Curse of Darkness - Interlude on a Dark and Stormy Night


This is part of the Curse of Darkness series, though much later than the last posted tale.

The group has set sail from Egypt to carry the body of a fallen comrade home to Finland, far to the north.

We pick the story up at sea, two days out.
Sylus noticed it first. Maybe it was the Druid’s nature to sense what the weather had in store, or perhaps it was the pattern of creaks and groans the ship gave as the wind shifted subtly, but he looked around and took in a deep breath. The salt air was cool, with a slightly sour touch to it that spoke of rain. Quickly he transformed into a large sea bird and took to the sky, his gaze seeking the western horizon.

There he saw it, running from north to south, a line of tall clouds rising like huge gray anvils, lit by occasional flashes of lightning within. Returning to the deck, he alerted Ceburn at once. “Storm coming.”, was all he said, pointing to the west. It was enough.

The hardy Scott took hold of a ratline and stepped up onto the rail for a better view. All clouds were dark since the world had gone gray five, no six years past, but these were serious, and from the look of them they were an entire storm front moving in, a squall line far too broad to navigate around.

He turned to the shipmaster and asked, “How well can we weather a storm like that?” The sudden arch of the man’s eyebrow spoke volumes.

“We’d better make for a port, Prince Ceburn.”, shipmaster Artolis replied. “She’s just been refitted in Cairo, and I’d hate to have to do all of that again.”

“Cypress will be the nearest port.”, Ceburn replied, voicing his thoughts as they came to him. “Bring her about to four points east of true north, and make best speed. If you please, captain.”, he added at the end, recalling that while he might be a Prince, at sea the ship’s captain outranked him. All orders had to be phrased as requests.

The ship’s timbers groaned anew as they brought her about to the new course, and they picked up a bit of speed as the sails were trimmed, but to Sylus eye it didn’t look like enough. Cypress was someplace over the horizon, and the storm would be upon them before they were likely to sight the island.

“Captain”, he called, “I can speed our passage, but you had best bring the crew down from the masts. This may be a bit rough.”

“If you can bring the wind more to our back, all the better.”, the Captain replied. “But the sails will need to be trimmed, and that means hands aloft.” Even as he spoke though, he signaled the first mate to call the men down.

“It’s not the wind I’m calling.”, responded the Druid as he watched the last of the crew scramble to lay foot on timber. They had learned to heed the Druid’s warnings, for when the need was great all of nature answered his call.

Sylus stepped to the stern of the vessel and called up the sea to his aid. The waves shifted in their path, aligning and uniting behind the ship, and raising it up in a single effort. The ship rode high to the top of the huge swell, then began to slide down the leeward side. And then it was a wild, bounding ride as the vessel fled the wave, and the sea rose in pursuit. Wind and spray lashed at their faces as they went, and craft always seemed at the very brink of nosing under the deep, turbulent waters.

“This is insane!”, cried Artolis as he braced the ship’s wheel. “This is the kind of thing that nearly tore us apart off the Pillars of Hercules.”

“She’ll hold together.”, assured Sylus as he tempered the power of the wave slightly. “And it’s better this than the ones that storm will bring. “

The crew gripped the rails and held on as the ocean fled past scant feet away. If one lost their grip and was hurled into the sea they would be lost in seconds. There was no way the small ship could come about to retrieve them, even if they survived the monster wave that dogged their heels.

And the mad ride continued on and on, far longer than the captain or crew would have believed possible. Adventurers knew magics that could do spectacular things, but they seldom continued for hours on end. But each minute it continued carried them that much closer to a safe harbor, and left the storm that much farther behind.

But even the wiry Druid’s endurance had its limits, and with a gasp he finally had to release his grip on the sea, allowing the huge wave to release them, sweep past and dissipate. Sylus was pale and shaken, but he had bought them several hours of time, time they desperately needed.
“Land ho!”, came the call from aloft. Ahead a dark shape rose from the sea, a low, hilly isle dotted with a scattering of farms, and signal fires by the southern tip.

“That isn’t Cypress.”, Artolis cautioned. “Are you sure you read the charts aright?”

“I didn’t read the charts at all.”, Ceburn admitted ruefully. “I figured we could correct course once we were under way. Then the wave came and…”

“In the future, you should leave the navigation to me.”, grumbled the captain. But his gruff mood didn’t run deep. They had a port in sight and, as the old saying went, “Any port in a storm.”

The storm was close. They could feel the first raindrops strike with stinging speed as they came around the point and entered the harbor.

They had to reef the sails somewhat, despite the pending storm, for the port waters were well populated. Theirs hadn’t been the only ship to shelter here, and in the fading light they made out an oddly mixed flotilla.

