The Sea Forgets

I never wanted to be a sailor, but sometimes, you have to roll with the waves. When Captain Ren said I'd be sailing west, I expressed myself with a creative range of profanity I barely thought myself capable of. He sat unperturbed, and he slipped me the details about my departure. With less than a slip of his pen, I was reassigned to protect a ship heading beyond the edges of all I ever knew.

I wasn't as livid as I thought I'd be, since we'd discussed it over the prior months. The Captain and I fought corrupt nobles and their foreign contacts under the guise of our standard duties, which had brought us unwanted attention from above and below. Nevertheless, I knew my duty required me to travel to a foreign city on a distant continent, retracing the voyage of our country's greatest explorer, Admiral Shang He. There, I would need to stop a deal between a local cult and a sinister cabal from our own country.

The ship I'd be taking was a century-old relic, but it looked freshly launched when I saw it. The Sundrinker was a long-hulled craft from another era, a sea hawk laid down when Xianjing was unsurpassed on land or sea. The aft parts of the ship rose into a raised castle, relative to the lower front of the vessel. A few cannons protruded from the side, but not as many as a devoted warship. Two pontoons, float boards, were attached to either side to ensure that the vessel did not overturn or capsize. Two wooden paddle-wheels protruded from back of the craft, which helped propel it through the water. The lack of masts and sails was curious, and it only strove to draw more attention to the distinctive feature mounted on the fore deck.

It resembled a metal flower, attached by a metal stem descending to the lower decks. It was angled to the side to reflect the sunlight, the focused beam of which went down the central hold. Steam rose from metal grates beside the flower, as the vessel's wheels began to move. I did not know how this vehicle moved without wind or sails, but it was perhaps the last of its kind still afloat. A pudgy man with an eyepatch descended the vessel's gangplank. He wore the blue tunic of a naval officer, with only frayed threads from where countless medals hung. This was the man that the Captain swore by, his own mentor in our vigilante endeavors. Without him, this voyage would've been impossible.

"Sergeant Liu Haofeng?" he asked, his accent clearing marking him as being from a coastal province.

"Yes, sir," I saluted, nearly dropping my things.

"None of that around here, 'less I ask for it," he said. "And unless ye' don't fuss up, I won't ask for it."

"Still, the Captain sends his regards," I said, addressing the man by his former rank. "Rear Admiral Ma."

"Please, jus' call me Capt'n," he chuckled. "An' try not to confuse me with Liu. Army capt'n is a lesser rank than ship capt'n."

I nodded my head, and I looked closer at the ship. Two crew members, men speaking the Jeongseok dialect, the language of a tributary state off our coast. The Jeongseok were legendary sailors and pirate-hunters. Their national hero was an admiral who held off hundreds of pirates without losing a single ship, and they were the most sought-after crew in seafaring vessels. Their dialect was a cousin of Xianjing's common tongue, but their alphabet was very different.

"He speaks highly of you, you know," I said to Ma.

"I'd hope so. Who you think trained him in th' occult arts?" he said with a wink. "Ye don't survive too long on the seas without learning a few tricks."

"I hope I can learn, too."

Rear Admiral Ma, now a retired old man, stroked his beard. "We'll see. Sometimes, the best skill is just a weapon by your side, not silly superstitions and ancient arts."

"I am eager to learn anything I can."

"I bet ye' are," he said, clapping his hands. "But first, we need to shove off."

The crew immediately turned to face Captain Ma. I turned towards the docks. Dockworkers went about their business. Stevedores shoved heavy cargo. Passengers embarked on voyages to distant shores. Merchants unloaded exotic wares for sale in faraway markets. Sailors on leave left for the dockside bars and bordellos. Missionaries shouted at anyone within earshot, trying to save souls through shouting. Beggars gathered handfuls of coins from foreign lands, all equally worthless. Through the midday docks, I saw an official marching down the docks, entourage in tow. The man wore a black robe, and he was flanked by city guards on either side. Their uniform gait, and the iron grip on their spears, told me they were far bettered drilled than any customs officers I'd ever seen. Either he was a corrupt official that wanted to shake us down, or he had something less pleasant planned. Captain Ma wisely shouted commands to the crew in Jeongseok, ordering them to catch the sun and man the helm. We cast off the lines, and our escape began.

The harbor was a busy place, but our helmsman Joo Seung navigated it with a trivial ease. What I watched was not the frantic dodging between loaded ships, but the curious device that powered us. Two sailors moved towards the peculiar, flower-like structure, and they angled it directly at the midday sun. Nothing seemed to happen as moments dragged on forever. I was hoping for some device to start sparking, something to ignite, or some ornate machine begin to roar to life. I waited expectantly as we cleared the mouth of the harbor, and I failed to notice how fast the paddlewheels on the side of the ship were turning. I stared quizzically at them for a moment, when Ma called me over. He descended down an open hatch in the deck, and he bid me to follow.

I saw a strange machine in that hull, but not the thunderous behemoth I imagined moments ago. I saw the metal stem from above, and the light-beam that emerged from it. The stem was connected to a translucent tank of water, which was clearly being heated by the sunlight. The heated steam vanished into a labyrinthine network of piping, which connected to a massive axel in the rear of the ship. The realization clicked into place as I truly appreciated the ingenuity of our ancestors. The sun itself was being harnessed to make steam. The steam was used to move the paddlewheels. Judging from the treadmills connected to each wheel, walking sailors could provide movement when the sun was not shining. It was truly a fascinating concept, especially one that could only have come from a golden age that ended centuries ago. We in the army had enough problems securing pay for soldiers and supplies, so it was a miracle that even a single one of these craft had survived the chaos, corruption, and decay that sadly defined our land in the last century.

"Th' ship was gifted to th' Jeongseok, who were kind 'nuff to lend it to me," Ma said. "Back in my day, I ended 'nother pirate threat. The government refusing to pay my sailors and allies was 'nuff to get me thinkin'."

"Good to know. I am ready to help, however I may."

"Jus' do whatever First Mate Park has in mind for ya'," Ma said. "Keep yer weapons ready. Th' sea don't forget slights."

A short, bald woman descended the stairs and saluted Ma. She wore a heavy scarf, but I saw a jagged scar on her throat. I did not want to wonder how she got it. "Take the lubber to his quarters, and use 'im how you see fit."

