"It's a fine vessel," Dareios said as he surveyed the sleek gray ship the elf scholars had allowed Claudia to use to get back to the mainland. Claudia was not sure exactly how Famratyr and Azfelyndoran had convinced Tatrasyan to donate it to their cause, but she did recall hearing a loud crash from Tatrasyan's study, and his broken wooden chair used as kindling for the soup pot the night after.
The Dark Lady nodded as Dareios studied the craftsmanship of the ship. "I will keep good on my word, Dareios of Abattoir. If you convey me safely back to Galletia, it is yours."
"No offense intended, m'lady," the captain said. "But this ship isn't exactly what I had in mind. It's very well made, and I don't doubt that it's fast as the north wind, but I was thinking something a little more… intimidating."
"Four masts, three decks of cannons, you know the like. A big Galletian frigate affair." He tapped his knuckle against the wooden rail on the elvin ship. "This is nice and all, but I'd like to have a ship that makes this look like a lifeboat."
Claudia leaned on the Rod. "Will it do until I can find one like you specify?"
"I suppose, yes."
"Good. When can we leave?"
Dareios shrugged and glanced at Saryndiel. "The tide is favorable and the wind is good enough. As soon as you're ready, provided it's soon."
Claudia turned to the dock, where Azfelyndoran, Jason and Famratyr waited with Tatrasyan and disembarked by way of the gangplank. She smiled to the scholar and tapped the Rod against the wooden planks. "We thank you for your hospitality and cooperation."
Tatrasyan gave a noncommittal grunt, but when he saw Jason and Famratyr going for their weapons, he bowed. "It was an honor, my lady."
Azfelyndoran folded his arms. "Can we count on your assistance in the years to come? Will you serve Lady Claudia faithfully?"
Tatrasyan's eyes grew cold, completely unlike the kindly old scholar who had welcomed her to the island not so long ago. "When she returns our magic, we will consider serving her."
Azfelyndoran's foot snapped out, and Claudia heard at least one of Tatrasyan's ribs crack. "That is not an acceptable answer," he growled. "If Lady Claudia calls on your order for aid, Tatrasyan, I expect you to give it to her without second thought. Is that clear?"
Tatrasyan nodded, and Claudia tapped the Rod once more. "You are dismissed, Tatrasyan. Perhaps we may never have cause to meet again."
"Yes, perhaps." He got to his feet and swept away, not looking back. The goblins came into view soon after, pillowcases slung over their shoulders. When they reached the dock, Zhaggo barked a command and the other four goblins set their bundles down, making a large clatter.
"What is that?" Claudia asked.
Zhaggo shrugged and opened his pillowcase, showing that it was stuffed with gold coins and gilded trinkets. He pulled out a goblet and tested its weight in his hand. "These elves are all alone here on this island. What are they using their gold for? We just liberated a little bit from their hoard."
Claudia tried to hide a smile. "Stealing from our allies is wrong, Zhaggo."
"To be fair, we had to leave the pillows behind." He dropped the goblet back in the pillowcase and pulled out a jeweled brooch. He tapped the garnet set into it with one finger and nodded. "This one's going to go for a lot. Anyways, m'lady, this gold does a lot more good hiring captains and ships than it would in their treasury."
Famratyr picked up two of the makeshift sacks and made his way up the gangplank. "We can't very well give it back now, can we?"
Claudia sighed. "No, I suppose not. And we will need the capital. I can't go around promising an admiralty to any captain who helps me."
"Aye," Dareios grunted as he stepped behind the helm. "I don't play well with others, and I'm not too fond of sharing." He let out a deep breath and cracked his knuckles, settling his shoulders and planting his feet. "Feels good to be on a ship of my own again." Then, he turned to Jason, Famratyr and Saryndiel. "What do you louts think you're doing lazing around? We've got to get Lady Claudia back to Rhime double quick! Hoist the mainsail! Raise the anchor! It's time to shove off!"