“I count a score of fishing boats”, the Boatswain called, marking his tally as he went. “There are two hands of coastal traders like our own ship, a pair of Corsairs near the far shore, and a galley-rowed warship at the quay, and I'm still counting.”

“Well, they’ll be asking a steep port fee, that’s for certain.”, grumbled Ceburn. “Take us well in and cling to the western shoreline, but plumb the depth as we go. We don’t want to be bogged at the low tide.” Seeing the look in the captain’s eye he quickly added, “If you please, Captain.”

They navigated, slow and careful, to a spot near the sheltering hills, then set the anchor. The ship’s boat was lowered, and the captain gave the call, “All ashore who are going ashore!”.

Ceburn decided to stay with the ship, while Sylus and his tiger, their new guide Onyx, Imagena and the healer Twilla, the warrior woman Ursula and the Persian warrior Granwar decided to weather the storm ashore. The Captain released half a dozen of the crew for shore leave, with the warning to be back at the docks at sunset tomorrow to spell their shipmates.

The party puzzled at Onyx, the cat-warrior they’d met in western Africa. He’d been hired as a guide, but had stayed with them even after they’d left his homeland. He was a paradox. Sometimes he seemed sullen and withdrawn, sometimes open and outgoing. He had played in the bounding waves when they had first crossed the Mediterranean, then shivered in terror and complained how much he hated being wet. This time he seemed to be in his private mood again, wrapped in his black robes and crouching near the stern of the longboat. He was an odd one, even for this group.

They were met at the quay by a man with a tablet and two port guards. "You fly black sails. Do you carry the plague?"

"No, all aboard are healthy and well.", the Captain declared. "We're just come ashore to pay our fair dues, and release some for leave."

The man looked relieves. "How many ashore?" he asked, visibly counting heads. "My count is twelve."

“What are the port fees?”, asked Captain Artolus, cutting straight to the point.

“If you aren’t landing cargo or securing to the quay, there are none. Not in a storm. If you’re still here in three days, normal fees will apply.”

The Captain was taken aback by the reasonable terms. He’d expected to be gouged. Then he stopped. “Twelve?”, he asked, backtracking the conversation slightly. “We had thirteen.”

Quickly they counted heads and realized that someone was missing. Onyx was nowhere to be seen.

“Can the cat-man even swim”, the Boatswain asked in concern.

His question was answered a moment later as they heard splashing and choking from the water. A line was thrown and seized, and a thoroughly miserable cat was hauled from the water, his sodden robes clinging to his shivering body.

“He didn’t fall in.” Sylus said quietly. “He slipped overboard on his own.”

"Onyx, why? Are you wanted for something here?”, asked the Captain. Then, again, he backtracked the conversation and turned to the harbor agent. “Where is ‘here’, if I may ask. We took shelter at the first port we saw.”

“Ah, this is the port of Larisos, on the isle of Lesbos. You are in the harbor Kolpos Geras.”

There was a sudden silence among the crew. This island was a place that straddled the line between legend and myth, for many a time ships had gone seeking it and had sailed right through to the coast of Frygia. Other times ships bound for Frygian ports had had to navigate about the island that wasn’t marked on the charts.

Backtracking again, the captain returned to his exchange with the port master. “We may rotate who is ashore, but we’ll never have more than fifteen at a time. Is this an issue?”

“No problem, we just like to know how many of the guard to have on call. Sailors on leave and all that. I’m sure you understand.”

“Oh, we’re not all sailors.”, Granwar inserted. Some of us are …”

“Passengers.”, the Captain finished, not wishing to alarm the port clerk.

“Passengers.”, the man muttered thoughtfully as he looked over the disparate group. Many races, clothing from many lands, and many men with arms and armor. “You’re adventurers.”, he said firmly. “What is your business here?”, he added, his entire bearing changing in those few words.

“We are in mourning, taking a fallen friend home to be laid to rest with his people.”, Imagena explained. “We seek not trouble and we bring none.”

The man paused a long moment as he eyed her Egyptian white linens, and the holy symbol she wore prominently over her heart. The word of a priestess was good enough for him. He nodded sharply and moved towards the next long boat approaching the quay. One guard pointedly stayed nearby, to keep an eye on the party.
Sylus saw his friends safely to an Inn, then headed for the edge of town. Though the night was dark and starless and the storm harsh and cold, the need to hunt was upon him. Whether this came from his tiger, Smaug, or from his own heart hardly mattered. And if it be a stormy night in unfamiliar hills, what of it? He relished the challenge.
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Onyx struggled for self control. If he lashed out now, these men would be dead. He'd probably be dead as well soon after. It was raining and he was soaked to the skin. His sodden robes, normally clouds of billowing black silk that masked his form, now clung to him like a layer of mud and reeked of fish and seawater.

