The Animancer, vol. 1: Facing the Storm
„Look, Missi, your ‚winning personality‘ ain’t gonna change reality. You just played your second Kaltani Warbands card in a one-deck game of Age of Heroes. I can literally see the corner of your first one at the bottom of the pile. So how about you sit back and take your traditional beating fair and square.”
She blew a cloud of smoke in his face, then drew her colt on him. The whole room tightened up like the sphincter of a man before his first cavity search. “How about you cut me some slack, before I choose option F?” she suggested.
It was a relatively calm day with a gentle, fresh breeze blowing across the deck of the Temptress from the South-West. Captain Keen looked about with a sense of satisfaction on her face. Those rubes at the Rusty Shore had made her run in circles at first, but had become more amenable to her trade proposals once she had put her foot down. ... one of their necks. She had a certain knack for aggressive negotiations, probably one of the few things her father had given her along the way. One may count the Temptress as one of these things as well, but the ship had hardly been 'given' to her. It had been more of a hostile takeover. Just like daddy had taught her.
Since their stop at the Rusty Shore, the Laughing Yaga was stored safely in a bolted crate by the main mast, and they flew the flag of a Hooper Chain tradesman-cog, courtesy of an unlucky donor. They had been able to make some good coin along the way, and when a target too tempting to pass up crossed their paths... well, one could not blame them for getting out the old black flag.
Before leaving, two unusual passengers had found their way aboard. The cringing ‘blind’ woman with all the makings of a well-off girl turned beggar had caught her attention during one of the card games she had been playing back in Black Steel. Even after pulling the gun at her opponent, incidentally the Rust Baron in charge of the place, some ugly toad named Aghul, the woman had kept cleaning the room frantically as if her life depended on it. Now, a smart man would have bet on her not realizing the situation on account of that whole ‘blindness’ bit, but then, Keen was no man. She had taken pity on her and accepted her meager fare and the promise to really clean the ship up in a literal sense. It seemed, after a brief conversation with the lass, that she was looking to get to the Hooper Chain where she had family. Keen had business in Sternsmooth, so the Temptress was about to fly across most of the Corsic Ocean. A stop at the Hooper Chain was no detour there, so why not take her aboard?
The other passenger had been recruited by captain's request: a middle-aged SILF with some impressive credentials. The ship's magus had perished during a storm - blighted way too hard: heart failure and somesuch -, and so getting a SILF or Ferry from HJT had been imperative, and also another reason to hide the fact they were, in fact, a pirate ship. The storm season was on in the eastern Corsic, and Keen was not about to be caught in one without a little bit of magic to keep her beloved ship safe.
Her eyes lingered briefly on a distant mass of clouds blowing in with the breeze; then scanned the deck for the two passengers, only to glimpse crewman Fink. The oddball from Altonar was leaning against the railing of the ship, his right sleeve pulled away to reveal a mass of springs and interlocking mechanisms that seemed to cover the bottom part of his arm, held to it by a collection of leather straps and rivets. The man had quite the colorful past: born in the lowest ring of the great technocrat city, far away in the Great Land, he had shown a propensity for invention that didn’t go unnoticed by the folk at the Altonar University, who gave him a scholarship, if he could be believed. It didn’t take, and in the end he had to flee Altonar with nothing but a few nuts and bolts in his pocket, making his way to the Ocean Belt. A silver tongue with the ladies landed him in more trouble than his worth, and now he was a fugitive from one of the nastier pirate lords. As far as Keen was concerned, he was keeping her ship in top shape, and a good shipwright was hard to come by these days. Plus, with a bounty of sixty golden keys on his head, he had all the look of an emergency piggy bank to her.
Right now, he seemed far more focused on his little contraption than anything else going on onboard, and when he apparently finished setting it with a final, confident twist, he clenched his fist to check if it was working properly and found it to be so. He mumbled something before patting his arm and taking care of his tools.