The sea stretched out in every direction, touching the clouded sky at some indeterminable point in the distance. The salty breeze blew Claudia's raven-black hair off her face, and it fluttered like a banner. Saryndiel was at the helm, his keen eyes watching Jason and Genzho checking on the knots in the rigging. Her other vassals were taking advantage of the steady wind and calm seas to rest in the cabin at the stern of the small ship.
The Dark Lady tapped the Rod against the ground three times. "Patron, we need to have a little talk."
The sound of the wind changed slightly, and she heard the Patron's footsteps behind her. Claudia turned her head and saw the old man standing quite calmly beside her, as though he had been there the whole time. The other three on the deck showed no sign of surprise, obviously not seeing what Claudia could.
The Patron raised an eyebrow. "What's this about?"
"You know full well what I want to talk about. The magic."
"Yes, rather strange business." He sighed. "Claudia, I was as surprised as you were when I realized it. The Mother, the Warrior and I are still not at the height of our powers, though by rights we should be. I did a little digging myself, and your elf friend was right. When the Dawn Sword struck down Kalaryndor, it did far more than disrupt the Balance. It shattered the Darkness's power, severely weakening it even as the Light continued to grow stronger. It has been nearly a year since Kalaryndor died, and in that time the power of the Light has exponentially grown. In the nations to the south of Abattoir, lands once held firmly within the Darkness's grasp have fallen to the Light, crumbling in a matter of weeks."
The Patron grasped the rail of the ship, the veins and tendons in his hands standing out in stark relief against his pale, translucent skin. "The Darkness has been driven underground. Only two strong bastions remain; a deep jungle across the southern sea, filled with all manner of nightmarish creatures, and the lands north of the Galletian Wall. Other enclaves of dark power exist, true, but they are small and weak. We are quite fortunate that you are Galletian, for had you not been able to reach one of those two places, all hope might have been lost."
Claudia stared at her reflection in the large ruby set into the Rod. "What is this supposed to do? The Crown gives me authority over all creatures of Darkness, and the Sword gives me the prowess of a great warrior. And the Rod gives me what? Magic, I assume?"
The Patron nodded. "Yes, if the Darkness were not so weak. If it were as strong as it was in the days of Kalaryndor's reign, it would give you the magical power to rival the greatest mages of Galletia's White Tower. Do you recall the oppressive aura that shrouded Kalaryndor when you fought him? When your power flourishes, you will be able to summon that at will. It is the aura of command, of the true chaotic nature of Darkness itself."
Claudia nodded slowly. That presence was not one she could easily forget, and she hoped she would never have use of it. "And this path I have set myself down? Is there a better way to return power to the Darkness, for if that is so, I will take up that new cause without a second thought."
The Patron shook his head sadly. "Your kind heart has won you several allies, Claudia Rosemont, but it will be your downfall one day. The Darkness thrives on chaos, and a decisive strike against Galletia is by far the most expedient way to accomplish this. I know you do not like excess bloodshed, but to save your people you must lash out against your roots."
Claudia swore under her breath. "And until I have returned power to the Darkness, my magic and that of all my vassals will not work?"
"As I have said, this is the case."
"And Famratyr, Sigfodr, Valfreyr and the other wolves, they will be trapped in their current form? Otmar and his giants will continue to become more and more sickly?"
"Yes, and the ogres, the harpies, the wargs and all the other creatures of Darkness will continue to die out. The changelings will be locked in the forms they wore when Kalaryndor died, losing their humanity with each passing day. Creatures tied more closely to the Darkness will have their very essence eaten away. Your human servants in the southern lands will be powerless to stop the great desert on their borders from overtaking their lands, burying them in the shifting sands. This summer has stretched on quite long already, Dark Lady. It shows no signs of ending soon. How long will it be before the crops begin to fail, and the land to bake? The rivers will run dry, and even the ice atop the highest mountain peaks will melt. All of this will come to pass if the Darkness does not rise to power once more."