Wordlessly, First Mate Park led me towards the aft of the ship. I stared mesmerized at the gears for a moment, before observing the massive wheels driving us forwards. The First Mate's face reddened, and I kept moving. She unlocked a door, and she wordlessly gestured me inside. I saw my bags were propped against a bunk, and I sat down. She handed me a key and left me to my own devices. Another sailor pulled her away, undoubtedly on some more important business than escorting a clueless landlubber. I sat down at my bunk, and a wave of tiredness came over me. I decided to sleep, since I did not know when they'd ask for my help again. I placed my trusty hammer, Master Key, beside my bed and fell asleep. I'd served aboard a few ships as part of escort and anti-piracy patrols, but I didn't know all the nautical terminology. I figured I'd start learning once they next woke me.

The sea lulled me to sleep like a mother's arms, and I felt myself drift to a tranquil nothingness. I felt myself drift over the sea, as though I was a swooping seabird. The wine-dark waters churned evilly. The gray clouds rapidly passed towards the horizon, as if fleeing some unseen threat. The rising waves crashed against rocky cliffs, vanishing in flecks of foam. A fleet massed in the shadow of a sheltered cove, gathering around a familiar ship. On the cliffs on either side, soldiers sat behind stone crenellations. Arquebusiers and archers stood behind palisade walls. Artillerists moved cannons, ballistae, and rockets into position. They erected bamboo ramps, at the base of which were strange craft resembling wood and canvas birds, with a teenage soldier in each. As they worked, ships formed into a battle line below.

At the center of the fleet was an unmistakable craft, the Sundrinker. Surrounding it was a fleet of craft I'd heard about but never seen, the geobukseon. They were long and low, covered in a turtle-like carapace of metal spikes. Cannons bristled from their low hulls, and a wooden dragon head on the prowl emitted a cloud of smoke. They moved in response to flags and drum beats from the Sundrinker's main deck. The main directing them was similarly familiar, resembling a younger version of Admiral Ma with only a few gray hairs. While probably twice as old as the sailors around him, he nevertheless moved with the sea-legs of a younger man. As he called the officers around him, I saw shapes darken the horizon. The Admiral drew his spyglass.

The fleet was far more ramshackle than the dozen or so turtle ships, but far more numerous. The flagship looked like a gigantic merchant junk that spent some time on the ocean floor, before being hastily salvaged and refloated. Its sails were all askew and crudely mended with leather, but it had no issues moving forwards. The sides bristled with rusted cannons and harpoon guns, perhaps to draw in enemy craft for boarding and capture. A heavy steel chain pulled the vessel, as though some immense submarine force moved it against the wind. The craft bore an aura of menace about it, due to the elongated ram beneath its prowl and mutilated limbs nailed along the sides. Carrion birds flew around the hull of the craft, feasting on the death it brought. It was surrounded by a small flotilla of four smaller craft, fishing vessels and ferries with fresh blood still staining the decks.

From the helm, I saw the mad admiral of that charnel fleet. He was clad in ornate robes, made of black silk with red rubies sewn into it. He was bald and clean shaven, and perhaps average of build. What was most unnerving about the man was the obsidian mask over his face, which was pressed too tightly against his skull to be natural. The mask was an eternally etched expression of apathy, as if uncaring for the fates of all around him. The members of that dreadful crew looked as though they'd been pulled from the grave, with diseased flesh and boils covering their flesh. The pirate admiral shouted an order to his underlings, and they readied their cannons. They launched fireworks into the sky, boldly announcing themselves to the defenders.

One of the turtle ships broke formation and charged ahead, cannons raised and ready. Suddenly, an enormous appendage shot out of the water. The tentacle swatted at the turtle ship, trying to wrap itself around the hull. The unseen creature tried to drag the vessel under, but the crew started rowing frantically. The captain ordered his gunners to fire. The cannons sounded, and bits of flesh mingled with smoke and seawater. The water turned a sickly pink, as the captain saw the necrotic tentacle float past him. As an excited look rose on his face, a second tendril rose from the water and smashed the boat into rocks. The lower decks filled with water, and sailors began to abandon ship. Unseen creatures pulled them under, and headless bodies began to float upwards. As water rose to the gunner decks, the captain gave a final order to fire at the water's surface. The tip of the other tentacle, intermingled with the blasted bodies of half-dead sharks and dead sailors, rose to the surface. On the deck of the Sundrinker, Admiral Ma clenched his teeth. The battle had begun.

The pirate fleet charged towards the defenders' positions. The smaller ships moved in first, where their shallower draft let them move with more agility. The dreadnaught's carrion birds began to fly towards the hillside forts, attacking the defenders' cover fire. The massive vultures, clearly no longer alive, crashed through stone walls like paper. Volleys of arrows and gunfire, brought down a pair, but only glanced the last. The defenders cheered as two carcasses crashed forever beneath the waves, never to fly again. The last undead flier fell back, but the defenders gave chase.

The garrison ignited the two rockets attached to each of the curious contraptions they'd assembled earlier. The young, light pilots held on tightly to the rocket assisted gliders, the bigeo, as they plummeted into the mad battle. One of the pilots flew above the fleeing undead vulture, temporarily blocking out the sun. The unholy creature looked up, only to receive a firebomb to the face. The boiling oil spread, sizzling its decomposing flesh like cooking rotting meat. It joined its kin at the bottom of the bay.

As the battle raged in the skies above, it intensified on the sea. Cannons cracked as the Sundrinker and the pirate mothership exchanged cannonfire from a distance. The smaller vessels tried closing in, but received broadsides from a moving screen of turtle-ships. The wounded smaller craft limped close to the fleet, and undead crew impaled themselves on the vessels' spikes as they tried to board. Undead sailors tried to climb aboard the turtle ships from the ocean and wrecked ships, but received only spears to the head and volleys of crossbow bolts and musketfire. Divers leaped off the sides of ships, with knives and crossbows, and air bladders attached to their mouths. They turned the waters read as they fought the undead marines and sea creatures, coming up for air and to finish their foes. I saw a female diver drive her knife through an undead pirate's neck, only to receive a clawed hand across her throat. Her blood turned the water red, but she managed to swim for the closest ship. A friendly hand pulled her up, which I recognized as Admiral Ma.

The enemy dreadnaught closed in, but slowed at the mouth of the inlet. There it lingered, as though aware the water was too shallow to conceal some immense, undersea bulk. The captain gestured forwards with his hand, so the vessel lurched forwards. The pirate ship's size entirely closed the inlet, like an assassin's hands around a victim's throat. The chain on the pirate ship snapped, and the leviathan breached the waves. Admiral Ma stared directly at it, horrified by the monster before him.