He had tried one of his signature moves, to vanish when people glanced away, then enter the town unseen. Instead he had swallowed a belly ful of seawater, and ended up having to call for help. And if he went into an inn to dry off, everyone would laugh at him. And then he'd have to kill them, and... It just wouldn't work.

He slunk off into the shadows, then trailed his companions to an inn. The private room he sought was expensive, but he stowed his gear there then slipped out a window and down to the streets below. He needed to be alone until his rage had passed.

His feet were silent as he sprang to the roof of a low building, then up and over the towns low wall. He was still wet, and would be for the rest of the night, but at least he'd be alone in his misery. Maybe he'd find something that needed killing....
"The Signal Lamp"? questioned Ursula, as they approached the inn.

"Aye", agreed their escort/guard/guide. "She's a decent place, perhaps priced a bit high for the average sailor, but you'll meet a better class of people." He kept his eyes straight ahead as he said this. If the innkeeper wanted to reject the huge bear-like woman or the skulking panther-man, that was his call. He had recommended the place not so much for their comfort as for his own. He had drawn the duty of keeping an eye on them, and if that meant sitting indoors instead of patrolling the docks on a stormy night, he was going to make sure it was a warm and comfortable place.
Smaug and his person had trekked for several miles before they got beyond the farms that surrounded the walled town. The woods were green, a sure sign that Druids had tended them during these dark and sunless days. The rain and wind had swept away all scent of game, and what sign the Tiger could pick up was sparse. These hills had been well hunted. Still, this wasn't simply for the meat. The process of the hunt itself was the stuff of life. And while the winds and rain of this night were a far cry from the snowy mountains of his home, the energy of the storm stirred the blood and brought the entire night to life.
The dice game was in it's third pass when the hatch opened, letting in the rain.

Ceburn looked up to see the man assigned the deck watch peering down.

"S-sir? There a man here, requesting permission to come aboard."

Ceburn was about to answer when Captain Artolis replied instead. "Of course he may board. Bring him down below."

The deck hand turned to the stranger who had appeared at the rail. The man stood over six feet tall, and even on the storm tossed deck he had an aire of elegance about him, as if the rain and winds meant nothing to him. The man stepped forward at the deck hand's gesture, carefully placed a long, coiled chain in the sailor's hand, and descended the ladder to the galley.

The deck hand looked at the chain, with it's assortment of barbed hooks and weights, and realized that the man had been surrendering his weapon. He closed the hatch, oddly thankful that he had to face the storm at night, instead of being locked below decks with that man.

"Prince Ceburn, of Dumfries? Lord of Carlisle?", the mas asked politely as he removed his hat. The raucus room went silent.

Ceburn hesitated a moment before standing. The stranger was, without question, a fiend of some sort. His skin was like buffed leather, the reddish brown color called "Oxblood". There were horns protruding from his forehead and his feet were cloven. His garb was a rich long coat, a blue so dark as to seem almost black in the witchlight of the hold. It was embroidered with an elaborate tracery of red and gold and, despite the storm outside it seemed completely dry.

"I'm Ceburn of Carlisle.", the Barbarian prince declared, his voice almost a challenge.

"Ah, well met sir.", declared the stranger. "I am Kyton, and have a small matter to discuss. Would privacy be better?"

Ceburn weighed this question and made a quick decision. There was little that could be said that would harm him more in the eyes of the crew than the scuttlebut that would follow if the conversation was secret. He gestured to the common board where a makeshift bar had been arranged.

The Devil accepted the hospitality, and the pair settled down to talk.

"As you are aware, you and your group have been accorded a certain amount of, shall we call it 'professional courtesy', by order of my master. A commonality of interest has brought forth an alliance of sorts.", the man began with an elaborate courtesy.

Ceburn, having heard the slippery tongued Bard talk like that, was immediately suspicious. Whenever Pen spoke that carefully he was up to something. He nodded as a reply, acknowledging what was said while offering no actual agreement.

The Devil smiled and continued. "I have a question. The black panther-man, Onyx: Is he a member of your company, or a hireling? He was paid to be a guide in west Africa, but has remained with you long after you left that territory. You haven't had any loot of the field to share since that time so I can't use that to judge his status. So I must know, is he a member of your company, and thus entitled to our protection, or is he simply hired help?"

Ceburn considered that carefully. He was tempted to simply claim the man as a companion, and thus provide him whatever safety was being offered, but he knew that if he lied to the Devil it would be known at once. The cat-man seldom spoke to anyone, and was frequently off about his own business. Hardly a trusted companion. At the same time though, he'd never had a servant or hireling that was that casual about attending to his employers. So...