"Then that settles it," Claudia murmured. "The forces of Darkness are going to march on Galletia once again. I don't like it, but I have no choice."
"And that's what sets you apart from Kalaryndor," the Patron said. "That elf would have relished the chance to raze the countryside of his greatest foe. I knew I saw promise in you, Claudia. Don't let me down now, not after all we've been through." And just like that, the Patron disappeared.
Jason paced anxiously around the deck. Famratyr lounged on a crate nearby, though his languor was nothing but a façade. The werewolf was tense and alert, using his sharp hearing to pick out any irregular sounds nearby. Azfelyndoran had strung his bow and had it set over his lap, and was even now inspecting his quiver. Saryndiel tapped his crossbow against his leg, scanning the waves.
Claudia stood beside Dareios at the wheel, and the Dark Lady tried to appear calm and composed. Dareios was visibly anxious, his knuckles white where he clutched the helm. "I'm taking a few risks I wouldn't under normal circumstances," he said through clenched teeth. "See those breakers on the starboard side? We're close to some shoals, shallower water. But I can't go too close without damaging the hull. Damn it, Lady Claudia, I don't like gambling unless I've fixed the odds."
"Maybe it won't show this time," Claudia said.
Dareios shook his head. "I don't think we're that lucky, ma'am. However that thing found us before, it's going to have an easier time this go around now that you've got your magic wand. Saryndiel! Is there any way for us to get through stretch faster?"
"There're slots for oars!" the dark elf called back.
"Not enough of us to row, it won't make a difference! Damn, I wish I had my crew back!"
"How much longer do you think we'll have until we're clear?"
Dareios shook his head. "A creature that size, m'lady? Who knows how much territory that serpent can claim? I won't consider us safe until at least tomorrow night at sundown, if we keep going at this pace."
"Such a long time?"
"Aye, afraid so. Stay watchful, m'lady."
The sun set an hour later, and as the crescent moon was rising in the sky, the sea began to seethe. "Get ready!" Famratyr roared, leveling a crossbow. "Here it comes!"
"Really, we hadn't noticed!" Azfelyndoran shouted back, slinging his quiver over his shoulder.
"Keep us on course, Dareios!" Saryndiel cried. "We might be able to outrun it!"
They all knew how hopeless this was. The serpent could easily outpace the ship; they had all seen that in their last encounter with the leviathan. The best they could hope for would be to drive it away. The coils of the serpent broke through the surface of the ocean, its bioluminescent patterns flickering up and down its length. "Fire!" Azfelyndoran cried.
The goblin in the rigging launched their quarrels, Famratyr and Jason following suit just after. As the others hurried to reload, Azfelyndoran fired arrow after arrow at the armored scales of the sea beast.
Claudia's hand tightened around the Rod, trying to summon up some vestige of dark power. It was likely that magic was the only thing that could save them now, and she was the only person who could do it. She reached for the power in the same way that she did when using her healing magic, but there was no response. She could feel the slight humming energy that was the last of her fading Light magic, but healing would do her no good here.
It was a futile effort; the Darkness would not permit her to wield the power that was rightfully hers. "Saryndiel!" she barked. "Get me a crossbow!" The first mate tossed her one of the ones he had set aside for himself, lining five up along the deck so he would not have to waste as much time reloading in the first salvo.
Claudia leveled the weapon and took aim at the thrashing serpent that was even now bearing down on the gray ship. The moment before she fired, the deck rocked as a heavy object dropped down from the sky and pushed her aside. "Oh, that won't do you any good, m'lady." Then, the pale white blur jumped from the deck again, sailing out over the ocean and striking the serpent.
The beast shrieked and fell back, obviously disoriented. The white comet did not relent, battering it about its large triangular head. Azfelyndoran slowly eased the tension from his bow. "Mother have mercy, do you think that is…"
Claudia nodded. "Yes, it's most certainly him."