It was a whale in life, but no longer obeyed the instincts of a living creature. It was empowered by an unholy force, innately hostile to all that still drew breath. Like a loosed rabid dog, the decomposing body of the undead whale thrashed into the shallow inlet. The smaller vessels would be as toys before a storm, snapped easily beneath its bulk. The earlier attacks were merely to soften them down through attrition, so the fearsome necromancer and his pet could trap them. Admiral Ma immediately knew fear then, imaging his waterlogged corpse reanimated as an undead sailor on that horrid corpse ship.

Two direct hits from firebombs dropped by bigeo pilots snapped the Admiral back. He realized, as fearsome as this necromantic pirate admiral was, his foe had made a reckless move. The shallow waters of the inlet, which he'd selected specifically to counter undersea monsters, were barely enough to contain the whale. Much of the beast's bulk was thrashing above the surface. If he could immobilize it, it would give his shore batteries and fleet a chance to finish it, as well as hit the enemy flagship. He ordered the helmsman to turn the prowl at the monstrosity, and to ram it at full speed.

The prowl of the ship charged through the waves like a knight's lance. The undead cetacean smashed its tail against a turtle ship as sailors leapt of. The barnacles on its skin looked like swollen pustules, which burst as the front of the Sundrinker pierced through it. The vessel went through the sloughing, wet flesh of the undead monster like a dagger through exposed flesh. The whale thrashed for a moment, trying to free itself, but it was too late. The black bile spilled onto the deck, and the whale stopped moving. Ma sighed in relief, seeing his vessel acted like a stake through a vampire's chest.

On deck, Ma saw the necromancer's body slacken in shock. At once, he ordered his undead and half-dead underlings to unleash another broadside at the insolent mortals, but the well-drilled turtle ships were faster. The six remaining vessels reformed their line, and their crews rowed in determined unison through the flotsam-filled waters. The shore batteries opened up on the enemy vessel, which was helpless without the large beast to pull it. A salvo of cannonballs, mortar shells, rockets, firebombs, and ballista bolts descended onto it, blasting the vessel to the bottom of the ocean.

The smoke rose for hours before they dared go near the wreckage. The wounded woman with the neck scar, whom I recognized as Park, received attention from the ship's surgeon. Ma's flagship passed over the debris, and he pulled a curious object from the drink: the necromancer's mask. He polished his shirt on it, before sticking it in the folds of his armor. He looked around to ensure no one saw his unofficial souvenir, and I heard a strange voice in my head. It sounded like a slow, rasping voice reminiscent of macabre bone chimes.

"I will not forget this, Admiral."

When the strange dream ended, I found I was partially right. I answered the pounding on my door to see the helmsman I'd seen leaving the harbor, Joo Seung. He shouted something in Jeongseok, and I understood it as they needed all warriors on deck. Having no time to put on my armor, I grabbed my hammer and followed him up the stairs. I'd fought pirates enough times to know how it goes. I recalled my most recent encounter with pirates, where I'd had to use my hammer up close after my crew fell like broken toys. I saw the sailors arming themselves with a motley blend of blunderbusses, dao sabers, crossbows, and pistols.

I saw First Mate Park from earlier, wordlessly gesturing to two larger sailors to help move a large barrel up to the deck. I moved right passed them onto the deck, foolishly expecting to be in the middle of a mad melee. Beside her was a tall woman with a dagger in her teeth, using her free hand to flash hand gestures to Park. I recognized some of those hand gestures as ones we used in the army, for when we couldn't hear or stealth was required. The woman on deck fired a heavy dragon pistol, and she gave a signal to the other crew. I heard guns discharging, steel striking flesh, and all the other sounds of a thousand boarding actions. This time was something different.

I threw open the door, and the thing saw me. It was coiled on deck, its tendrils wrapped around the rigging. I could not identify any eyes, or even anything approaching a head. I could not identify any anatomy that might be immediately vulnerable, nor where its sensor organs might be. Even before my strange dream, I'd heard of leviathans of the deep, like giant squid and huge sharks, but I can barely describe the aquatic aberration before me. It resembled a jellyfish with spiny flesh. Its central body that scintillated like moonlight reflecting on a rippled pond. The bullets and crossbow bolts floated harmlessly in its gelatinous body. A reckless sailor slashed into it with his saber, but the gash mended as soon as the blade passed through. Another tentacle sent him smashing against the gunwale, where he moaned softly.

I cracked my knuckles. My hammer had met strange foes before, but none quite as strange as this. Cutting and piercing weapons had failed, and I doubted mine would fare better. However, I knew what it was like to battle an implacable foe. You didn't need to beat it, but you bought time for the people that could. The creature coiled itself around our metallic sunflower, and I heard metal buckling. I had to act fast and distract it, before it left us stranded.

"Hey, anyone have poison?" I asked. "I'll keep it busy!"

I didn't know how the creature saw or sensed its prey, but I guessed it wasn't by sight. I charged in with my hammer raised high, shouting obscenities. I saw its tendril coming to meet me, and I smashed my hammer into it from the opposite direction. An explosion of scintillating fluid poured onto the deck from where the hammer struck, stinking somewhere between dead fish and rotting meat. I had no time to think about it, since two more tendrils whipped off the solar mast. I skipped over the first, but the second sent me sprawling.

I hit the ground as hard as my hammer hit enemies. I stared at the sky for a moment, and I felt myself being pulled towards the creature's central body. Some new orifice opened wide, and I knew exactly what its intentions were. I whipped the hammer around, smashing into the tendril that grabbed my legs like a gelatinous lasso. The hammer struck cleanly, vibrating as it rebounded off the deck. Instead of standing up, I immediately felt something peculiar. I'd expect a weapon to vibrate after I struck a hard surface, but not this much.

My monstrous foe was unencumbered by introspection. Two more tentacles lashed out at my legs, and I rolled back so they narrowly caressed my exposed hands. They were cold and clammy as a river in winter. I involuntarily shuttered as I leapt to my legs. A newfound excitement rocked my adrenaline-soaked body. It was like the vibrations in my hammer carried through the rest of my body, eager to smash this disgusting creature to a rancid stain on the deck. I laughed defiantly as I enclosed on its central body, or at least what passed for one.