"He's a member of our company.", the Barbarian prince replied.

"Ah, very well then. You seemed less than certain, so I'll have to gather a consensus from the other members of your company. But thank you for the hospitality, and may Furtuna always aid you."

And with that, the Devil finished his drink, rose and returned to the deck. Cebrun watched as he collected his weapon, then strode to the rail and vanished over the side. The Barbarian listened for the sound of leather wings in the night, but if they were there to be heard the sound was lost in the storm.
Sylus and Smaug sat still as statues, watching an odd scene play out. They had crossed the tracks of a large creature, Taurian by the trail sigh, and followed them for a time. Then they began to see a second set of tracks, small boot prints, almost child like by the size of them but the spacing spoke of a much longer stride. The boots were following the hooves, and the hunters were following both.

They had lead back towards town, to a small farmhouse. There they had spied their primary quarry, a towering creature of muscle and rage, a Minotaur. It was rummaging around an out building, apparently scrounging for food.

The local hunters must have nearly picked the hills clean if a man/beast like that was driven to raiding chicken coups.

Then a door opened, and a man stood framed in the opening, a lantern in one hand and a hay fork in the other. "Hey, you!, Get out of my henhouse! You leave my chickens alone!"

His blade was in his hand quick as thought. If the monster charged that farmer he'd have no choice.

To his surprise though, the huge thing turned and fled, straight at the hidden Ranger. It was the nature of such creatures, to either charge straight ahead in a bull's rush, or to stampede away in mad flight. This time it seemed to be doing both.

Sylus stood his ground until the last second, then twisted aside as the man/beast crashed past him. Cold iron flicked out, almost casually slashing a long bloody slice beneath the ribs of the towering thing. It bellowed in pain and shock, but continued it's retreat into the night.

Sylus considered pursuit. The Minotaur must have been starved indeed if he was unready to face a farmer with a fork, and now it was wounded as well. To hunt such a pitiful thing might be considered an act of mercy, but fate intervened. When the huntsman turned to follow he saw a man standing on the trail. He was standing quite straight, making no attempt to hide, yet he had approached without being heard by either Sylus or Smaug. And the Tiger's senses were sharp as a razor.

"I apologize if I'm interrupting", began the man as he doffed his hat and bowed. "My master has bid me to inquire of you, regarding the scout and guide called Onyx. Is he a member of your company, and thus entitled to our professional courtesy, or a hired hand?"

Without hesitation Sylus replied. "The Satyr hired him in that village. I don't know why. The cat hasn't guided us anywhere."

"Ah, that presents me with a dillemna. You say he's a hireling, but your companion says hes a member. I shall have to inquire further. Good evening."

And with that the Devil turned and casually walked off, vanishing into the storm.

Sylus listened to the Minotaur blundering through the brush and decided that it simply wasn't worth it. The poor creature had done nothing to deserve death this night. There was other prey they could hunt, prey that didn't talk or wear clothes.
Ursula took a long pull from her drink and eyed the man across the table. He had drawn only one card, which meant... She tossed two silver into the pot, just to read his reaction.

Across the crowded room her companions looked on and discussed recent events.

"He may have prayed to the river goddess for forgiveness", Granwar began. "But if this storm is any sign, she's not in a forgiving mood."

"There was nothing we could do. The town had already been taken, her people dead.", argued Twilla. "My master gave his life at her call. Does she demand the rest of ours as well?"

"If the river goddess had wanted us dead, we'd be dead.", Imagina offered quietly. "I think this is just her grief for her people. She is sad and so the sky weeps."

Their conversation was interrupted when a Devil walked into the bar. He was well dressed, a long embroidered coat sweeping from his shoulders as he used his equally fancy hat to sweep amost imaginary raindrops off of himself. His skin was red, and his horns were as sharp as the barb on his tail. He reached beneath his coat and extracted a glittering chain of black and silver, which he hung on a peg normally reserved for cloaks.

He fairly beamed at the party as he crossed the room, his broad smile and delighted manner sending a chill through most present.

"Allow me to introduce myself. I am Kyton, and although we've never met I've been following you for some time."

"Following us, or following our exploits?', the Healer asked pointedly.

The Devil had the good grace to look embarrassed, but recovered quickly. "It has been under the orders of my master. Apparently there is an alliance of convenience between Heaven and Hell, however brief and uneasy it might be. I and those like me have orders to afford you and your company, shall we say, special considerations. To date this has taken the form of timely warnings and the occasional distraction."