Xtarrohz knocked the serpent back with his obsidian broadsword and jumped back to the deck of the gray ship. He let out a high pitched, wordless cry, and the water around the ship began to seethe. Pale gray shapes darted by underwater, echoing Xtarrohz's cry. They shot off at the serpent, spears made of driftwood and stingray barbs arced through the air and buried themselves in tiny gaps in the serpent's armor. Its blood began to stain the water a deep red, throwing the sharks the creatures herded into a frenzy.
Xtarrohz turned and winked at Claudia. "Did you think I'd just abandoned you? I swore an oath."
"You saved us all, didn't you?" Claudia asked. "You carried us all safely to shore after the Black Gambit was wrecked?"
"I assumed you would be rather angry if I didn't save the whole motley crew." The demon shrugged. "And I thought the captain and his mate might be useful to have around when you decided to sail back."
"Where did you go, Cold One?" Azfelyndoran asked.
Xtarrohz abjectly ignored him until Claudia posed them safe question. The demon turned and looked out at the serpent battling against the pale creatures beneath the waves. "I had a feeling that you'd run into this bastard again if you sailed back to Rhime. Or anywhere for that matter. I swore an oath to serve you, and part of that requires I keep you alive. So I struck off on my own to make a few deals. Pay off a few debts."
He tore off his tattered shirt, the cloth coming away easily in his hand, revealing his scarred chest and back. Claudia remembered many of the old pale slivers on his body, but new red gashes crisscrossed with the more familiar ones. "I owed the merfolk a blood debt, one that had to be paid if I was to get them to help you. So I paid it." He leveled his broadsword. "Now it's time to finish this little beastie off once and for all. M'lady, you and the others might want to stand back."
Then Xtarrohz leapt from the deck, soaring high into the air. A white mist poured from his mouth when he hit the crest of his arc, freezing the sea itself when it drifted lower. Xtarrohz landed gracefully on the ice and sprinted towards the leviathan, now writhing in pain from the attacks of the merfolk and their herded sharks. The demon raced across the frozen surface of the ocean, his heavy broadsword held in only one hand. He cried out again, and the merfolk pulled back, their pale bodies disappearing into the depths like ghosts.
The Cold One sprang from the icy pathway, shooting past the serpent's great horned head. He shot down onto a bony plate just between the curling horns, driving his fist into the scales. There was a shriek and a crack as the bony material cracked under the tremendous force of Xtarrohz's blow, and the serpent cried out. The demon jumped back to the ice in the water as the leviathan tried to descend beneath the waves.
The timbers of the ship's deck vibrated as all of the merfolk used their sonar to communicate at once. The sound must have affected the beast in some way, for the merfolk used it to shepherd the creature into deeper waters, away from the ship. More spears buried into the serpent's hide, and venom on the tips began to make the creature's movements sluggish. As it rose back above the waves, it roared at Xtarrohz. The demon roared right back. It was a guttural, primal sound, a battle cry from before there was any concept of words. Jason and Famratyr recoiled subconsciously, their warrior instincts taking control of them.
The leviathan lashed out with its tail, shattering much of Xtarrohz's ice bridge. The demon jumped up again, bringing his broadsword around. There was a great crash and a sound like the shriek of metal on metal as the obsidian cut through the serpent's scales. Xtarrohz landed on a new ice floe as the serpent writhed in its death throes. A great spray of blood poured from the gash where Xtarrohz had struck it, and when it sank beneath the waves, the sharks were on it in an instant.
The ocean was soon red with blood for as far as Claudia could see. The last of the light from the serpent's scales faded away completely. Xtarrohz threw his head back and roared again, though this time it was a sound of triumph. Heads broke through the waves and joined in the victory cry. Azfelyndoran grasped the ship's railing to steady himself. "My lady, the Cold One has become much stronger since we saw him last. I'm sure that if it was within his power to do that to the serpent the last time we encountered it…"
"He would have defeated it then, yes," Claudia said. "Well, that all makes sense, doesn't it? I claimed the Rod and brought more power back to the Darkness. Xtarrohz could use dark magic before this, and as the Darkness grows in strength again, so does he."