My Master Key arced through the air, as though I was a blacksmith striking steel. The hammer struck the central body of that disgusting monster, swatting through its flailing tentacles. I wasn't so sure how to describe what happened next. The hammer rebounded at first, but I through my hips into the strike. Ripples ripped through its body cavity, propagating outwards like a pebble in a still pond. The strange lights traveled with those perturbations, flashing within its body. The intensity of the flash peaked as the hammer completed its journey, terminating on the other side of its membrane. The entire body popped like a bleeding blister, baptizing the deck in a putrid arabesque of bodily fluids. The remaining tentacles went limp, simmering into those pungent puddles I'd grown so used to.

"Hammer Hao!" one of the crewman shouted. "Hail the Hammer!"

"Hammer Hao!" another sailor cried.

Before I new what was going on, I was being grabbed from all sides, and hoisted up like the imperial palanquin. I managed to ignore the stink during the fight because I was hopped up on adrenaline, but it came roaring back with a vengeance. My nostrils relented, and my stomach soon after. Perhaps it was being bounced up and down by the crowd, perhaps it was the adrenaline wearing off, but I threw up all over the nearest sailor. The man wiped himself off and continued hoisting me around the deck. Out of the corner of my vision, I saw at least someone followed my advice, and poured a barrel of poison over the sides, to deter any other unwanted visitors.

The days that followed were mercifully less exciting than that. Ma mostly kept to himself, as First Mate Park ran most affairs on the ship. Thankfully, my duties were not dissimilar from those in the army, although the rocking of the vessel took some getting used to. The crew used all the same knots we learned in the army. They did all the same things: cooking, cleaning, guard duty, hauling cargo, and inspections before superior officers. I had a lot less problems there than I thought I would.

First Mate Park was easier on me, probably due to me being a landlubber and saving the ship. I never heard her speak, but she never needed to. She could convey all the displeasure she needed with a glare that would melt glaciers. I saw her talking with the Master Armorer, the woman who'd lead the armed sailors on deck, who I learned was named Kim. I never got to interact much with her, save for overhearing them talking in the hall once. I was cleaning out condensed water from the hull, when saw Park signing and Kim talking. I caught something about how they'd changed routes to the open seas of the northern latitudes, since it was faster than hugging coastal waters along the south. Even to my cursory knowledge of history, that was Shang He's route to the western continent. I wanted to ask Ma and Park about that strange dream, but I never got the courage to ask directly. For the next ten days it simmered within me, but I had enough mindless tasks to keep me distracted.

Our mornings on deck grew colder, and the deck more slippery. I dug my boots into the floor, even as my breath grew white and heavy. It was never as cold as the frozen frontiers along the northern steps, but stepping out into those pre-dawn mornings were like diving into an icy lake. I had few problems with staying awake, although the shorter days in those northern climes clashed with my internal clock. Nevertheless, I forced myself to rapidly complete tasks that required me be outside.

I was tying down some rigging when I heard a lookout cry from above. She clambered down from the top deck, alerting the officers as she could. The other sailors on deck moved to the starboard side of the ship, so we could see it. It was as white as a marble sculpture, drifting across the ocean. The rising sun had just illuminated it, so it had virtually snuck up on us during the night. I shuddered involuntarily once more, as if imagining being watched.

It was a massive island of ice, a floating mountain that drifted without land. It towered over us like a titanic beast stirring from the frigid sea. It was my first time seeing such things, and probably that for most of the crew. A sailor shouted, "Iceberg!" The helmsman turned hard to the port side, as though evading some unseen threat. Over the side of the craft, I saw smaller bits of ice bobbing in the water. This pack ice could easily pierce our hull, so I understood the crew's terror. Even as the iceberg drifted away, the crew continued staring. I joined them.

It protruded from the side of the iceberg, originally obscured from our view. The shape was half-entombed in ice. Its metallic carapace glistened in the daylight sun, and its lower portions vanished into the iceberg beneath. It reminded me immediately of a centipede, but with each segment made of frozen, rusted metal. Just looking at it, it was clear it predated the Unification. Instead of an insectile head, it was a dome-like carapace with two hollow voids on either side. It was reminiscent of a skull's eye sockets. It seemed to stare at us as it faded over the horizon. As it was nearly gone, I saw a strange red light near the head.

"I will not forget this, Admiral."

That echoed once more through my head, and I saw the red light increasing in intensity. It was like the light of a second sun, welling up in that aberrant metallic skull. Ma charged out from the lower decks, moving with a speed I'd never seen him capable of. He clambered up the deck, and wrenched control of the wheel away from the helmsman. He jerked it hard to the side, while barking orders to hold on. A bright red beam arched through the sky, directly from the creature's head. It took me a split second to realize it was aimed at us.

Ma's turn sent me sprawling on the deck. I had no time to react, since the beam struck where we'd been moments before. A column of steam rose from the waters behind us, sending out a rapidly, rising wave in our wake. I clutched onto the rigging, but one sailor was not so lucky, and slid towards the water. The wave impacted us, knocking us about like a child's toy. I reached out for him, but he struck his head on the deck and plummeted into the water.

I had no time to mourn, because our own craft now perched precariously at the top of a cresting wave. It was though we'd summited a mountain of blue, and now gravity would have its due. The deck shifted nearly vertical the other direction, and my body through itself the other way. I could not see where we were relative to the ocean, and part of me did not want to know. The ocean roared as sailors screamed. I closed my eyes, screamed, and felt the water wash over me.

I counted to three, and I opened my eyes once more. The wave was gone, and so was some of the crew. Ever fearful of a second shot, I looked over the horizon. I scanned in all directions, seeking that accursed icon within the iceberg, but I could not find it. The other sailors stood up after me, and they began calling out for their lost compatriots. With a newfound concept in my head, I stormed up towards the helm. Ma's downcast gaze was enough to remind me of my question.

"Admiral Ma," I addressed him. "Who was that? What did he do?"

"Th' sea don't forget slights," Ma said, sighing. "Not ever."

"That doesn't answer my question."

First Mate Park and Master Armorer Kim came up on deck, flanking each other as though trying to interpose themselves between the Captain and I. Instead, they positioned themselves between the rest of the crew and I, and the Captain spoke in hushed tones.

"Listen, Hao, ye recall the sea monster?"

I nodded.

"That weren't no accident," he said. "Long ago, I led the Jeongseok navy to a victory over a terrible necromancer, the King of the Black Coast."

"The battle that scarred First Mate Park?"

Ma staggered back at my words, as though I'd just punched him in the gut. "How'd ye know?"

"I'm not sure, but Ren gave me some sort of spell that lets me read..."

"Ah, that be a psychic sensitivity o' sorts," he said. "Was thinkin' about that day, back when th' sea jelly came."

