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Chapter I: Omens
On a tepid summer night, Arveene died.
Clouds cloaked the sky, burying Izan’Larai in an unnatural dark. Nights such as these, the alleyways were an abyssal black. Lantern-light might pierce most nights, but the pitiful light Rieta carried was only enough to see a few feet in either direction.
It likely did more harm than good. She could not see what lurked past the shallow glare. Blinded to the night, she carried a beacon revealing her for all else to see.
The small comfort it brought was worth the risk.
“A-Arveene?” Rieta timidly called out, her voice echoing into the dark.
Going out at night was foolish. Rieta knew this would only lead to a long talk about safety once Arveene found her, but right now all that mattered was finding her before…before-
A scream echoed out into the dark.
The reverberations from the alley made it impossible to tell a point of origin. Rieta bolted right at the nearest intersecting alleyway, hoping gut instinct would triumph where careful planning might fail.
For a moment, all that could be heard was the slap of her shoes against cobblestone and her own labored breathing. Time stood still once she rounded the corner, and came upon the sight of her nightmares.
The pungent odor of blood and viscera overwhelmed the senses. Bodies were thrown about like rag dolls, crumpled against walls and scattered about in pieces alongside torn cloaks. Some had their faces covered with masks, but many were bare faced. The terror of their final moments clearly seen.
Yet something was missing from the horrid scene. The body of a young woman, a centerpiece to this carnage, was strangely absent. Rieta trampled the bodies, rapidly decaying, in a rush to the center. She looked about the scene, but no body matched.
Sounds of movement came from her right, followed by the giggle of a small child.
“I-is someone here?” Rieta asked timidly.
Her answer came from the sound of rushing footsteps, moving away from the scene. Rieta followed without thinking.
Whatever it was she followed, it was ever elusive. Despite all her efforts, she was unable to close the gap between them. There were moments she swore she saw a figure waiting in the darkness ahead. There was something off about the figure, but Rieta failed to ascertain what it could be, as they always remained just out of reach. As the light of the lantern drew close.
The night wore on, and the world seemed to grow darker still. It swallowed her meager light. Soon, she could no longer see the walls of the alleyway around her.
The air grew heavy, stale.
It felt like she was buried, deep underground where none could find her. Eventually, the feeling faded as the darkness dimmed. Light seemed to peak out above the rooftops.
Yet it was still several hours before daylight.
The chase continued until she saw the figure run out of the alley way, into the brighter lights of city streets. Her pace slowed as she approached. The city streets she now walked were undoubtedly ancient. Buildings rose in unnatural angles, and the street seemed paved in obsidian. As she stared out past the city streets, Rieta realized she was no longer in Izan’Larai.
The light came not from the sun, but from an orb of incandescence hovering a few miles in the air. It’s ocher light was far brighter than torch or lantern, but still left much of the world in shadow. Everything in the light, from city streets to the strange towers, gleamed like gemstones bathed in twilight.
The whole city seemed carved from the same blackened stone.
The scuff of boots against the floor broke the silence surrounding Rieta and signified the departure of the figure. Rieta glanced about in every direction, hoping to pinpoint the location of the figure. Despite her efforts, the figure seemed always out of sight. If Rieta heard movement to her right and turned, she heard a giggle and then the sound of running to her left.
Finally, a giggle came from the alley behind her, and this time the figure remained. Cast in the shadow of the alley, it stared at her a moment before dashing off into the alley again. Rieta could not quite see the face in the dark, but it almost appeared vacant.
Unsettled but determined, Rieta continued the pursuit.
Down into the darkness they ran. Past city streets of a decrepit ancient city and through alleys cloaked in black. Eventually, it became clear the figure was no longer running away, but guiding her toward something. It became clear when she broke into an empty clearing, the sound of muted sobs to her right.
She turned to see Arveene on the floor, dead.
Eyes closed and face serene, one might take her for sleeping, if not for the dagger plunged through her heart. Rieta recalled that night she begged and pleaded that Arveene might wake, that this might all truly be a horrible dream. Now, she stared at the scene placidly. Arveene would never wake. Her sister was gone and there was no more pain to give. No more tears to shed.
