Iyani stretched and leaned back against the mast of the Wild Orchid. She had returned hours ago, and had immediately begun work on the ship. The work was fast, and after only a few hours she had returned the sail to working order. Sinta had dropped by for a moment or two earlier just to drop off the rune stones, and headed back into town. He was absolutely tenacious in his studies every time they hit port, and rarely took time to have fun. Iyani figured that’s probably why he was so good, all that work just made him a little stuffy at time.
She couldn’t really say she was much different. If she wasn’t working on her weapons she was working on the ship. It was an obsession with her, and she spent nearly every waking moment working on the ship, tweaking its systems and taking care of the machines that assisted the rune stones in working. She had finished all the repairs on the ship, and had even stopped for a while to work on her rune gun. Powered by a small generation four rune stone, it packed enough punch to be effective the few times that she did find herself fighting; which was really quite inevitable the amount of people that the Wild Orchid crew seemed to piss off. For the moment though, she had found a rare moment of relaxation. The sun had started to set casting a rosy glow over the polished deck of the Orchid, and Iyani found herself nearly nodding off when she happened to open her eyes in a long lazy, half asleep blink, and then started awake instantly. Coming over the rise of the mountains heading into the valley was what had to be a dozen large ships, led by one of the largest galleons she had ever seen. Pirates didn’t travel together, and no rebels she knew of had that kind of force as they were typically always split up and filled with infighting. This could only mean one thing.
The Empire had finally come to Alanda.
She took a moment to curse the fact that they still hadn’t replaced their communication crystal, and leaped from the deck in a fluid motion thudding onto the deck below and taking off at a dead run. No Imperial fleet had ever come to Alanda. They feared what would happen if the pirates were to rally together and retaliate, and they were wary of the efficient defenses the town itself harbored. Unfortunately it seemed that they had called the port’s bluff. While it was true that they did have defenses, pirates seldom worked together, even towards survival. While the rebels might fight, they had nowhere near the numbers to take on the size of the force she saw.
Iyani pushed through the door of the White Oleander, her eyes scanning the crowd, searching out the captain. In a table in the corner he sat, his feet propped up on the table, loud snores rumbling from his leaned back face. Opposite of him his half giant friend, Bron, had also fallen soundly asleep, his large bulk resting on the table. Iyani would have laughed if the situation hadn’t been so dire. She rushed to Caradin’s side and kicked his legs off the table. As his chair fell forward with a thud his eyes came open groggily; it was obvious he had overdone it with the ale again. He looked up at her with the slightly irritated look of a person half asleep.
“What is all the fuss about lass? Can’t ye see I’m resting me eyelids?” he grumbled to her and leaned back again looking for every intent as if he were going back to sleep.
“The Imps are here. At least a dozen ships. We have to go. Now!” She practically shouted.
Caradin became instantly awake, and shoved back from the table, his chair clattering to the floor. He whirled behind him grabbing his twin axes from where they leaned against the wall, and sliding them through the small leather hoops that held them to his back hurriedly. Bron had come awake, and looked about dazed.
“What’s….why…?” Bron had started but Caradin instantly interrupted him.
“Imps Bron. A whole mess of them.” Caradin stated even as he started toward the door.
Bron came to his feet in an instant, and took down the absolutely enormous sword that hung over his bar. He turned and shouted to the drunks, waking each of them, and heading to the corner where his communication crystal was housed.
“Lon! Lon, wake up! Imps headed this way. Sound the alarm and get the catapults up and working.”
A half grumbled voice answered a shocked affirmative back. Lon was a rune keeper in charge of the port’s defenses, even though they had never really been used for much more then fighting off bandit gangs or the rare pirate attack. As the crystal went dark a loud bell began to ring signaling the day that all of them had dreaded for years had finally come: the Empire had come calling.
