Kaine and Runt stood at the dock for a long time, taking in the sight of the ship. Smaller than most of the merchant galleys and warships that filled the rest of the harbor, she exuded an ominous, dangerous aura that made both of them nervous. She was built for speed, that much was certain, but Kaine would wager that she could easily take any warship in the open ocean. He had known too many small men like that-short and slight of build, but with a fierce tenacity that enabled them to beat bullies larger than themselves.
“Freedom. A strange name for a slave galley, no?”
Runt let out a low growl that signaled his agreement. At nearly seven feet tall, and massively muscled, his name was something of a joke among his companions. By his own standards, however, he truly was the runt of the litter. Ferals usually stood closer to eight feet tall, and Runt was smaller even than his sisters and mother. They had their own language that they spoke among themselves, but in human lands, Ferals relied on a series of grunts and growls that could easily be interpreted by even the most dimwitted humans.
“Small. But dangerous. What do you think they use it for? Running slaves, I’m sure. But slavers are usually larger, and more-heavily armed. Hard to make a profit with so little cargo space. Speaking of armaments, it doesn’t seem to have any. Then why does it give me such a bad feeling?”
Runt yawned and flexed his claws, but said nothing.
“No flag. So no protection from any king or duchy. Incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid. What the hell kind of man sails a ship that’s too small to make a profit, too poorly armed to properly defend herself, and too proud to show her colors?”
A sudden female voice behind him made him jump. “What makes you think it’s a man?”
Runt only smiled and let out a long purr. Sophia was his closest friend. She had rescued him from slavers and nursed him back to health many years ago. He had sworn his allegiance to her and had fought by her side since then. They had met Kaine, Trick, and Nightshade in the Tomb of A’Etenkah, and all Sophia had said was “That’s the one.” Just like that, they forged an allegiance; first just to escape the Tomb, and later to “find their mutual fortune and glory”. That was many, many moons in the past, and the five of them now worked together like a well-oiled machine.
“Damnit woman!” Kaine whirled on her. ‘You scared the shit out of me! Where have you been? I don’t suppose you’ve seen Trick or Nightshade, have you?”
“One thing at a time. As to where I have been, that would be the library. I’m sorry to report that there is absolutely no information about that ship over there. It’s obviously magical, but none of the mages nor sages know anything about it. Trick, if I am not mistaken, is already on board and having a look around. Nightshade should be rounding that corner back there any moment now…”
They looked, and the Peri known as Nightshade stepped out from the shadows and moved towards them. She moved gracefully, always quick without seeming hurried, and deliberate without seeming slow. She had a wicked grin on her face.
“Shit. She’s killed someone.” Kaine spat in the ground in disgust. “Damnit! All you were supposed to do was to go to Blackie’s and grab some potions! We’re not supposed to be here, you know. Stay low. Stay below her attention. That was the plan. And now, you’ve gone and killed someone in her alleys, and we’re screwed. Damnit, damnit, damnit! And don’t tell me that there’s no bodies, because you’re smiling. And you only smile when you have fresh blood.”
“Relax, Kaine. Yes, there are bodies, but it’s all gravy. I had her permission.”
“You what?!? How?!”
“As soon as I stepped into the deep alleys, she had me. Sent Baron himself, and six others. They teleported in, and poisoned me before I could even gut the first one. Instant paralysis. Game over, I thought. But Baron just laughed and teleported me back to the guild.”
“What does she want? We have a truce.”
“A truce we broke, by coming back here. She warned us, Kaine.”
“Yeah, but we’re just here to gear up. I didn’t think she’d begrudge us a few supplies. I told you not to try and go to Blackies!”
“Kaine, we needed magic. The kind that only Blackie sells. You know as well as I do, Sophia can only do so much.”
Sophia bristled at the slight, but she knew it was true as much as they did. Her powers only went so far, and when they were drained, they were drained. Runt let out a low growl of disapproval.
“No sense in arguing now. So, you never said. What does she want?”
“She wants us on that ship.”
Kaine let out a string of curses that would have caused any of the sailors in the taverns nearby to blush. “What the hell for? She has a virtual army of assassins down there! Why not send them? Why us?”
“Well, in her words: ‘You fools have volunteered yourselves simply by being here in Bloodshire.’ She also said that we were planning on doing it anyway, and she’s also willing to let bygones be bygones. She’s offering us forgiveness, Kaine. I say we take it. Bloodshire is home, Kaine. This is our base of operations. We need to be here.”
Sophia stepped closer to Kaine. “She’s right, Kaine. No matter where we have gone, we always come back here. That’s because we know where everything is. Where else can we find a magic shop like Blackie’s? Where else are we gonna find a library like the one here? Where else are we gonna find another Izzy, or another Sheila? We have connections here, Kaine. Bridges. Bridges that were dangerously close to being burned.”
Kaine let out a few more choice curse words, then settled himself with a deep breath. “Fine. What are her orders?”
Nightshade gestured towards the black ship. “We’re supposed to get on board. Either stow away or join the crew, and sail with her.”
“To where? Did she have any information about that?”
“No one knows anything at all about it. That’s why she’s so anxious to get someone on board. She hates not knowing. She’s sent over a dozen of her best assassins, but they never came back.”
Briefly, Kaine worried about Trick. But the shapechanger’s one redeeming quality was that he was very good at being unnoticed. He shifted his attention back to the discussion at hand. “What’s the word on the street?”
Nightshade paused, then began. “There’s never any cargo. The crew never leaves the ship. It docks about twice a year, and the captain comes down to post a bulletin on the board. Always the same message: Sailors wanted, no experience necessary. Daily pay and high adventure guaranteed. Inquire at Freedom. After he posts the message, he goes back on board. When any person approaches the gangplank, the captain comes from his cabin and meets them on the foredeck. It’s a brief interview, and those who pass are invited inside, never to be seen or heard from again.”
“He kills the ones who fail?” Kaine interjected.
“No, that’s the strangest part. He lets them go. They walk off of the ship, apparently no worse for the experience.”
“What do they say about him? What’s the interview like?”
“They say he’s strong, obviously very powerful. But polite, friendly, even. He asks all about the sailors’ personal lives, and seems genuinely interested in their answers. He listens to their stories, and apparently makes his decision on the spot. There’s never any mention of mission, cargo, payment, or anything else you might expect. It’s just small talk, really.”
Kaine sniffed the air, and Runt followed suit, but then he looked questioningly at Kaine, confused at the possibility that Kaine might smell something he could not. “Yep, smells like a trap,” Kaine grinned. Runt let out a disapproving snort, and Sophia and Nightshade smiled. “Trap or not”, Kaine continued, “I’m intrigued. And since we really don’t have any choice, let’s go see if we can get hired on.” He chuckled, and began to sing: “Heigh, ho, a pirate’s life for me!” His amusement was short-lived, however, as his gaze returned to the ship and he felt the familiar sense of foreboding once again.
“I have a bad feeling about this.”