Further down the deck, the blind woman, Cassia was her name, found a pile of dirty rags, which seemed to offend her sensibilities. <That has to be the poorest impersonation of a blind woman I have ever laid eyes on.> Keen chuckled at the irony of that statement.
Of course, it would have been rather poor form to be miffed about the performance. The signs were all to obvious: dyed hair, covered eyes. The woman was a blighter. So close to the Great Land, she ought to have had a hard time dealing with the prejudice, and there were parts here on the Corsic Ocean where people might stone her to death for having contracted spellblight. Well, only the thickest of Church zealots, Keen supposed.
One of her cousins had had the unfortunate pleasure of running in with a Black Priest. Being a blighter had not boded well for his health back then, and being a pirate on top; well, that had been the final nail in his coffin. They had pumped him full of lead and left him to the gulls.
She sensed someone walk past her and saw the SILF, a monk named Constantine Rajavadi, walk briskly from the helm down the stairs towards the port-side deck, exchanging a few words with crewman Fink. During a previous storm, Finkelroy had saved the monk from being tossed overboard, and apparently he had felt more at ease in confiding with the little shyster since. Whether that was a smart move or not… well, Keen didn’t really give two rusty keys.
The two of them struck up a conversation, though she couldn’t really make out what they were saying. So, to amuse herself, she just caricaturized their voices and acted out what she felt they were probably talking about, while languidly resting her head on her arms above the top-deck railing.
Constantine: “Why Fink, I say! I believe I just saw a giant squid arm coil near the ship! Do those just float around these parts or do you think it might have belonged to a giant squid?”
Fink: “I’m a mechanic, not a marine biologist, damn it! But let me check my gizmometer, perhaps it is a mechanical squid. You never know what those Borealis kooks will think up next, why just the other day I saw what looked like a mechanical condor, soaring above us! That or I had a bad dumpling.”
Constantine: “My word, you don’t say! And what does the gizmometer indicate, old chap?”
Fink: “It’s on squid alert 5! We are going to be in a whole mess of tentacles. Possibly followed by a nice serving of Kung Pao Calamari!”
Keen snorted and moved her gaze along the deck. The comedy just kept coming as Cassia was subject to a surprise attack from within the depths of the rag pile: Fink’s feisty dog, Zosephine, had apparently made a nest from the stinky mound and now ‘assaulted’ her as she tried to dismantle it. As the dog knocked the woman over and gave her a good licking, Keen was far too invested in the show to notice anything else right now.
A voice tore her from her indulgence: Constantine the monk had returned from his little chitchat with Fink. The rather lanky man, wearing his important-looking blue robe, and carrying a book under his arm wherever he went, looked as imposing as ever. “Captain Keen, there’s a storm ahead! Fink’s gadget measured a massive weather front and it will be challenging for me to handle a tempest of that magnitude. Do you think we could attempt to avoid it?”
"Avoid what?" she asked absentmindedly, looking up to the South-West, their current heading. The clouds she had noticed earlier were now menacingly close, expanding far and wide to the left and right. "Ah shit!" She fumbled for her money-chain and pulled off a silver key. A steep sacrifice, but if Vinclav claimed the ship now, all the golden keys in the world wouldn't do her any good. She kissed it and tossed it overboard to appease the evil god and keep away anything that went beyond the cruel fist of nature about to come down on the Temptress. She knocked first mate Lars away from the steering wheel and took over, "move it, man!" and yelled down the deck: "Everybody to their positions! Furl in the main sail, ready the auxiliary sail to be furled in too, tie down anything loose; move, you rats!" Then she turned back to Constantine: "Get to the bow, mister magus! Do what you can to keep us afloat, we're going to need all the magic you can squeeze out! Shit!"
There was no escaping this storm, they would have to sail right through.
From the corners of her eyes she could see Fink violently pushing Cassia to the side to scoop up his dog and bring her below deck. <Not such a lady’s man now, eh?> she thought with clenched teeth. If one fateful day there was no time for a little bit of snark, Keen would know it was the end times… Well, not this time! They were going to live.
