Gurdon's thoughts were interrupted as his eye fell on a figure at the center of the swirling melee. Tall, paleskinned, his hair a metallic gold shot through with streaks of silver pulled back and woven into a long, intricate braid falling down his chainmail clad back - a metal and leather helm shaped like a bear's skull - a tower shield painted with the same emblem - and a flailing, blood smeared battle axe.
"Serpent shit," A'Gurdon cursed under his breath, "Harzeel..." The Samaqel sucking River Wraith himself...!
A'Gurdon dropped his bastard sword to the floorboards with a wet clatter and vaulted across a drift of bodies towards his ship's raised foredeck. Dumping the weapon wasn't necessarily a fatal risk, since he still had a broadsword swinging scabbarded from his waist that he could quickdraw if he had to. Still, running empty handed across a rolling, corpse-laden, blood-slicked surface, where an enemy - or two, just for fun - could lurch armed and swinging into his path without warning, wasn't the smartest thing he'd ever done. But he needed speed and agility, two attributes not consistent with hauling along a six foot length of Giantish steel as he ran.
Dodging and twisting across the slimy planking, A'Gurdon reached the raised platform at the bow of his ship. The narrow ladder-stairs giving access to it were on the port side, beyond a knot of entangled fighters. A'Gurdon lunged upwards, slamming his hands down with a reverberating thump onto the foredeck railing, twisting acrobatically in mid-vault to bring his feet down onto the elevated flooring beyond.
Straightening, he looked around though the flickering orange light from the lanterns still burning up here by the untended Navigator's chair. Yes, over there...
The Navigator lay sprawled in a blackish red puddle beneath his tall wooden seat. A'Gurdon deftly slid his booted foot under the Navigator's short ribs and with a sudden flexing of his leg muscles that drove a momentary shank of pain into his upper thigh, flipped the limp form over onto its back. Ignoring the hideous grapeshot wounds in the corpse's chest and stomach, A'Gurdon stabbed a hand inside his former Navigator's shredded, bloodsoaked tar-jacket. His fingers encountered curved hardwood and inset metal, wet and sticky.
Breathing a prayer to the Northark gods even his father hadn't much believed in, A'Gurdon yanked the pistoloon out of the dead man's shoulder holster. A'Gurdon knew very little about "powderfangs" -- like most Riverscum, he instinctively distrusted the noisy, deadly things. However, his Navigator had always carried one loaded, and A'Gurdon had often seen him cleaning and re-loading the weapon after practice sessions potting at waterwings from the deck. He'd also heard the Navigator grumble that, in addition to costing a Sottle's ransom, the black powder used to charge the nasty things - which only the Giants knew the secret of making - became useless if wet.
A'Gurdon's nearly unconscious prayer was that the man's blood hadn't already soaked his pistoloon so much as to make it useless.
Holding the pistoloon tightly in both hands, A'Gurdon whirled around and pointed it down into the swirling melee, looking for Harzeel.
Two arms' lengths below the level of the foredeck, and five arms lengths aft, the pirate Captain fought. A'Gurdon could see two more members of his Company sprawled on the deck in Harzeel's immediate vicinity, huge slashes across their torsos testifying mutely to Harzeel's skill with his Sothark battle-axe. Harzeel's tower shield was scratched and furrowed but still undented, which similarly testified to his experience at deflecting attacks with it. His obviously old and lovingly cared for chain mail gleamed in the lantern light, as yet untouched other than by blood spattered from his enemies'- that is, A'Gurdon's people's - wounds.
Like all Sotharks, Captain Harzeel was a handsome creature; in full battle array, slashing and hacking through his opponents as if they were practice dummies, he was an impressive sight indeed.
But he'll look better with holes in him, A'Gurdon silently grunted as he aimed the pistoloon and yanked back the trigger.