The Devil's explanation was interrupted by the Innkeeper who approached, pale and shaking, and obviously wishing to be anywhere but here.

"S-sir, if you please", he began. "My customers have asked me to inquire if you intend to stay?"

It was obvious that that wasn't what the rest of the room wanted, but it was as much as the poor man dared to ask.

The Devil smiled at him, a gesture that gave the poor man no comfort. "I'll be staying for a time, but you have my word I'll bring no harm to this hall, or any within it. Not this night, at least." He produced a coin from some unseen location and tossed it in the direction of the innkeeper. "A round of drinks for the house if you will."

The silvery gray coin sang as it bounced across the floor, as no one had the nerve to reach for it as it flew. Then the Innkeeper picked it up and saw that it was platinum, thick and solid. He all but fled to his place at the bar and began to serve, grateful for the excuse to be away from the generous benefactor.

"Ah, don't worry. Love of money is the root of all evil, after all. If I can feed their greed a bit, so much the better.", the fiend laughed as he drew up a chair and joined the companions.

"As I was saying, you have been extended certain courtesies, but that consideration is extended only to those of you on the quest to preserve civilization. You have a recent addition to your traveling troupe, a catfolk named Onyx. I must ask, is he an actual member of your company who has dedicated himself to your cause, or is he a mere hireling, here for the pay and gone when it stops?"

"Why are you asking us?", Imagina asked. "Shouldn't you be asking him that question?"

"I could, but I doubt I'd get an honest answer. Seeing me, he'll say whatever he thinks I want to hear. It's an affect I have on people."

The group conferred for a moment, then came to an agreement. "He's a member of our company until he demonstrates otherwise."

"Well and done then. You see, he's about to do something very stupid, and my aide was unsure if he should warn him off or not."

"Your 'aide' was leading him into trouble", Granwar asked, unhappy with the entire directions of this conversation. He had heard mention of an alliance between some of the gods and the lord of the pit, but this was the first evidence he'd actually seen of it.

"Oh no. Mortals make plenty of mistakes without our help", the Devil replied with a chuckle. "For example, the man at the card game across the way. He's trying to decide when to pull that extra card from his sleeve. He doesn't know that your friend, Ursula, already suspects that he's cheating. She'll catch him, and then, well...", he tapered off with a smile. Another platinum coin flew towards the man behind the bar. "Another round for the house! The night is cold."

"You're trying to get everyone drunk.", Granwar accused.

"No, they're already doing that. I'm just speeding the process along. No one is being forced to drink, after all.", came the smug reply. "That man behind me, the small one with the crooked teeth. He's trying to work up the nerve to steal my chain from the peg by the door. I give him maybe half a minute. It's free will, his mistake to make."

"How do you know all this?", Twilla asked.

"Ah, it's my nature. I can know the thought of anyone around me, and evil ones come through almost unbidden. "

The group watched in fascination as the mousy man gulped down the last of his drink and rose from his stool.

"How far will he get?", Granwar asked, an odd fascination possessing him..

"The night is dark. I promised not to harm any within this hall tonight, and I am a man of my word. Once he leaves the circle of light shed by the door, however, my promise no longer applies."

The man moved with short, hurried steps towards the door. His hand found a cloak that looked too long for him, and as it passed by the hanging chain, the weapon vanished into its folds. Two steps and he was out the door and gone.

The Devil made no move to rise, but Granwar did.

"It's too late for him.", the Devil called. "You should have acted sooner if you had truly wanted to stop him"
The night was indeed dark and the rain came down in wind driven sheets. The Persian quickly looked left and right, but the man was nowhere to be seen. He must have run as soon as he had passed the doorway.

He turned left, all but running down the covered walk before the Inn. And there, in the ally, he found the man.

The chain had wound itself around his neck, while the far end had looped itself over a cross brace between the buildings, and was slowly drawing the man aloft.

The thief struggled for breath, but couldn't even get enough air for a scream.

"Stop it!", Granwar ordered, but the chain ignored him. Then the warrior realized that the chain wasn't acting alone. He clenched his jaw and thought as hard as he could, directing his message to the chain's master.

"Let him go. He's learned his lesson".

"Ah, and if I were a teacher that would be enough. But I'm not. Why should I spare one like this? "

Granwar thought furiously. "I'll pay. Let him live."

"What do you offer",
came the reply, obviously in no hurry.

Granwar considered. He knew what the Devil traded for, and it wasn't money. "I offer the tenth part of my soul", he rushed out, regretting his offer almost as soon at it was made. He watched the man's face begin to blacken as he waited five long heartbeats for a reply

"Done.", came the self-satisfied agreement. "Shall we offer him the punishment of the law, instead of true justice?"