Pirates poured out of houses, and of the White Oleander itself, some half dressed scattering to their ships like rats abandoning a sinking ship. Some of the ports actual inhabitants stopped to help their families, and headed toward the central area of the town where a large statue of Alanda herself, the founder of the town, watched over the port.
In the Oleander Caradin headed toward the door even as he shouted at Bron.
“You help those people get to the tunnels dug into the plateau. I’m going to distract them long as I can.”
“Caradin that’s suicide.” The large man said. “Get to your ship, and get out of here. We’ll be just fine.”
The dwarf shook his head. “Friend, ya won’t get half these people to the tunnels if we don’t hold them off. Lon can’t hold them off all alone, and I doubt we will find many pirates out there willing to help.”
Bron stepped in front of the door to keep him from leaving. “No, Caradin. You know I’m one of the rebels. It’s not exactly a big secret. I can’t just tuck tail, and leave you out there alone.”
Cardin balked. “Well then ya should know you’re one of the only people that can get the rest of ’em through the tunnels. They haven’t been unlocked in ten years. You don’t think there are nasty things down there now? Now outta my way ‘fore I move ya meself.”
Bron stepped aside reluctantly, and Caradin stormed by him with Iyani. Sinta was already running down the street, books and scrolls tucked under one arm, his crimson robes flapping behind him.
“Imperials here?” Sinta said incredously. “We need to get the Orchid up in the air, and get out of here right now Caradin.” The elf said in a panicked voice.
“Aye, we’ll get her in the air, but we aren’t to be leaving these people to their fate. We’re gonna keep ’em distracted long enough for these folks to get in the tunnels.”
Sinta shook his head. “You foolish dwarf, you think we can do anything against them?” He swept his hand upwards indicating the dozen ships that even now grew closer, and cast a shadow across much of the port.
“This place is going to be wiped off the map! That’s enough firepower to take everyone here, and bristling, I’m sure, with mages far more talented then myself. And you expect us to stand up to them?” He practically shouted. “You know there isn’t any glory in this right? No gold. We go out there we go to our deaths!” The elf shouted over the bells tolling.
Cardin stopped in his tracks turning to fix Sinta with a dangerous glare. It was the closest he had came to punching the elf, and that was saying a lot, as the close friends had plenty of arguments over the long years they had been together.
“So you think I’m all about money do ya? How long have we been bloodying these damn Imps noses now? You remember why we got in this in the first place don’t ya Sinta? What would you have me do? Leave these people? There are women and children here Sinta, not just pirates and rebels. You would have me leave them here to die while I tuck my tail and run? Run if ya want, but I’m going up there with or without you.”
Sinta looked ashamed, turning a bright crimson. “You know you wouldn’t last a second without me. I was just stating the common sense thing to do. I guess I should have known better.”
“I’m with you in whatever you decide to do.” He said bashfully, and started running behind the dwarf. “I’m sorry. “ he stated quietly.
“Bah elf, think nothing of it. Start getting your spells ready this is gonna’ be ugly.” Caradin said as his booted feet found the boarding ramp of the Orchid. He pulled the ramp in behind him, and locked it in place as Iyani ran about throwing the ropes tying them down off the ship.
“We’re clear.” She shouted. It was then a large beam of light from the lead ship crashed through the docks and several ships nearby them. The pirates aboard those ships scrambling to escape, some already banking for the sky, were instantly turned to rubble and ash.
“The Black Narcissus.” Sinta whispered under his breath, now truly fearful of their chances.
Caradin didn’t seem to notice, though surely he had to. He simply grabbed hold of the wheel, and banked away from the dock rising quickly into the sky, barely missing another white hot beam of light as it flashed several hundred feet from the deck of the Orchid and dug into the port of Alanda. As the screams of the first victims below rang out into the air Caradin’s hand tightened on the wheel until his knuckles were white. He turned the ship sharply and headed straight up for the bottom of one of the ships hulls, looking as if he meant to ram it.