All that remained was the recurring dream, still haunting her.
But something had changed. Beside the still body of Arveene, huddled the figure sobbing into the floor. In the dark of the alley, Rieta did not realize the figure was but the size of a child. The muted sobs racked its body, but something felt off in its cries. As if the cries and sobs were a mimicry of true despair.
Curiosity overwhelmed her sense of caution as she slowly approached the figure.
There was no response, until Rieta placed her hand on the figure’s shoulder. The figure jerked around to face her, only there was no face. Swirling darkness stared back at her with lidless, unseen eyes behind a white, porcelain mask.
It screamed, a warped and ear piercing cry. A sound drawn from inhuman lips.
Selene’s eyes sprung open as she jolted upright. The scream still echoed in her eardrums as she searched frantically about for her bearings.
She was back on the ship, her pack propped up behind her as a cushion. The specks of flame from a dying lantern sputtered, casting the hall in a shallow light.
A nightmare. That’s all it was. Selene thought, beginning to calm down.
“Bad dream?” Argent’s voice came from the darkness past the fading embers. His eyes glowed faintly as he studied her expression.
Selene pulled her legs to her chest, arms wrapped around them. She quietly responded, “You could say that.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Selene considered his offer for a moment. Dreams of searching for Arveene were once a common occurrence, but they were fewer as time dragged on. Sometimes, she would still relive the whole event again, or at least as much as she could recall, but everything else?
Finding the scene, the strange city, or even that masked figure, none of that ever happened before. It all felt…
Selene shook herself, burying any further thoughts on the matter. “It’s nothing special. Just the weird mood everyone’s been in lately.”
Argent read her expression for a moment, then shrugged, “Suit yourself.”
He reached for the lantern as the light finally faded entirely, he pulled a small container of oil from his pouch to refill it.
Selene remained silent, her thoughts drifting over the last few days as the lantern blazed to life.
Life on the boat had changed as they neared Syndramire. The crew grew more tense, people talked less, and even the world seemed to share in the anticipatory silence. Captain Renik’s soured mood made him more prone to outburst, with even the slightest problem causing a flurry of curse words and yelling to spill from his lips. Argent was about the same, but now spent any spare moment cleaning or inspecting a myriad of tools and weapons on his person. Ari was even more absentminded than usual. Her gaze was often distant, transfixed on the horizon. Hamish alone seemed unaffected, though Selene suspected his laugh and demeanor were more forced than usual.
Selene took everything in stride. Adventures required peril, and Selene chose this path knowing full well there would be peril aplenty in Syndramire. Still, it would be a lie to say she felt completely unaffected by the rising tensions. She simply buried herself in training and other preparations. Whatever came, Selene would be ready.
Or so she thought.
At long last, they neared Lendrig’s Hollow. Even from this distance, it was clear that Syndramire lived up to its name. Mists hung over it like a curtain, obscuring everything between the land and the waves. It seemed to be in a constant state of motion just beneath the surface, as if barely containing the monsters within.
The captain stared at the fog for a time, oddly stoic. After a few moments, he commanded the crew to furl the sails, “We won’t make it to port ‘fore dark, men. Best get ready for a long night.”
The remaining hours of the day were spent preparing for nightfall. Everything that was not nailed down was moved below deck to form a barricade. It was quickly decided guards would need to be posted in case the barricade failed. Argent was the first to volunteer, followed swiftly by Selene and the rest of her companions, much to the captain and crew’s relief.
The four decided they would sleep in the hall near the barricade. One would stand watch to wake the rest should anything occur. They decided they would split up the watch every two hours, and the order decided would be Selene, Hamish, Ari, Argent then back to Selene until daybreak.
Once everything was prepared, everyone ate a quick meal and went to sleep before the sun set.
Selene’s first shift came and went without any trouble. If not for the nightmare, she might have rested peacefully throughout the night until her final shift.
“How long until daybreak, anyway?” Selene asked as she rose from her makeshift bed, stretching out her arms, legs, and tail.