"Fine, just let him down", Granwar replied.

He caught the man as the chain abruptly released, easing him to the ground. One end of the wicked thing whipped around the man's arm and began to tighten. There was a cracking of bone and a terrible rending sound as the thief's hand was torn away.

"What have I done?", Granwar muttered as he carried the unconscious man back inside.
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"Is there a healer in the hall?", Granwar called as he lugged the limp form back inside.

He was hoping for Twilla's aid, but another woman spoke up first. "Magical or mundane?"

"Whatever it takes.", Granwar responded as he tried to staunch the blood flow from the man's crushed wrist.

The heavy woman in worn brown strode across the room with the rolling gait of a sailor. She took him by the hair with her right hand as her left deftly found a spot on his upper arm. She dug in her thumb and the bleeding slowed to a trickle. "Well, he's alive. You can tell because he was still bleeding. Here. put your thumb right there and hold on for a moment.", she instructed, showing the warrior the spot.

She called for strong drink and, to the surprise of the Persian, poured it directly onto the ragged stump of the man's wrist.

The thief awoke long enough to scream in anguish as the fiery spirits flooded the open wound, then slumped unconscious again.

The healer gripped the man's throat, feeling for a pules, then pulled Granwar's hand away. "Waste of good drink, but putting fire to that thing would have killed him.", she said curtly.

To the warrior's surprise the stump didn't bleed any more. The thief was left in a pile inside the door, the stump of his arm swaddled in strips torn from his own shirt, to recover or not on his own as the healer returned to her shipmates, and Granwar swore never to sail aboard her ship.

And the party continued into the night.
"Something's out there", the deck watch called softly. The storm had eased slightly, and the sound of, well, something had caught his attention.

Ceburn and Artolis came on deck, followed by half a dozen men. There was much "shush"ing, and soon all were by the starboard rail, straining to hear.

"It sounds like oars on the gunwales of a longboat.", Artolis whispered. "About two lengths abeam, and for'rard."

Ceburn nodded, then called up the slightest bit of his power. "Photo-azure!", he whispered intently. At once a scattering of sharp, intense points of light, cobalt blue, gathered around him. He gestured and they fled across the water to the place he chose. And there, revealed by the mage light, was indeed a boat, long and low, with three sets of oarsmen and over twenty well armed men huddled inside. The oar locks had been wrapped with rags to silence the creaking, but the low 'clunk' as the oars occasionally touched the side had given them away.

"Ahoy friend. Have you lost your way in the storm?", the Barbarian prince suggested.

"Um, we were out fishing.", came the unsure reply as the raiders tried to crab away from the revealing light. The light followed to their dismay.

"I think the storm will have scared the fish. Better luck in the morning.", Artolis replied gleefully as he made a show of preparing his bow.

Painfully aware of how vulnerable they were, the men in the boat wheeled it about and rowed away into the night. The lights followed for a minute or so, then faded away.

"I thought the corsairs were all the way across the harbor.", the Boatswain commented quietly. "There had to be two dozen other ships between them and us." He made the remark quietly, not as a question but more as an observation. He and his shipmates had long since learned that when they traveled with Ceburn and company, trouble didn't merely find them, it went to great lengths to seek them out.

"They'll be back, tonight or tomorrow.", Artolis declared, agreeing with the thought that all present were sharing. Those men had worked hard at targeting this particular ship.

"I don't think so.", countered Ceburn as he mounted the rail. A few words of transformation and he dove into the water."

"All right, nothing more to see here.", declared the Captain as he herded the crew below decks again. He signaled the man who had first heard the raiders, waving him below as well, while setting a double watch for the rest of the night. The watchman had earned a hot meal and place out of the storm, at least for a while.
"So, how does this work?", Granwar asked as he settled once more at the table, this time nearer the Devil.

"You owe me.", came the simple reply. "When you pass Death's door, whatever your final destination, you will spend one day in every ten in my company." He paused long enough for that to sink in. Returning from death was a slim chance, unheard of for most of the world, but a slim chance now denied the Persian. Plus an eternity of pain and suffering, dark enough to poison any pleasures his afterlife might have held.

"There is of course an alternative.", the Devil continued, the light bantering tone belying the weight of what was at stake. "You could convince someone else to surrender their soul instead." Again the long pause. "Or you could perform some service for me while you still live."

"What service?", Granwart demanded.

"I haven't anything particular in mind right now, but let me spell it out. You are, of course, to be extended the utmost courtesy, as you already know, so I'll make this easy." He held up one hand with three fingers extended. "Three times I will offer you a service you may perform, and you are free to accept or refuse any of them. You need complete only one to be free. If you refuse all three, then your bill will come due at Death's door, not before and not after. If you accept a task and fail to complete it, it won't be the tenth part of your soul I'll claim. It will be the whole thing."