The weapon bucked and boomed in his hands, a flat cracking report that almost drowned out the moist thud of impact fifteen feet away. Harzeel cried out, a sound too shrill to be a bellow, and spun around in place. His axe clattered to the ground as his right arm, to which his tower shield was strapped, fell limp. A hole the size of a woman's fist had appeared, as if by evil sorcery, in his right shoulder. A'Gurdon, blinking through a raft of hot black stinking smoke, watched with mixed satisfaction as blood started pouring out, washing in streams down Harzeel's no longer shiny chainmail. A pity it's not his heart or head, but at least I hit the Samaqel sniffer... and if I'm right...
Harzeel's pirates, not as disciplined as A'Gurdon's mercenaries, looked around wild-eyed for the gunner who had shot their leader. A'Gurdon leaned over the rail and shouted several commands to his officers, who promptly started rallying their squads around the squalling knot surrounding Harzeel. Harzeel was now lost to A'Gurdon's sight as his men closed around him, hacking frantically at the tightening circle of mercs.
From somewhere within that knot of men, A'Gurdon could make out a strained voice giving commands in Sothark, a language A'Gurdon had never bothered to learn. The results of the orders were immediately evident; the knot of men surrounding Harzeel promptly started scuttling like a broken backed beetle towards the starboard side, where half a dozen spiked boarding rails held Harzeel's vessel and A'Gurdon's together.
At A'Gurdon's command, several of his missile experts - mostly Frodds, but with a few Jeopards and Men among them - had swarmed into the rigging. Now a fusillade of missile fire rained out of A'Gurdon's sails onto the deck of Harzeel's ship, concentrated around the two cannon mounted on the port side. The Frodds' fire was especially deadly; not only did their four fully articulated arms allow them to shoot and reload their wrist-mounted light crossbows - stingers, as they were generally known - twice as fast as non-Frodds, but their inhumanly high dexterity made each shot dangerously accurate, as well. Harzeel's cannon crews had no choice but to seek cover, which would make it impossible for Harzeel to get off a parting broadside after he was safely back aboard his own ship.
A'Gurdon intended to let him go; Harzeel's men were fighting too desperately to be overcome without an unacceptable loss to Rakas' fighting complement, and Harzeel's boarding party was too heavily armored to be taken down by light missile fire - even if A'Gurdon wanted to order missile fire into his own crowded deck, which he didn't.
Even as Rakas watched, the flailing group surrounding Harzeel reached the foot of the boarding plank. Harzeel, one hand clasped over his shoulder wound, crossed the plank in two broad strides; his men, still fighting, began rushing across it as well. From A'Gurdon's rigging, the missile deluge continued, with a few of the archers snapping off shots at the pirates as they ran back across their own boarding planks. Most shots went wide, but A'Gurdon saw two pirates struck with stinger darts lose their balance and fall into the River. In their heavy armor, it was doubtful they'd surface again, especially when you factored in the schools of predatory kreelok that were usually drawn to lurk just below the surface where any prolonged naval battle was taking place.
The last of the pirates leapt from a spiked plank to Harzeel's deck; Harzeel had begun shouting hoarse commands in Sothark as soon as he himself had reached safety. The effect of those commands was suddenly felt; Harzeel's sails abruptly filled with a booming crash as a brisk breeze roared out of nowhere. Harzeel's ship heeled away, the spiked boarding planks holding it to A'Gurdon's Dream of Glory yanking free with a screech and dropping with a splash into the foaming River.
As the aft end of the pirate ship hurtled past A'Gurdon's perch on his own foredeck, he saw a short, wide, four armed silhouette gesticulating there, and the sound of chanting carried across the waves. Rakas pointed and screamed "WIZARD!! KILL IT!!!!" Simultaneously, bowstrings twanged and crossbows snapped in the rigging above him. In the orange light cast by the navigating lanterns, Rakas clearly saw the arrows and darts tumble and veer in the strong wind carrying Harzeel's ship away from him; on A'Gurdon's own deck, barely a breeze could be felt.
