Jeranna simply sought to make the best of a simple, ceremonial duty, and enjoy herself before she was once more drawn into the endless, mindless ceremony of the King’s court in Caer Albion.
A voice cut through the crashing waves, interrupting the young Talon’s thoughts. “Jeranna!”
She looked over her shoulder then, sighing as she saw Korin, the lieutenant in charge of the mission. Almost dancing along the bowsprit, she quickly returned to the relatively solid deck of the ship, her body going rigid as she stood in front of her superior officer. “Yes Lieutenant Bahn?”
Korin Bahn stood only a few inches taller than the young woman, but carried almost 2 decades more experience as a member of the Kingshield Talon on his muscular, ebon frame than did the young warrior who apparently fancied herself a sailor. “I think you’ve had enough fun, for the moment. We’re changing shift below decks, and you’re up.”
“But sir…” she started to plead, trying desperately to win a few more hours of freedom on the dark waters of the great inland ocean.
“Jeranna! You will report for duty immediately, or you’ll be shielding the king’s hounds when we get back to Caer Albion. Am I understood?”
Jeranna hung her head, then, a shock of white hair falling over her amber eyes. Dejectedly, she muttered, “Yes sir.”
Moments later, the young warrior found herself leaning against the narrow stairwell that led from the main deck to the cargo hold, rolling down her pant legs and pulling on the tall black boots that were an inextricable part of her duty uniform. She pulled on the black leather tunic that marked her as a member of the Kingshield Talon, straightening it slightly before stepping back into the small room that held (at the moment) one of the Falcon Kingdom’s greatest treasures. Two of her comrades leaned against the walls of the small room, while another was perched on the chest that carried the last Runeblade left in the known world—the Liegeblade, the sword of kings.
Jeranna pointed to Teryn, whom she was to replace, guarding the weapon. As the older man passed Jeranna, she turned her head slightly, asking, “Anything new?”
A half-smile twisted the man’s lip upward, slightly. This was what passed for mirth in Teryn’s case. “There’s a sword in a box, and we’re watching it. What were you expecting? Pirates?”
Before Jeranna could respond, she heard a muffled thud, followed by a short, high-pitched noise…almost like a scream. Jerking her head back toward the stairs, she started to speak, saying, “Should I…”
Before she could finish, Teryn held out a hand, cautioning her from speaking more. Whispering, he looked into her eyes, his expression showing uncommon gravity, even for him. “I’ll check it out.” Widening his gaze to include the others, he said, “Stay here, and keep that chest safe!”
Teryn took a single, hesitant step toward the narrow ladder that led up to the Skyracer’s main deck. Taking a deep breath, he looked back at Jeranna and the others, worry creasing his lined and battle-scarred face. His mouth opened, almost as if to say something, and then he turned back to the ladder, silently climbing into the night as he loosened his antiquated basket-hilted broadsword in it scabbard.
He disappeared, black armor and skin blending perfectly into the midnight sky. His boots made no sound on the deck above, leaving Jeranna and the others with no company other than silence. Unable to hear anything happening on the decks above, Jeranna nervously eased her steeldrake from its holster below her ribs, slowly pulling back the flint, and checking the pistol to ensure that, should it be needed, it would be primed and loaded.
The click of the steeldrake’s flint was agonizingly loud in the tiny chamber. Jeranna winced as she heard it echoing through the room, looking over her shoulder at her companions. Still, no sound drifted downward from the deck above. Whatever was happening above was frighteningly quiet, and there was little Jeranna could do but wait.
Suddenly, a loud crash split the air, followed by the unmistakable sound of steel on steel. Battle! Jeranna pulled her own saber from the sheath at her hip. Looking over her shoulder to her companions, she checked the flint on her steeldrake once more, and with a weak smile to the remaining guards, she slowly climbed into the darkness where Teryn had disappeared, seconds before.
Her eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness above as carefully ascended into the night. Her race’s vision allowed her to assess the scene instantly—a strangely silent battle, with Teryn just entering the fray, behind a still-living Lieutenant Bahn. Her amber eyes outlined each of the hulking creatures in the starlight. Great reptilian monstrosities, each stood a head (or more) taller than a man. Nearly a score of the creatures fought against no more than a half dozen sailors, with dozens more of the Skyracer’s crew already laying dead at their feet.
Jeranna watched as Teryn pulled the trigger on his own steeldrake, and then gasped as the hot, flying lead failed to slow the creature charging toward him, making no sound. Powerful legs drove the creature toward the Alder warrior, great scaly hands grasped a rune-cut spear. The reptilian abomination seemed to roar as Teryn managed to parry away the spear thrust with his sword. Once more, no sound escaped to reach Jeranna’s ears.