“A few hours. I was planning to let you sleep the rest of the night, but you’re free to join me.”
“You don’t need to treat me like a kid,” Selene huffed, “Late nights keeping watch is part of the adventure.”
Argent chuckled, “Fair enough, but that’s not the reason. I don’t sleep, so might as well let those who do get as much as they can before the day ahead.”
Selene’s eyes widened in shock, “…what?”
Argent’s eyes flashed a mixture of surprise and amusement, “You didn’t know? Elves do not sleep, nor do they dream.”
“Then…what were you doing earlier? Because you were definitely…laying there.” Selene asked.
Argent shrugged, “I was resting.”
Selene’s eyebrows furrowed, “How is that different than sleep?”
Argent for a moment was at a loss for words. He pursed his lips and stroked his chin as he tried to come up with an answer. “It’s…shorter for one. I’m also still aware of my surroundings, just…less so. I guess you could say it’s like a trance, a state of mind I need for a few hours every day.”
Selene nodded as she mulled the idea over in her head, then proclaimed louder than intended, “OH, like Hamish and his meditations?”
Argent grimaced initially at the thought, but it faded after he considered it. Finally he nodded, “A fair comparison, though our companion seems to need far more than a few hours of both sleep and meditation.”
A loud snore from the half orc seemed to show agreement. They both chuckled quietly.
A comfortable silence fell between the two as they stared at the small light between them. Selene realized this was the first time she had a chance to talk so casually with the Elven warrior without Ari or Hamish around. Normally, Argent would take this time to discuss training, her progress, or where there was room for improvement.
He was still quite the mystery, despite all the time they spent together. All she really knew about him came from Ari, but she would always clam up when pressed about certain topics, leaving Selene’s curiosity less than satiated.
Unfortunately, Selene had no idea what to ask. Argent wasn’t exactly an open book, and while Selene was loath to admit it, the only reason she got along with Hamish and Ari was due to the fact they started most of the conversations. She had no idea what to talk about or how to get someone to open up.
Still, I better not let this opportunity slip by. I just need to spit it out, and hope for the best.
“So…Argent.” She said, struggling to piece together a question.
Argent’s ears perked and he eyed her blankly.
“…have you….ever…uhhh…you know…” Her confidence was rapidly failing, so she forced out the last few words with a slight squeak to her voice, “…travelled…far?”
Amusement danced in the pale glow of his eyes. It was a softer glow than on that night they first met, but it was enough to make them a stark contrast in the dark of the room. “Yes, you could say that.”
She bit her lip and mentally chastised herself for how stupid that sounded. She attempted to course correct, “I mean, you know…how much have you-I mean…where have you been?”
His eyes drifted down towards the lantern, his words wistful, “I’ve travelled many lands, Selene. I’ve seen seas made from sand dunes, mountains that touch the sky, and dark caverns that seem to reach the pit of the world.” He chuckled, a warm smile touching his lips, “All I ever do is travel, so I’ve been most places once or twice. Many things were worth the journey.”
His smile faded to a grimace as he added, “Others I’d rather forget.”
The next question escaped her lips before she realized what she asked. “So you don’t have a home?”
Selene was worried she would cause offense bringing up something like that, but Argent seemed unfazed, “A long time ago, yes. Now, the closest thing to home I have is the dust on my shoes and Ari.”
Another thought came unbidden to her mind, and she reluctantly asked “…what about Syndramire?”
Argent nodded, expecting this question, “Let’s just say it’s not a trip I planned to make twice.”
“…why’s that?” Selene asked.
Argent was quiet for a time, long enough Selene wasn’t certain he planned to respond until he rose to feet and softly said, “Nothing here is worth knowing, Selene, but you’ll see that soon enough.”
Selene remained silent as Argent moved with silent steps toward the barricade. It had been long enough that the light from the lantern faded and Selene’s vision transitioned to the dark. The barricade was relatively straightforward, just boxes and crates were against the stairs and held together by ropes. It seemed sturdy enough, but a bit too simple.
It really needs more chains and maybe a few magic seals to sell it.