A'Gurdon cursed, but only half heartedly; he would have actually been surprised if Harzeel's wizard had been stupid enough to leave himself unprotected. Using the wind he had summoned to drive the ship as a missile shield in addition was a neat trick, though. A'Gurdon made a note to try and recruit him, if they ever ran into Harzeel's ship in a neutral port - a mage who could whip up a driving breeze at a moment's notice was no small benefit for a ship based mercenary company. Doubtless, the Frodd wizard had been responsible for that Snake sucking fog that had blown up right before the ambush, as well.
Still and all, Harzeel had gotten an unpleasant surprise - what he'd probably thought was just a lightly armed merchantman had turned out to be fighting ship full of heavily armed, intensively trained, extremely well disciplined bad asses. A loss of 30+ fighters wasn't something to be taken casually by any merc captain, but all in all, Rakas decided, things could have been a hell of a lot worse.
# # #
"You could have done much better," the guest in Captain Harzeel's cabin said dryly.
Harzeel looked up angrily. It was bad enough just having the stinking Sottle on his ship; if his men ever found out that this 'random raid of opportunity' had actually been commissioned by the Sottli Ban Merchant's Council, he'd be lucky to keep enough crew for an ice-raft. And now it looked as if he weren't even going to be paid for his trouble.
Harzeel had spent the last thirty years accruing an entirely accurate reputation as a bad man to try and cheat... or cross in any way at all, really. It had probably been foolish of him to accept a commission... one he'd had to keep secret from his own crew, at that... from one of the few beings on the River that he couldn't cowe with a brandished battle axe. But the offered payment had been too lucrative to turn down... or so he'd thought. Harzeel's father had often told him that when a deal seemed too good to be true, it was usually exactly what it seemed.
Harzeel had always hated it when his father turned out to be correct.
The Sottle, his buttery yellow, hairless head glowing dimly in the cabin's lantern light, noted the anger in the Sothark pirate's face... and smiled coolly.
Captain Janaar Harzeel's knuckles itched with a fervent desire to smash that bland, infuriating smirk into a bloody, toothless paste. But Harzeel was, if not smart - few Sotharks were all that bright, they were, for the most part, an unintellectual, physically vigorous race - then at least, experienced and crafty. His guile had enabled him to survive and prosper in a dangerous trade; more than that, it had allowed him to become one of the most feared and capable pirates on the River.
He was too canny to physically attack this Sottle, who sat high up on the Merchant's Council, and who had somehow appeared in Harzeel's cabin shortly before the attack on the mercenary ship, despite the fact that Harzeel's own mage, a Frodd called Fisher, had sworn blind on many occasions that magically traveling from or to a moving ship was all but impossible. Any mage who could do that, Harzeel reasoned, would have no difficulty at all doing something very unpleasant, and probably mortal, to unprotected attackers.
So Harzeel's knuckles itched... and with an effort of will, Harzeel ignored the sensation entirely.
"Ve hurd him," Harzeel said, finally, his Riverish faintly accented with his native Sothark. "Ve musd haff left forty, fifty dead... dot has to be haff his company. Dot should be vorth sometink."
The Sottle continued to smile. Fat, greasily golden, hairless, with a plump face and round, seemingly guileless eyes, dressed in elaborate silk lounging robes that shimmered constantly through every conceivable shade of green, with a high, jeweled collar and brightly begemmed rings on all of his fat little fingers, the Council Member looked ostentatiously soft and harmless. Only a faint gleam far back in his eyes betrayed even a hint of the ruthless power Harzeel knew full well he represented.
"You left 37 dead," the Sottle said levelly, his piping voice somehow not even remotely amusing, "five wounded. The River of Blood Fighting Company has 235 full members, and is currently training 40 apprentices. Counting the apprentices at two-for-one rate, that means that you've killed or incapacitated 42 out of 255 fighters... about 20%. Which might be worth something. Yes", the Sottle went on, his high pitched voice becoming soothing, "that might very well be worth something..."