“Caradin!” Iyani shouted, “What are you doing?”. He didn’t answer though she waited for several seconds. Giving up on any kind of answer, she rushed down the ladder below deck to man the rune stones, tinkering with the machines about them to keep them running under the stress.
Moments before they rammed the ship Caradin pulled the Orchid nearly level and yelled over the wind.
“All ya’ got Sinta!” Sinta set aside his cowardice and let go of the railing. With his spell holding his feet firmly to the deck, he raised his hands above him and as they passed under the ship he called a bolt of lightning to himself. It ripped through the deck of the ship above finding Sinta’s outstretched hands where the energy swirled for just a moment, before he sent it back up in another direction tearing a second hole through the above ship. The ship lulled to the left sharply, its rune stone sundered in two, and crashed into the bow of the nearby ship, shaking up the crew and doing serious damage to the front of the bow. Then it veered downward, almost lazily, and in a spectacular ball of energy released from the rune stone, exploded upon the cliff side.
The Orchid darted to the side, dodging the falling ship, and coming back up over the one next to it with surprising agility. As Caradin flew, Sinta reached down with his powers and ripped the mast of the falling ship from it, sending it like a lance through the hull of another ship. Sinta slumped slightly, both spells had been powerful spells, and had taken a lot out of him. Still he stood, his hands outstretched, even as spells rained down on the ship from the Imperials about them that had decided the Orchid was a threat. The shield that Sinta held up further drained him, and it was obvious he probably wouldn’t be casting many more offensive spells; all of his energy was bent toward the one currently keeping them alive.
Lon had not been idle either. The large catapults below, also powered by rune stones, came forward from where they were housed in small caves just below the plateau. Humming loudly, a large burst of energy shot from them crashing into the nearest ship and shredding it to pieces before the battle mages had even raised the shield about the ship. It burned as it arced downwards, and the catapults charged to fire again.
A cheer went up from below from some smaller ships as they took off, flying flags of various rebel groups. Their mages joined in attacking the ships, and at that moment seeing the small victory of the Orchid and of Lon, they felt as if they had a chance. Moments later their cheers turned to screams as a large fireball from one of the ships nearest the Black Narcissus tore into them. Again, the white beam from the Narcissus reached out and dug into the town below where Bron was herding the people towards the statue, below which lied the tunnels of their salvation. As the beam struck behind them it threw Bron from his feet and the people behind him disappeared in horrible shrieks. As Bron struggled to his feet, his ears ringing, he picked up a child next to him whose legs were shredded by some of the rocks and pieces of the houses that flew from the beam. He ran as hard as his legs would carry him, into the square where the statue of Alanda had begun to move. The heavy stone of the statue made a loud grinding sound as she moved along small tracks beneath her. Then suddenly the statue stopped, the wheels below it so old from disuse and rust they refused to budge further. The people milled about her panicking, and eager to get away from the destruction that rained around them. Bron set down the child, and rushed to the statue. He placed his bulk against her, and pushed with all his might, his large muscles straining. The statue refused to move, its countenance frozen, seeming to look down at him pleading to save her people. Bron dug within himself, and with renewed vigor pushed against the large stone statue. The tracks below screeched in protest, and then suddenly budged as the statue wheeled the rest of the way, revealing the steps that went down into the tunnels below. The people of Alanda surged around Bron, crying their thanks even as they headed into the tunnels. Bron stood beside the statue waving them in, lowering the children down to their parents, and keeping watch on the opening.
The Orchid dodged fire and weaved in between the ships of the Empire, infuriating them as they couldn’t seem to score a real hit on the ship that flitted back and forth. Often their spells rained into the ship next to them as they barely missed the Orchid. Caradin flew spectacularly, with all his attention and focus on the skies before him. While he was doing well he couldn’t keep it up for long, already spells had made it through Sinta’s shield and burned holes into the sides of the ship; one spell had even ripped a ley line along the left side. They couldn’t stay much longer, and the Orchid arced out from the ship in front of them to get a better view of the town. He could see the dots below, and the statue grind forward propelled by his friend’s large form.