"What are you talking about?"

"Whatever Ren did to ye, ye can sense some psychic messages," Ma said. "Ones meant for me."

"From who? Who or what exactly is this King of the Black Coast?"

"He's gon' through many names, best I can tell," Ma explained. "Tried tah be a pirate lord, but we kept tha' from happenin'."

"And how is he still around?"

"Dark powers from Old World artifacts. He reappeared in th' west, callin' himself Azar. Set himself up a cult, and personally vexes us when we sail."

"We?" I caught his words carefully.

"Th' crew of this vessel, Hao," Ma said. "Most o' us are veterans of that battle."

"Then why sail at all?"

"'Cause whatever is going on in this foreign city needs to stop," Ma said. "We've braved 'im before, and we'll do it again."

"Captain Ma, I don't know who or what this Azar is," I said. "But he's able to send sea monsters, control strange relics, and who knows what else? We have to be on edge."

Ma laughed heartily. "Oh, I am. Always," he gestured to the crew. "So ar' they, and we still live."

"For now."

"We all die some day, lad," he said. "Unless ye find yourself in a more peculiar fate."

"Captain Ma, can you tell me everything else you know on him?"

"Jus' he be wrapped up in all this somehow," he said. "But nothin' we can't deal with."

I sighed. I got the sense there was things he was not telling me, but I was in no mood to press the knife. The Captain's patience was wearing thin, and there was much to do on the ship. We had to get back underway, lest more uninvited guests try to clamber aboard. Besides, we were making good time, and according to the navigator, we were more than halfway there. The winds favored us, even if the fates were whimsical.

Once more, the days melded together. The frigid winds began to warm up, subtly at first, and then definitively. The days lengthened once more, as we descended towards warmer climes. We saw some seabirds, as we approached this brand-new continent for the first time. I'd never been on a ship for this long, so I was honestly looking forwards to setting foot on solid ground once more. I wanted to kiss the earth so badly, but my voyage was not yet over.

We sailed towards our destination, and I ceased to worry. I wore my heavy clothing less, until I eventually forwent it entirely. The fetid air was pregnant with life, from the mosquitos to the leaping fish. As we closed in, we saw other craft on the water. There was a sharp, swift vessel from the south that Ma called a dhow. There was a square-rigged galleon bearing the symbols of a foreign kingdom. There were catamarans from the most remote islands, skating across the surface of the tropical waters. We saw fishing boats, trade vessels, and foreign warships in greater number, as we closed in that final city. Of course it would not be so easy.

It began at dawn, when we saw a vessel seemingly adrift. The vessel was a frigate with three masts, but several things about it immediately jumped out. Mounted on both sides were large paddlewheels, not dissimilar from those on our own craft. Out of the rear was a large metallic spider, which I could not identify. There were a handful of cannons on the sides, all of which showed signs of use. The utterly ripped sails and the half-toppled mast in the center of the craft indicated it met a violent end. I wondered if pirates attacked it, perhaps leaving its gutted hull as a warning. I understood the name painted on the sides, despite being in foreign characters I'd never seen before: Kristoval's Sling. As we examined it, we saw lights from the aft. They were reflections of light against metal, perhaps from using a mirror signal us. I wasn't sure about the others, but I immediately identified the lights as a distress signal.

As curious as I was, I did not want to take any undo risks. Admiral Ma, however, was of another opinion. The smoke-stack and paddlewheels were far too similar to Xianjing designs, so he wanted to see if the foreigners truly had developed a new method of propulsion, or once more copied our ideas. Shang He gave them trinkets from Xianjing, which they reverse-engineered and scarcely improved upon. If foreigners were developing systems like our solar steam engine, then we were no longer protected by wind and currents. I found the concerns valid, but I did not like being selected to lead the boarding party. The fact I slipped, letting him know I could read the name, probably helped seal my fate.

We pulled alongside the Kristoval's Sling on a small launch. We kept our distance for obvious reasons, like not smashing into them or easily allowing pirates aboard. I hurled my grappling hook over the side, and I pulled it taught before climbing. My heart pounded like the hooves of a charging warhorse. My crossbow and hammer hung from my belt, but I held neither in my hands as I climbed. My fellow marines trained guns and crossbows on the deck above me, in case any pirates leapt out to get us. I remembered the time my unit concealed our troop transport as a rich merchant ship, to lure greedy pirates into attacking it. That was how we cleared out pirates blighting poor fishing villages, and I was well aware of similar tricks done with derelict ships and fake distress calls. That was before considering some evil necromancer with a grudge against Ma. I considered perhaps being away from the Sundrinker would be safer, since I was further from the former Admiral.

When I pulled myself up on deck, I felt curiosity more than caution. The felled mast still partially stood due to leaning against another. I ordered the squad to keep away from it, lest we be pinned beneath collapsing rigging. The silence on deck was eerie, as we saw the distinctive rust-red of dried blood. I saw no bodies, but that did not mean there would be none. The pirates might've thrown them overboard, or worse, reanimated them. We did have a necromancer out for us, after all. I pushed those thoughts out of my head as I ordered a marine to probe the hatch to the lower decks with a boarding pike. The last thing I wanted to do was blunder into any traps, left by either panicked survivors or spiteful pirates. The awful creaking from that broken mast was enough to get me to feverishly look back up top.

The first room we entered was far cleaner than I'd thought it would be. The walls were finished with white paint, and the floor was almost clean enough to eat off of, if not for the bloodstains and smashed furniture. I saw a heap of books spilling out from a wrecked shelf, spitefully ruined by some strange substance poured over them. The lower deck appeared to be a small library or study, but was reduced to a charnel house of knowledge. I spotted a small kitchen beyond a wrecked table, which had a dozen seats on it. A stairwell led deeper into the ship, and I led the way with my hammer raised.

Perhaps it was my weight in armor, or perhaps it was a trap, but my foot went through one of the stairs. The next thing I recommend was plummeting for a second, and then finding myself staring up at the ceiling. I then noticed something peculiar: a light above me. It was not natural sunlight, nor was it the familiar light of a torch or lamp. It was a lantern with a sphere of glass inside, but it emitted very little heat. Leather, or a material like it, connected it to a line of other spheres on the ceiling. The other marines came over to help me, but I instead pointed to the ceiling. A short man hoisted me back to my feet, as I guessed his whole body was made of muscle. We followed the strange wrapped wire towards the rear of the ship, where I'd first seen the distress signal.