The last words rang with a sound like iron. It was clear that this wasn't a negotiation, yet still Granwar decided to try.

"You mentioned that you have been following us. Can I negotiate for a second part of my soul? Should the moment come when I need a favor, will you come and bargain with me again?"

The Devil smiled and nodded. "Of course. I'm always willing to exchange favors with my friends and allies. In fact, one opportunity comes to mind right now. You are, of course, free to accept or decline."

"This is the first service?", Granwar asked tensely.

"That is correct.", replied the fiend. "I have heard tell that an item known as the Dagger of Helios stood atop the alter to the fallen sun deity, in the city of Pompeii, beneath the ashes of Mount Vesuvius. Retrieve that dagger for me, and your debt is paid."

"How soon does this have to be done?", asked Granwar, suspecting a trick.

"Let's be generous, shall we? Let no one say I was less than fair with my allies. You are to deliver it to me, in this bar, one year from tonight. That gives you plenty of time, and allows you the leeway to pursue this without interfering in your other duties. You recall, saving civilization?"

"It's a deal.", Granwar declared, offering his hand.

As they shook, there was a searing sound and smoke arose from the grip. Granwar jerked his hand back to find a small seal branded into his flesh.

"That is the sign of our pact, and it will be by that sign that you may call me, should you wish to conduct further business.", the Devil declared. Then his mood brightened once more and two more coins appeared in his fingers. "Another round, Innkeeper, and make it the good stuff."
The sea was dark and cold, and the rain spattering the surface made it impossible to see what was above, but Ceburn easily followed the ship's boat. It was the dark, calm spot in the rain swept sea. Water flowed in and through his gills, and webbed fingers lent him such an easy, fluid swiftness beneath the waves that he had to work not to outrun his quarry. He had grown up in a port city and known Sea Elves all of his life. Transforming into one of them was not that difficult for a Wizard of his skill.

The boat made a long, slow transit across the harbor then finally drew along side another ship. Ceburn waited for them to hoist the boat aboard, but to his surprise it waited a few minutes then pulled away. He came to the surface, risking notice so he could be certain of what was going on.

Half the raiders had boarded one of the corsairs, and the boat was headed for the other. It had been a collaborative effort.

Now that he knew his enemies, the Barbarian/Wizard dove beneath the dark waves once more and headed for the second vessel. The barnacled hull was rough beneath his fingers, but he found the spot he sought, the keel amidships.

"Infernus", he intoned, unsure if fire magic would work here under water. He placed his hand directly against the hull, to minimize the flare of light and limit the fire dampening effects of the cold water. Light blazed forth and the water immediately came to a furious boil as his hand ignited. Normally this spell would allow him a volley of fiery lances. This time he directed all of the power at a single spot.

Steam bubbled and wood began to crumble to ash, but for all of the will power he put behind his assault the waterlogged hull resisted. Ever persistent, he tried again. The third time finished the job.

This time there was no crust of barnacles or water logged wood on the outside, and he was rewarded for his efforts. A gap the size of his head opened up, and some stones fell out even as the sea water rushed in. He had holed them, well below the water line, and if his placement was correct, well below the level of the ship's ballast. To patch this hole they'd need to shift that layer of stones every ship carried. While the ship was taking on water, In a storm.

He quickly moved to the surface to watch what happened. "See it burn, that's my name.", he murmured as he waited. It took almost a full minute before someone noticed that there was a problem. He heard the Captain shouting orders in a language he didn't know, and the crew began to haul on lines. To make sail in this storm was madness. To stay where they were was destruction. They were raising sail.

Then, abruptly, the mast shivered and shifted. With a sound of rending timber, it dropped, slamming the lowest boom straight into the deck. He'd placed his damage better than he'd thought. The heel of the mast, normally placed solidly against the keel and braced by ballast stones, had shifted, plunging through the already weakened hull. And still men with axes chopped through the anchor cable and men fought to raise some sails on the foremast.

Ceburn decided to end the game. Fire flashed in the night one more time and the rigging exploded into flame. Most of the crew died in that blast, and the ship's sails and halliards were gone, She was doomed.

He turned in place to watch the second vessel. They were lowering boats, to come to their sister ship's aid. Fire flashed one final time, and a second ship was ablaze. Ceburn ducked beneath the waves, his work done.