As the people flooded downward into the tunnels, a sense of relief filled Caradin. The relief soon turned to dread, as the Orchid dove under the Narcissus and he saw at the head of her bow the five mages gathered in a semi circle. All of their hands glowed brightly just before the beam burst from their hands and converged, biting into the city below, blowing the statue into large pieces and covering his friend, obscuring him from sight. The people not yet below burned in the beam, and turned to bones almost instantly falling all about the entrance that had collapsed in on itself.
Caradin heard a horrible sound of anguish, and realized it was his own tortured screaming. For once glad that the wind carried his voice away, he turned the Orchid back towards the Narcissus, tears filling his vision and anger clouding his mind.
“Caradin! No!” He heard Sinta shout as he rushed forward towards the Narcissus, and at the last moment rose above the deck looking down into the eyes of the man commanding it. That man had looked up at the same time, the armor of his station gleaming, their eyes meeting in that moment. Caradin swore the man smiled, all arrogance. Time seemed to slow for a moment, and then speed up again as Caradin smashed the Orchid through the sails of the large ship, and sped past ducking below the plateau, and racing for freedom. Sinta’s shield hadn’t prevented all the damage to the ship, and the sails had ripped a larger hole in their already damaged ley lines. The ship rocked dangerously as it rocketed away into the skies beyond.
Caradin looked back in mixed sorrow and anger as they escaped. Alanda burned, flames licking upward into the sky, the rest of it rubble and ruin. After nearly twenty years of survival the port town, and one of the few havens for those who were still free, burned to the ground. Caradin faced forward into the skies and rose into the clouds above. The Orchid had escaped, along with hundreds of the town’s people, but he could not call today a victory. If there was one thing he could state for certain it was that they would pay for this day. He would make sure of that.
Cole Augusto was the picture of the perfect soldier. He was tall, relatively handsome, and had dark brown hair cut short, not a strand out of place. A strong jawline and chin accentuated his features perfectly, covered with a perfectly manicured beard.
If not for the sword and shield that he carried, and the heavy plate armor accented with a scarlet cape trimmed in gold that marked a Warder, one might mistake him for a politician. There was also one other thing that set Cole apart. It was the scar directly across his throat where a failed assassination had cut his vocal cords. He had regained most of the use of them, but his voice did not match his appearance. It was gravelly, low, and it struck fear into most of his subordinates. He used it to that effect now on the officer that stood before him.
“You’re telling me that one ship escaped a dozen of the finest Imperial ships AND managed to destroy three of them?”
The officer seemed to search his brain for a response. “No sir. They destroyed two of them. The catapults took out the third.”
He realized the mistake he had made the moment he finished talking.
“Oh..well that’s much better then isn’t it. Officer I would like you to report to the brig. You’ll be spending some time there. Next time you should have your men on deck faster.” Cole turned and headed toward the contact crystal. This wouldn’t be pleasant.
“Ahh, Augusto.” The oily voice said. “Good news I expect?”
Cole took in a deep breath before replying.
“No Your Imperial Highness. The Wild Orchid got away, and three of our ships were destroyed. The defenses of the town were as deadly as stated. Nevertheless the whole of the port has been razed to the ground sir.”
The voice seemed unbothered mostly. Just a slight change in his pitch indicated his anger.
“Very well. Tell Talthier that his business with us is not done.”
Cole bristled at this command. “Sir with all due respect we don’t need that…thing, to take care of this.”
The voice grew deadly low. “Well apparently we do. You’ll assist him with whatever he needs. You’re hereby relieved of your command Captain, I’m sorry Commander. The Black Narcissus is no longer yours. You’ll be relinquishing your command to Captain Forls. Be glad I didn’t strip you of your Warder rank and armor.”