Towards the aft of the ship was a large wooden door, beyond which terminated a network of piping and wires. It was almost as complex as the Sundrinker's own engine, but this seemed far more rudimentary, and very experimental. A disgusting odor came behind the door, but it was not as bad as the sea jelly that attacked us at the start of our voyage. Having lived in close proximity to other sailors for over two months, I was almost inured to these smells. I immediately thought of how lucky we were to have flush toilets on our vessel, but these backwards barbarians might not be so fortunate. When I heard footsteps behind the door, I ordered the others to switch to less-lethal tactics if my orders failed. I had no urge to harm civilians, since we needed to know more about this craft.

I knocked on the door with my armored fist. "Hello," I said, identifying myself in a language I'd never spoken but knew due to strange magic. "I am Sergeant Liu Haofeng of the Imperial Xianjing Army. May I ask if you need help?"

"Oh, my," came a feminine voice from beyond the door. Each word was slowed into a slightly accented draw. "Xianjing? Am I really hearing this?"

"Yes, ma'am," I said. "We saw your distress call, and we are checking for survivors. May we come in?"

I heard a strange chanting beyond the door, words I could not comprehend. There was a flash of light, and then I heard the door unlock. The door opened slowly, and my comrades held their weapons close. I gestured for them to stand down, and I saw the person that stood beyond the door. She threw the door wide, and I saw for the first time. She grinned confidently and coyly, clad in an immaculate white dress. She had the pale skin of a foreigner, with long red locks that descended towards her shoulder. She seemed to glide out the door, and she placed her hand on her hip. In her other hand was a scoped crossbow, pointed down at the ground.

"What took y'all so long?" she asked, her voice absolutely melodic. "Never met folks from Xianjing before."

She stuck her leg out and snapped her finger. A crossbow bolt slid into her cocked weapon, moved by an unseen hand. Still, her hand remained off the trigger, and it was pointed away from us. That was what mattered.

"Excuse us, ma'am," I said, bowing in the Xianjing manner. "We didn't anticipate launching any rescue missions, but we saw the signal."

"Never met folks from Xianjing before," she said, extending her hand. "I'm Sabia Martell, but my students call me Sabia the Stargazer."

I took her hand. "Pleased to meet you, Sabia," I said, trying to focus on the mission. She'd just demonstrated her powers, but I had no idea if she was hostile or not. "What happened to your ship?"

"Aw, it was a tragedy. I was with the University of Saint Kristoval, and we took our ship out here to test my new telescope," she said. "But these pirates attacked, and I stayed hidden until they left."

I scanned about the room, looking for things to confirm or deny her story. I already had one wizard after me, and I had no urge to anger another. The stunning ones could always put you down fastest. I noticed her clothing smelled peculiarly, of whatever odor came from the room behind her. Her clothing was undoubtedly marinated in whatever stank like a latrine back there. That was, at least, a strong point in her favor.

I glanced behind her to see the room was clearly provisioned for a long stay. There was a bedroll, a mirror, a stash of food rations, a small cache of weapons, a stack of valuable-looking books, and even a chest of choice clothing. There was a small glass porthole, from which she could see our ship in the distance. Behind her, I could not help but look at the curious machine that filled up most of the room. The pipes from above fed into a putrid-smelling pressure vessel, which fed into a larger cylinder. At regular intervals, there was a pounding from within, and a massive piston shaft would jerk back. The wires connected to this machine, which I presumed was some sort of power. I remember Ren's letter said the ancients found ways to domesticate lightning, so perhaps this was the type of machine they referred to.

"Like what you see?" she asked.

"Not what I smell," I replied.

"The ship's toilets all empty into that," she said. "The awful gas gets concentrated, and feed into the combustion tank. That's what powers the ship."

I continued smelling, and my face winced. Fresh carnage from a battle was one thing, but this smell reminded me of what happened when soldiers were cut down in melee and crapped themselves ingloriously. I wasn't sure which was worse. The rest of the marines and Sabia read my disgust like the cover of a book.

"Sorry, sugar. It's still a work in progress. We're lucky it didn't explode, like the first two."

"We have a cleaner method of propulsion," I said. "But we need to get you out of here. This vessel was heavily damaged, and I'm not sure how much longer it will stay afloat."

"I will gather my things and join you," she said, poking me with her finger. She vanished into the room, quickly throwing her things into the bag. I ordered one of the marines to start taking notes of the machine, and another to take some of those glass lanterns from the hallway outside. I let her keep her weapons, since I did not see the point in arguing with a wizard. She could've killed me with a thought, as far as I knew, but I did not want to know.

We took a more direct way to the top deck, and I saw something we'd missed. I saw a dead man, dressed in strange robes. In his hands was a rusted cutlass, but the design on his robes was the most curious bit. Two orange hands were emblazoned on his sleeves, one under each arm. As bizarre as his wardrobe was, though, the thing on his face was far more disturbing. It was a strange mask, a black one like I recalled from my earlier dream. I brought the hammer down on it without thinking, sending bits of cheap ceramic and pulverized skull in all directions.

"Not a fan of the Hands of Azar, I see," Sabia quipped. "That's something we can agree on."

"They were the ones that attacked you?"

"Yes. One of their missionary ships pulled alongside us, and demanded we surrender as converts," Sabia said. "They don't take disagreement lightly."

My mind started racing faster and faster, as I realized what I'd blundered into. I redoubled our pace back to the launch, when I heard the explosion. I did not need an explanation. I did not care if that machine finally blew up, or if it was some magical malfeasance. My heart raced and pounded as I ascended those stairs. A marine fell through the stairs, and I ordered the rest of them get to the boat. I went back downstairs as I heard the hull began to groan, and water rush in from the sides. Above, I heard the tottering mast start creaking precariously. As my comrades left, I went down to save the trapped marine. My comrades now had a native guide, so I judged myself as expendable. I wasn't going to leave a man behind, even if it killed me.

I charged down the stairs, and I saw the man's leg stuck between rotting planks. A length of wood partially impaled itself through his shin. If I used raw strength, I would've had to pull him out. I had my solution already in hand. I brought Master Key down on the offending step. The plank gave way like balsa wood, and I hurled him over my shoulder as he yelped in agony. Water rushed in behind us, and it came like an implacable pursuer. The ocean roared like a hungry beast, but I kept moving. Just as I reached the deck, the midmast finally came crashing down.