The clouds quickly marched against them, invading the clear blue sky above and turning it darker and darker, until it seemed like the cold night had arrived early. The wind hit them almost immediately and with staggering severity. Only because she had barked at the crew to man the stations when she did, could they prevent the ship from toppling over and capsizing right away. The men were furling in the main sail now and the magus had made his way to the bow. Lifting his hands and speaking powerful old words against the raging winds, none of which Keen could hear all the way over here, the whipping gales actually calmed for the moment, and the ship’s rocking lessened. He had been a good get, as they say… They might actually make it out of here unscathed. Might. The storm front was massive, and it would take quite a while to weather it.
As Constantine was fighting the winds with magic, and the crew was furling in the sails while tying down crates and anything else that was loose, Fink had already started tying ropes around the various bits of the aft sail, coiling them around rungs in the railing, perhaps to rig up some sort of stabilizer for the ship. Crazy bastard!
The momentary reprieve they experienced did not last for long, as new squalls battered the hull with vicious ferocity, threatening to capsize the ship. Only the fact that the magus doubled down on his arcane arts that the worst could be averted. “Oh gears damnit, I’ll blight right through another ship’s mage!” Keen cursed to herself. The storm season was completely out of hand this year. What was going on?
By now, it was almost pitch black. They hadn’t had time to fire some of the lanterns, and the work was getting more and more difficult while water sprayed across the deck, making the crew wet and miserable and the planks slippery and dangerous.
In a surprising magical feat, Constantine now seemed to also calm the rising waves down somewhat, using that odd book he carried everywhere. He had given Keen a long and boring lecture on how it worked and what it does, and she had been utterly wasted when he did. Now she almost regretted not knowing what was going on. Almost. For now, she just took the reprieve thankfully and kept the rudder steady. A sizable brigantine, the Temptress was quite the target for the storm, which aimed to batter her with squall after squall, but the weird modifications Finkelroy had made to the aft sail helped stabilize her.
Of course all of this would have been far too ordinary for a normal day in the life of Elizabeth Keen, so out of seemingly nothing, the dark shadows around the ship suddenly turned oddly transparent, as if she had gained the ability to see in utter darkness. Everything she should have been unable to see before was suddenly visible in a desaturated outline. Her eyes were momentarily drawn in to a sudden flash of light on deck, and she could see Cassia holding up a shining black lantern, an odd curio she had brought with her when coming on board. It seemed this was the source of the woman’s blight. <One more mystery replaced by another,> Keen thought to herself.
With the darkness vanquished, the wind and the waves somewhat tamed, they managed to finally make some actual headway below the menacing clouds. Expanding his efforts, it seemed the magus actually managed to provide some back wind to them, though with the main sails furled in, the result was not optimal. Still, they managed to drift into a calm spot, long enough to get their bearings.
“Mr. Magus! Can you give us another big boost if I lower the sails?!” she yelled over to the bow.
“I think so!” he replied.
“You heard him, men! Unfurl the sails!”
Operating on their last reserves of strength, the crew unfurled the sails, and with a mighty gust of magically produced wind, they dove back into the thick of the storm. But not for long. With great speed and a magus at the bow that paved an even path for them through the thick of crashing waves, they managed to finally break through the storm front and back out into the open blue.
Captain Keen inspected the damages. A cursory glance revealed minimal damage on deck and first mate Lars reported odd reinforcements below deck. “I'd best check it out,” she sighed, “and determine our position while I am at it. Take over, Lars.”
“Aye-aye, captain.” The first mate was a weather-worn sea-rat through and through: salty, brown hair, steadfast maroon eyes, and a young, but not green, 40-some years old.
Keen handed over the steering wheel and went on to go below deck, only to pause at the sight of an ecstatic and somewhat hysterical Cassia.
“You got some weird magic up your sleeves, woman.“ Keen noted drily. “Maybe you could take off the blindfold and help toss a few buckets of water into the sea?”