The contact crystal went dark suddenly and Cole fumed to himself. That dwarf robbed his command by making him look like a fool. If it hadn’t been for their ship, the victory would have been total. The Lord didn’t even note that a pirate and rebel safe haven had been destroyed. All he cared was that Cole had failed in utterly destroying the ship that was causing so much trouble on the fringes of Imperial rule. There had to be another reason why the Lord truly wanted Caradin, now though Cole didn’t have time to seek that answer. He turned, and passing Captain Forls as he headed to his quarters, he balked at the man.
What further irritated him was that the Lord was willing to let a hunter, a man with almost no loyalty, take care of something that was within Empire jurisdiction to do so. Furthermore it was rumored that Talthier was an Altered, dangerous experiments using rune stones to augment humans. Most all were dead, so he was sure it was untrue, but still it was further reason not to trust the man. He considered using the contact crystal to communicate his instructions, but knew he wouldn’t even need to find Talthier. The man seemed to know everything that had to do with himself, and before long he would have caught wind of it. Cole had no idea how soon that would be though, as he entered his quarters and saw the man standing there fingering different things on Cole’s desk. As Cole entered he sneered at the man even as Talthier turned and ran a finger across the brim of his hat in mock greeting.
“Why Captain, wait no, Commander isn’t it? Well good thing I turned around when I saw the botching of Caradin’s capture. Oh don’t be surprised. You know I wouldn’t miss the fireworks on this battle. Still you might have gone a little far in razing Alanda to the ground. Just making all kinds of enemies this evening aren’t we?”
Cole bristled with hatred outwardly, but secretly he agreed with the man. While the Emperor’s orders were absolute, and he had received the instructions to do so by one of his personal Lords, Cole still thought that destroying Alanda and killing citizens was beyond what was needed. After all, these kinds of displays left far too many alive to seek revenge ,and took lives that could otherwise be spent in the Empire’s service. That’s what he told himself anyway. Truth was that killing all those defenseless people, listening to their screams, made him feel filthy. He was a warrior, not a butcher.
“You know nothing of what the Emperor commands. If he ordered Alanda razed it was with good cause. The place was a breeding ground of rebel and pirate filth. Now talk carefully or I’ll have you arrested and tried for treason.”
The hunter chuckled setting Cole bristling again at the man’s arrogance.
“I don’t belong to your precious Empire remember? Can’t accuse a man of treason that didn’t pledge to your Emperor in the first place. Hell Commander, I would be working for the rebels if they paid well enough.”
“Just do your job and go after Caradin.” Cole turned signifying an end to the conversation.
“Oh really. Well I overheard that you’ll be giving me whatever I need to do so. And to catch Caradin I’m going to need a fast ship. Say, your personal skiff Cap…oh I’m sorry Commander Augusto? Oh, and I could use an escort. How about yourself? You’re not a Captain any longer. They don’t need you here.” Talthier punctuated this all with a crooked smile.
Cole had enough, and stepped forward snapping out with his right fist at the hunter, who suddenly wasn’t there. Talthier stepped to the side deftly and had drawn one of his long knives impossibly fast, placing it alongside Cole’s neck.
“Now don’t make me go and reopen that scar. Who do you think you are playing with here? Your Emperor paid me to do a job and I intend to do it, but I need the resources to do so. Caradin isn’t a joke, he isn’t going to go easy, and I’m going to need good soldiers with me if I plan to take him and his crew down. Underestimating that dwarf is what has led to him making your Empire look like buffoons. Now what say we have a more civilized discussion?” Cole nodded lightly drawing a small bit of blood down his neck.
“That’s better. Now do you have any bourbon around so we can sit back and talk about how to catch this crazy dwarf?” He sat down in the chair facing the desk propping his feet up on it as Cole went around and drew a bottle of liquor from within.
“Just know that I’m not defenseless myself. Betray me or the Empire and I’ll have you feeding worms hunter.” Cole retorted.
The hunter just smiled widely, and Cole thought to himself this was going to be a very difficult business venture.