Splinters rained shrapnel, and I plunged deep into the ocean. I felt my grip on the marine slacken, but I clenched my hands tight. I was sinking in my armor, but I'd swam in this before. Gravity sent me tumbling down to the depths, as my vision blurred into a kaleidoscopic distortion. I struggled to orient my self as I fell deeper. I forced myself upwards in one final grasp, seeing a black object hovering above me. I grabbed into it, and I pulled myself and my comrade into the fresh air.

For a moment, we clutched that piece of debris for dear life, wondering if anyone saw us. The launch had made it a safe distance away, and I was glad they'd followed orders. If they'd waited behind, they'd all be on the bottom. They continued rowing back to the ship, despite my frantic waving and shouting. A now-familiar bell of red hair turned in my direction, and pointed me out to the rest of the crew. The boat came back towards us, but I did not breathe a sigh of relief. The most dangerous time in a rescue was when the victim saw the rescuer, after all, because they relax. As a Sergeant, I did not have that luxury.

By the time we were all dried and cleaned aboard the ship, I brought Sabia to Captain Ma and First Mate Park for debriefing. I translated for them, until Sabia grew frustrated. She started to move her hands and finger in odd patterns, muttering nonsensical words. A second after she completed, she spoke directly with Ma and Park in their native tongue. I do not know much about the supernatural, but I wonder if it was a spell or power similar to what Ren did to me. I informed Ma about what transpired, and Sabia described herself. I sat passively in the room, silently allowing my superiors to interview the woman I rescued.

Sabia Martell, as she was called, was a lecturer at the University of Saint Kristoval, in the city of Terminas. She was an astronomer, tracking the movements of stars, planets, and celestial bodies, and an apprentice wizard. She stated her specialty was divination, but she only knew a few simple spells. That was enough to help her survive the pirate raid, by finding places the pirates were not. She deftly answered the questions that Ma and Park posed her, disarming and surrendering a pouch of spell components when asked. She requested she be returned to Terminas if that was not too far out of the way. Ma agreed, in request for her help our upon arrival. She was too happy to agree, although a woman with her powers might've been able to tell. As we ended the interview, though, she stated we were being watched. The First Mate asked how.

"Some sort of powerful artifact is letting them see us," she said. "But I sense an unpleasant presence."

The conversation was cut short by a sailor running into the room. I could barely make it his words, which escaped his lips in between panting gasps. Another ship was spotted, and it was firing at us. Goosebumps crawled up my skin. My heart quickened. I felt it in my mind once more, like the dark shadow of a swooping predator. Its message descended on my mind, though I was not its intended target.

"I will not forget this, Admiral."

Sabia glared Ma, and then I, as though she'd also heard that strange message. She glowered at Ma, and her lips began to move. I never know if she said anything, since I ran out in a hurry. I went to join the crew as we prepared for battle. I moved around belowdecks, working with the artillery teams to target the enemy ship. We readied our weapons, and I looked out the gun port to behold the enemy vessel.

It was bigger than I hoped it was. It was a four-masted carrack, a castle on the sea bristling with guns. I remembered the Master Armorer saying they were mostly obsolete, but still used for cargo. While it was far away, I clearly saw a flag on its prowl with two orange hands. The name Fist of Azar was written on the side in blood red letters. Wisps of smoke appeared from the cannons protruding from its sides. I saw cannonballs splash into the waters before us, and I heard screaming above deck. Our speed and bearing did not change, but I did not want to think about what was going on above decks.

Master Armorer Kim ordered us to load our rocket-assisted ballistae, which were positioned at the rear of the ship. From the flags outside, I saw we were sailing directly into the wind, towards the Azarites' backside. Our enemy tried turning towards us, but we were far faster. I saw dots on what I presumed to be their rigging, sailors clambering to turn their sails. As we closed in, I could see the back of the craft. It was trimmed in gold and silver, or at least painted to look like it. A stained-glass window, made in the image of Azar's mask, directly faced us. We got the order to fire at their rudder, and we took it.

Rocketry was largely unknown to the foreigners, according to Ren. While their cannons were powerful, our small craft had range and speed. The ballistae were not as powerful as a cannon at close range, but we didn't need to be. Unlike cannon balls, the longer the rocket flew, the faster and more powerful it got. While they could be inaccurate, ours were specifically designed to destroy enemy fortifications. I laughed as the first of our rockets struck their rubber, blowing it to bits. The second one smashed into the window, shattering the bottom half. The other crews, manning our more accurate rifled cannons, took potshots at the exposed hull near the waterline. I cheered in excitement, but I was cheering too soon.

While they didn't have rocket ballistae or rifled cannons, they did have some unpleasant surprises. From atop the enemy masts, dark wings opened. I blinked. First, I thought they were some giant carrion bird like the dream, or some dark spirits of the underworld. Instead, I saw they were something far less dramatic, but no less fantastic. Cultists with hang gliders jumped off the top of the rigging, pulling up as they approached the water's edge. One unlucky cultist did not, and instead plummeted to his death. The remaining four glided over the surface of the water, heading directly for our helm. I ordered the nearest sailor to be a powder monkey in my stead, because I had to repel boarders. I grabbed my crossbow and stormed onto the deck. I felt that Azar truly was watching us, because he was adapting the Admiral's old tactics against him.

As hard as it was to hit a rapidly moving target, I was proud I managed to hit one of the gliders' wings. However, one small hole wasn't enough to send him plummeting into the sea. A blast from the First Mate's blunderbuss, however, was. The first of them crashed into our side, becoming a bloody stain on our float-planks. The assembled crew on deck unloaded a volley into the air, but unfortunately, a glider crashed right into them. He exploded a second later. The third overshot us, and tumbled harmlessly, almost humorlessly into the sea beyond. Another glider came down, but this one was no suicide bomber. He landed on deck with a supernatural grace, and I immediately identified my highest priority target. He spun two axes around in his hands, and he hacked down the two sailors nearest to him. I raised my hammer and charged.

The man stormed towards the helm and Ma's room. It was as though he knew exactly where the Admiral was. He was dressed in robes, a hood, and a mask like the dead pirate I'd seen, but I clearly saw armor on him. Each of his strides brought him closer to the door, as though he knew exactly where to go. He smashed his dual hand-axes into the door, bashing it clear off the hinges. He was so single-minded on his mission, he barely noticed my hammer heading towards his skull. Much to my annoyance, the ship behind unleashed another volley, which was a little close for comfort. The wake was enough to throw off my hammer at what should've been the moment of impact.