"See it burn, that's my name." he declared once more to no one but himself. "You tried to take my ship, so I took yours." Still it was a dark and worried Prince who clambered back aboard his own vessel. He had been raised to rule, and he knew that that meant fighting wars and sentencing criminals. He had been trained to make the hard decisions, but no matter how many times he told himself that they deserved what they had gotten, it didn't make him feel any better about it. He was a Prince. Princes hired executioners, they didn't become them.
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"Fire!", cried the sailor as he rushed into the bar. "A ship in the harbor has been lightning struck. She's ablaze and men are trapped aboard."

Without hesitation two dozen men rose and headed for the door, pulling their storm gear on as the went. There was a general rush to the warf as longboats were prepared.

Small casks were lashed beneath the oarsmen' benches, to ensure that the craft would remain afloat if it were to be swamped by the storm swell, and as quick as they could be outfitted and manned, they were away into the stormy night.

To a landsman this display of selfless courage would be a shock, but no true sailor could leave another on a sinking vessel like that. They might have been good friends or the worst of enemies on any other day, but tonight they were simply sailors in distress.
Backs strained and oars creaked as the longboats fought against the waves, climbing each like a black hill, then crashing down the far side as it passed. They strove to stay within sight of each other, lest the storm claim fresh victims, but they drove forward at best speed none the less.

The light of the burning ships provided them with a guide, and they could see figures silhouetted against the flames as they approached, appearing almost as dancers within the inferno.

The three longboats split, two to one corsair and one to the other, for the second appeared to have lowered at least some of her own boats, and men could be seen huddled within.

They scanned the rough waters for swimmers, though there was little hope any could stay afloat in the stormy sea.

The men on deck, seeing help arrive, all but leaped into the rescuers arms. The last to leave was the Captain, who had stayed aboard to open the scuttle cocks, the last line of defense against a burning ship. The hull would flood and the vessel would sink, but there was always the hope that she could be raised again, if there was enough of her left to raise.
"Seven men.", called the Harbor Master. "That's all who survived from two ships. And we lost two in the rescue."

It was a sad tally, but oddly enough his tone made it clear that he considered it a success. Odder still was the feeling that, should the need arise, every sailor who had set to sea in that effort would do so again without hesitation, for each knew that others would do the same for them.

Warm soup and dry blankets were being shared about among rescuers and survivors alike.

"It was as if the gods themselves were angry with us.", related one sailor, as if continuing a tale.

"Oh, it wasn't the gods, I assure you.", came Kyton's mocking laugh, to the shock and horror of all.

An angry silence fell over the room as every man and woman present suddenly found themselves facing the fiendish visitor. And be it bottle, bowl or belaying pin, each found a weapon that came easily to hand.

"You don't really want to do that.", stated the devil as he rose to his feet. His manner was casual, as if daring the entire room try something. His chain flew to his hand of its own accord, and he hefted it there for a heartbeat before putting it away and walking out the door.

The crowd rushed the door, but he was gone. And again, if there was a sound of leather wings in flight, it was lost in the storm.
"You don't want to do that.", came the mocking chuckle, like an odd echo of another voice in another place. It startled Onyx so much that he almost gave his position away.

He had followed the Minotaur for over a mile, watched and waited as it began to raid the farm house, then tracked it off into the night as it fled.

It was wounded, a long bloody slash along one flank, fresh enough that the Catfolk could smell the blood. And it was destined to die tonight.

Until, that is, someone startled it by calling out a warning in the darkness. As soon as the small, childlike voice had sounded, the great beast had bolted, crashing its way through the forest once more.

Onyx turned his head a quarter of an inch, all the movement he would allow himself under the circumstance. The shift in perspective brought his tormenter into view. A tiny creature with bat wings and a barbed tail sat perched on a branch to his left. It was looking directly at him, which was a bit of a shock. Stealth came naturally to his people, and he'd always prided himself on his ability to pass unseen.

He shifted his position as he brought his bow to bear, exercising that special gift that allowed him to take the darkness from any nearby shadow and wrap itself around him like a shroud.

"You know, you're pretty good at that.", commented the tiny Imp, his eyes still locked directly on the scout. "But I've seen better."

The bow came up, but the tiny fiend was already gone. Yet his voice persisted, seeming to come from nowhere. "You shouldn't hunt local folk until you know the local rules. You could get in trouble."

Onyx weighed his options. Of the pair, the Imp would be the more challenging quarry, but as annoying as it had been it's counsel seemed well advised. He had come out, angry and humiliated, and angry hunters make mistakes. He hadn't checked with anyone to see if the Minotaur was a problem, and in fact the farmer had chased it away as casually as if it had been a mere fox. There was something odd there.

He also had the feeling that hunting the Imp would also be a mistake. He quietly retraced his steps, removing himself from the woods and returning to the town.
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