The demon bounded back across the expanse of water to the gray ship and landed on the railing near Claudia, balancing on the balls of his bare feet. Several of the merfolk sliced through the water to the side of the ship as the rest of the gray creatures herded the sharks away and back into the depths. Many of the remaining merfolk peered up at Claudia from just above the surface, their bald and ridged heads just peeking above the water. But one of their number bobbed with his torso exposed to the wind, her webbed hands crossed over her scarred chest.
She made a series of sounds using whistles and clicks, never taking her eyes off the Dark Lady. Xtarrohz sighed. "She says that she is the… chieftain? Leader? Whatever, of this tribe… clan… group of merfolk. I do not think your language has the words to explain it, m'lady."
"I see. What is she called?"
Xtarrohz scoffed. "It doesn't really translate and I doubt you could make the sounds if you tried."
"Well, please tell her that I am grateful for her assistance in this matter."
Xtarrohz made a series of the strange clicking sounds, and the merfolk leader blinked up at him. She chattered again, and the demon turned back to Claudia. "She accepts your praise, though she and her... clan wonder why you did not use your power to strike the serpent down yourself. I'm wondering the same thing, you have your Rod."
Claudia glanced at her other vassals and sighed. "The power of Darkness is not strong enough to support Dark magic. Neither I nor the elves can use it yet. We're going to attack Galletia in the hopes that the chaos helps restore the Balance."
"Chaos happens to be something of a specialty of mine," Xtarrohz purred before relaying the information to the merfolk. The clan leader nodded slowly and turned to her followers. Claudia saw a small hole in her skin at the very top of her spine. The skin around it shifted whenever her chest rose and fell with each breath. Claudia was fascinated by it. The merfolk chattered again at Xtarrohz, and the demon glanced over at Claudia. "They say they'll follow the ship for a little while and make sure nothing else attacks you." He leaned on his broadsword. "As though I couldn't handle it on my own."
Dareios took one last look at the remains of the serpent disappearing beneath the waves and sighed. He turned the wheel away from the shoals and tacked back out into the open water.
Claudia and Jason leaned against the starboard rail, watching the merfolk knife through the sea. Their gray bodies cut through the sparkling surface of the water, occasionally surfacing for just a moment before plunging back down into the depths. Claudia was mesmerized by their graceful movements, the strength in their muscular tails.
"I'm amazed by how human they look," Jason said as one of the merfolk shot from underwater, soaring through the air for one spectacular, spellbinding moment and then disappearing into the darkness of the sea once more. "Much more so than the goblins, and even the elves to a point. They have rounded ears, and their eyes look like ours."
"But the nose and the teeth are so different."
"Better suited to living underwater," Jason said. "A narrower nose, especially if they don't hunt by smell, would make sense. And they would need sharper teeth if all they ate was fish. To get through the scales and all. It's a shame we can't understand their speech, there's so much I'd like to ask them."
Famratyr called out to the swordsman, and Jason took his leave to help the werewolf secure a line. Claudia watched the merfolk frolic through the waves for a while longer. She could not understand how Jason could think they were not so different than humans. These creatures were utterly foreign, their bodies and lifestyles entirely different from anything Claudia had yet encountered. The only thing that marked them as something remotely close to human was the intelligent and mischievous gleam in their eye.
But then, to Jason, maybe that was all that mattered.
A/N: Updates for Dark Pawn might be a little sporadic for the next few weeks. I'm finishing up Fire Eternal and another smaller project, so most of my time is being devoted to that. I'll still keep updating, but I won't be going out of my way for simultaneous updates any longer. Expect my schedule to be back on track by mid-May.