Unfortunately for me, the cult assassin was now aware of me. He brought his axe towards my chest, but my plate turned the first blade aside. The second cut into my shoulder joint, but I was too high on adrenaline to register it. I charged into him, dropping him to the floor in Ma's room. I brought my hammer down on his prone body, but he kicked my knee, knocking me back a bit. He turned around to see Ma, who had two objects in hand. One was his officer's sword, his jian, and the other was a very familiar obsidian mask. The cultist lunged for Ma. I swung for the cultist.

I got there first. His skull collapsed into a wet paste on the hammer's head. Blood, brains, and teeth exploded outwards in an almost orgasmic rupture. Ma was painted in some of the mess, and he stood there, unsure of what to say. I looked at the mask in his hand, and I immediately felt a sense of foreboding come over me. As I struggled with what to say, I felt someone tug on my shoulder. I saw Sabia, with a crossbow in hand, gesturing me to follow her.

On my way out, I saw the crew was fighting the fire on deck. Barrels of water, blankets, and other measures were being used to keep the fire from spreading, but I had other things to focus on. On the gunnery deck, I noticed the cannons and ballistae were unmanned, since the artillery crews were needed to clean up upstairs. I saw a fully-loaded rocket ballista, but no one aiming it. I got behind it, and I saw the dire straits we were in.

The Fist of Azar started to pivot itself around in the fracas, thanks to a shift in the wind. I saw the opening in the hull from our earlier shots, but it was receding with each passing moment. It would be a hell of an unlucky shot. If I didn't make it, the cultist warship would blast us to smithereens. Then, I saw a hand caress my own. Sabia smiled, and glided her hand down the bolt's path. I felt myself making adjustments I instinctively knew to be correct, and the bolt flew. The rocket engine ignited, and I exhaled. Sabia only grinned, holding her finger to her lips.

I saw something flash out of the corner of my eyes. I turned to see the Fist of Azar's prowl rising into the sky. The rear castle had been blown off, and I'd probably struck the powder magazine or a critical compartment. Cultists futilely tried to leap into the ocean, with many dying on impact. I saw the wreckage begin to recede into the distance, and another explosion hit the stern of the ship. As glorious as the fireworks were, I did not want to sit around and watch them. I just wanted to get far away from anything to do with Azar.

We were not yet done, though. Sabia led me up to Ma's quarters, where the retired Admiral waited to greet us with open arms. The smile on his face was genuine, but I saw sweat run down his cheek. He was going to have explaining to do. Sabia pointed her finger, and she traced an imaginary line across the room. She reached into his nightstand, and she pulled out the relic.

"Here's how they were watching us," she said.

"Not anymore," I said, bringing up the hammer.

"Wait!" Ma protested. "'Tis my good luck charm. It's been with me since I beat 'im. I'd never-"

"You said the sea never forgets, Admiral," I said. "But it's time to forget this."

With that, I brought the hammer down on that accursed mask. One smash was not enough, so I gave it a few more for good measure. When I was done, I scraped the bits into a small sack, which I weighed down with some grapeshot pellets. I tied it, and I hurled it over the side, as hard as I could. I looked behind me, and I saw Ma sobbing. I was pitiful to watch him cry like that, after the amount of respect Ren had for him. I didn't know what to think, but it felt like some tremendous burden had been lifted from the ship.

"You did the right thing, Hao," came Sabia's voice. "Have you ever heard of a lich's phylactery?"

"No, but I guess it's something bad."

"Yes, very bad," Sabia said. "Azar, or whatever his name is, is no mere mortal. I suspect he was so eager to kill you so his minions could recollect it."

"But why? Wasn't Azar killed years ago?"

"Certain evil wizards undergo a dark ritual and become undead creatures called liches, which can regenerate from their phylactery."

"And Azar is a lich?"

"I am not certain, but he may be, or on that path," she said. "Either way, that mask was important to him."

"But why was the Admiral so secretive about it?"

"Probably a protective enchantment. You don't want an enemy destroying your phylactery, so you ensure unwary interlopers think it's a souvenir or relic."

"Like protective camouflage," I said. "But Ma has experience fighting the supernatural. Why would he succumb to it?"

"Sometimes we all do, and we don't realize it," she said, sighing. "But it's a risk that comes with all this."

I looked away for a moment, and I saw the crew was almost finished cleaning up. I felt a small pang of pride in myself, as I'd trained and drilled with them. They were a well-oiled machine, and they kept this ship moving just as impressively as the solar engine belowdecks. As a Sergeant, I appreciated their order, their discipline, and their efficiency. But I turned back to the battered door, and I saw First Mate Park and Master Armorer Kim helping former Rear Admiral Ma too his feet. I felt the wait of my hammer, and I wondered if someday, I too would succumb to these foes. If even the Admiral's training and experience was not enough to fully resist it, what did he have?

I looked once more at Ma, Kim, and Park. I realized it.

Loyalty. Friendship. Companionship.

I fought a lot of wars for bad reasons, for awful reasons. Ones we fought real dirty. In all that time, though, the one thing that got us all through it was our shared experience. Come hell, come high water, we'd be there. One of us may die, but the unit lived on. So long as an army stood, any unit, any ship, there would be hope. Any war had casualties, but I could only imagine what Ma was thinking now. Perhaps the deaths of all those sailors was weighing upon him, now the curse was lifted. At least he and his officers were alive, because an old officer like him could realize how quickly that could change.

I turned to see Sabia. She smiled at me, as though she could read my thoughts. For all I knew, she could. She grinned mischievously. I looked over her. Her dress from earlier was torn and bloodied, revealing a strong physique underneath. The smell from earlier was gone, replaced by the smell of perspiration. Her lips flushed red, and she leaned forwards.

"You really are dense, ain't ya?" she asked.

She kissed me, and I don't need to tell you the rest.

The last few days to Terminas were far more relaxing. Captain Ma never did confront or discipline me over what happened, but he did stop one day to thank me. I returned his bow, and I returned to my task. He came out of his cabin more often over those four days than the entire few months. I hadn't seen him so exuberant before, as he'd go around, being the nitpicking, micromanaging officer I'd feared. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Sabia moved into my quarters, at least after getting her some fresh clothes. She'd been taking notes on the solar steam engine, while finding out all she could about Xianjing. As much as I appreciated my adventures at sea, I was at home fighting on solid ground. I'd take a muddy swamp, like I hear Terminas is, over a ship any day. I don't know if it's as strange a place as I hear, but I'm about to find out. Most of all, I hope the sea forgets me, because try as I may, I will never forget the sea.