Harzeel turned from the other end of the cabin, three long strides away, eager greed on his features. His men didn't know this was a commission; they wouldn't know anything about any payment, they'd just write this off as a failed raid. Any fee he collected here was his alone...
"If," the Sottle said, his voice suddenly becoming flatly harsh, "not for the fact, clearly stated in our previous discussion, that your commission was to kill Rakas A'Gurdon. I believe there was some mention of bringing me his head, now that I think back on it."
Harzeel winced; he had indeed boasted, when last he and this obnoxious Sottle had spoken, that he would obtain such a trophy. It had seemed like it should be easy. A surprise grapeshot volley from out of a cloaking fog, then a quick, overwhelming rush across the boarding planks... it had never occurred to Harzeel, as it never occurred to most pirates, that discipline and training could more than offset a near 2 to 1 advantage in numbers.
And the ice-cursed turdsucker had a frost-taken powderfang, too,, Harzeel cursed silently to himself. Nobody had told him about that. That hadn't been fair at all... although it never occurred to Harzeel that the powderfang he was so thoroughly reviling to himself was little more than a miniature version of any of the four salvaged Imperial cannons he himself had mounted, two to a side, on his own River Wraith.
The Sottle stared at him contemptuously. Harzeel could think of nothing to say... nothing he wanted to say out loud, any road. Clearly, the Sottle had no intention of paying him anything, regardless of the trouble and cost of this night's failed work. A dozen of his own men dead, two dozen more wounded, a winter-cursed pistoloon hole in his own shoulder big enough for a fucking kreelok to swim through, and nothing to show for it but empty pockets, a nicked up battle axe, and a dented tower shield.
Harzeel stood in humiliated silence, grinding his teeth, wishing fervently that the greasy goldskin would just get the fuck off his ship.
Finally, the Sottle broke the silence.
"Remember, Captain," he hissed softly, "you are to say absolutely nothing of this business to anyone."
"Of course," Harzeel blustered angrily, without lifting his gaze from the seelar fur rug that covered his cabin's floorboards. "Dot vas understood." Funny thing about that seelar fur; it had been loot from a raid on a Sottle merchant ship, which might have belonged to this particular Sottle. Of course, that had been years ago; this Sottle probably hadn't been on the Merchant's Council then...
The Sottle spoke again; Harzeel dragged his attention back to their conversation.
"If I hear even so much as a whisper of a rumor that the Merchant's Council has any interest whatsoever in a Northark mercenary named Rakas A'Gurdon..." the Sottle was saying.
"I know, I know," Harzeel interrupted. "You keel me, und blow up my ship, und send demons to feast on my spirit's testicles in Hell."
"Oh, yes," the Sottle said pleasantly. "All that." He paused. "But first," he went on, his voice never varying from its even, piping pitch, "I'll make sure that the entire River knows that Janaar Harzeel, the River Wraith, fearsome pirate captain and renowned Sothark warrior... takes orders from Sottles."
Harzeel looked up, his face contorted with rage. He started to step forward. The Sottle perched infuriatingly on the Captain's own fur heaped bed smiled an aggravating smile, and began turning transparent. Before Harzeel could complete another stride, the gorgeously robed apparition faded almost entirely away.
For just an instant, though, the annoying smile hovered in the air.
Then it, too, vanished.
Harzeel cursed and checked his fist in mid-swing. His father, in addition to advising him sagely as to offers that appeared to be too good to be true, had also told him often never to sit down at a council fire with women, demons, or Sottles.
Harzeel had laughed uproariously when he'd heard the news that his father had gotten drunk and been pushed into the River in the winter by an Ulvane slave girl. He had laughed again, longer and harder, when told his father's body had been found the following spring, embedded in an ice floe, wearing an expression of befuddled disbelief.
Now, though, he thought that somewhere in Hell, his father must be laughing his balls off at him.