Argent stared intently at the barricade, then gave one of the ropes a tug. Finally he sighed and said, as if to himself, “…no use worrying. We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose.”
Selene raised an eyebrow, sitting upright now, “What do you mean?”
Argent blinked, then realized his mistake, “Oh, right. You were still asleep last time it came around.”
“…it?!?” She said a little louder than intended.
Argent shushed her, holding a finger to his mouth. “Yes, it.” He whispered, “If you want to hear it, keep your voice down.”
A few moments passed in silence before something heavy slapped the bow of the ship with a loud, wet smack.
Selene jumped, but quickly clasped both hands over her mouth to stop any cry of surprise. It sounded as if it was right next to them, outside the ship.
Something is circling the ship, Argent mouthed silently, spinning his hand clockwise for emphasis and clarity.
How long? Selene mouthed back.
Argent held up two fingers, Two hours. Another smack hit the boat, this time on the other side.
Without a sound, Argent rushed to the wall closest to the sound, pressing his ear against it. After a moment of listening he turned back to her and gestured for her to come join him.
As she approached, he moved aside to make room. Her ear pressed against the wood, she heard something dragging on the side of the ship before slapping down atop the deck.
Whatever it was had found its way onboard.
Something, about the size of a man, drug itself across the deck. Or perhaps the correct term would be…slithered? It sounded almost liquid, sloshing about the deck with what appeared to be nary a rhyme or reason. One moment, it moved towards the center of the ship. The next, it slithered up to the top deck.
If Selene were to hazard a guess, it seemed to be searching for something with a kind of wandering blindness. As if it were not used to the trappings of a sea vessel.
Could it be a mermaid? Selene thought to herself. Of course she always heard they were slim and petite. The thing that lumbered on deck sounded as big as Hamish, if not bigger.
That’s not a pleasant thought, Selene thought as she bit her lip.
It continued its search of the vessel in much the same pattern. After a time had passed, it stopped in front of the door leading to the inside of the ship. The boards creaked as the wood groaned under this thing’s weight as it sat by the barricade. The boards quieted, and then nothing could be heard save a quiet gurgling.
There was a pregnant pause.
Then it slammed itself against the door. The door buckled, but the barricade held. Argent wasn’t taking any chances. He leapt from the wall and strode to stand behind the barricade as he drew his blade, one of two shortswords at his hip. The thing slammed against the door again, a loud crack was heard as the boxes shook above them on the stairwell. Argent crouched, his body poised to leap into action should the next strike break through.
But that strike never came.
Instead, whatever it was seemed satisfied. The sounds of wet smacks and a loud splash followed as it plunged back into the depths. Everything was quiet again. Most were awoken by the creature’s arrival, and few managed to find sleep after its departure. The crew spent what little time remained before dawn in silent prayer and agonizing silence.
Ari and Hamish both were awake only long enough to be told whatever occurred was over. They both then promptly went back to sleep. Argent remained awake, but no longer held an interest for conversation. He sat by the barricade, ear against the wall in case the visitor returned.
Left to her own devices, Selene thought it best to review everything that occurred. She replayed the events in her mind in the hope she would find some hint at what might have been above deck. So few facts made it difficult to craft a narrative, but she would take whatever she could to make it sound good.
It’s the first real adventure of Selene Bryseis, I better make it as good as I can.
By the time light was leaking through the cracks in the decks above, Selene had crafted an acceptable narrative. Of course, no story was truly ever perfected until it was shared. Now all she needed was a chance to tell it, perhaps after they arrived in Syndramire.
Eventually, everyone stirred and began the process of clearing out the barricade so the day could begin properly. As the boxes were returned to their rightful place below deck, it became clear the full danger of that night. The door was barely holding onto its hinges, fractured and splintered. The crates behind it fared little better.
While the barricade had held, a silent dread gripped the crew as everyone realized this damage was from two strikes. Had the visitor been a touch more tenacious, perhaps no one would have survived the night.
On the deck, there was little evidence of the visitor, save it seemed to leave a dampness on the wood wherever it went. Without a word, everyone prepared to set sail for the final stretch.
Into the mists, towards Syndramire.