Jeranna carefully aimed her own pistol, and pulled the trigger, sending smoke and lead screaming toward the beast that Teryn was still battling. The trademark boom of drakespowder pierced the silence, and then the beast, thudding through thick, reddish scales, and then outward, splintering the Skyracer’s mast with fragments of the bullet. Snakelike eyes rolled upward into the creature’s elongated face, and Teryn was able to show her a quick smile over his bleeding shoulder, before darting forward to engage another of the invaders. His lips moved, but his words were lost to whatever magic had kept the battle silent for so long.
Caught in what seemed to be the eye of a storm of steel, Jeranna was finally able to fully appreciate the scene in which she found herself. A thick fog had enveloped theSkyracer in the minutes she had been below decks, the ship boarded in silence while she and Teryn had joked. Someone had come. Someone had come, and they meant to have the Liegeblade.
Before she could launch herself into the fray, the fog parted, and Jeranna was struck dumb by the sight she beheld. A great vessel no less than 10 times the size of the Skyracerpushed its way through the mist. Great black sails laid limp against their masts, and strange flying creatures swarmed around the vessel, seeming to drift in and out of reality as they disappeared and reappeared from the mist. The ship’s hull was a mix of coal-black and a strange stained ivory, almost as if the vessel was iron, poured into the ribcage of some unknown, terrible beast.
As she saw it, she gasped, and dropped the spent steeldrake to the bottom of the stairwell, and nearly lost the grip on her sword, as well. Steeling herself against the crushing despair that the vessel seemed to force upon her soul, she tightened her grip on her saber, and finished the climb to the deck. She whispered a short prayer to the Light, the sound suddenly lost to some unknown force, and then moved forward to defend the treasure below with her last breath, as she had sworn to do.
Before she could bring her sword to Teryn and Korin’s aid, cold metal hit her on the back of the head, summoning dancing stars to her vision. Managing to turn as she stumbled forward, she saw the handle of the steeldrake she had dropped, stained in her own blood. It was in the hands of one of the guards she had left to protect the blade. Treachery!
A cruel smile crossed his face, as she tried to regain her balance, and he drew his own steeldrake, as if in answer to her silent accusation. Two of the giant lizardmen walked forward, moving cautiously as if to protect the traitor who had hit her, as he cocked back the weapon’s flint. “Remember me in Hell, Jeranna?” he mouthed, and then the world went dark.
* * *
“Darkson, what should we do with this one?” something whispers. This must not be Hell. But it hurts. It hurts a lot. At least the silence is gone. (she thinks, listening)
A male voice laughs. “She lives, eh? Not for long, I imagine?”
“Not without the healer’s touch,” the whisperer answers.
“Then she’ll not last long enough to walk the shadow path. Too bad—this one had spirit,” the laugher says, obviously considering something. “We may yet have a use for her…I have an idea. Summon Mistress Blackadder.”
* * *
Conscious again. Still not dead. Still can’t see. Maybe blind, maybe my eyes are just closed? (she thinks again, drifting back into consciousness.)
Dammit. The laugher is talking again. Why won’t he shut up? Still hurts. “Here she is, Mistress Blackadder. Will she serve our purposes?”
A feminine voice this time, like razors over silk. “That depends on how much she has seen.”
“Just the Dahaka, I think. And the ship. But word has already begun to travel about that.”
Razors again. Why won’t they stop talking and let her die? “I just want to make sure that an overzealous cleric doesn’t manage to pry too much of the truth from her corpse. The Apectan Order could ruin this if too much happens too quickly.”
“Well then open her eyes…let’s make sure she sees what we want her to see. I’ll follow, and make sure that the right story spreads.”
“Very well.” Razors starts to chant…her voice lowering, changing…now it’s like razors over razors. She’d shudder if she could. Suddenly, her eyes burst open.
* * *
She saw a black flag with the outline of an eye and star, all in blue. She tried to gasp, but could not summon the strength. The Bluestar! In the Placid Sea! Her eyes refocused, almost blinded by the sun, now clearly overhead.
Two shadows stood over her, slowly resolving into a man and a woman. Razors, the woman, still filled the air with her words. The sounds seemed to hover over her, and then slowly, excruciatingly, they began to slice into her flesh…and settle into her soul. She was almost painfully beautiful, made more so by the ugliness of the words she somehow managed to utter.
She managed to glance to her left. A body—another Talon. She managed to smile. It was the traitor. I guess we all get out comeuppance in the end, eh?
Laugher, the man, smirked over her burning black flesh. She was able to register surprise over her pain as she saw that he too wore the uniform of the King’s navy. Cold grey eyes sat deep in a sallow, mustached face. Crouching beside her, he tilted the her chin toward him, and pressed cold, hard lips against hers as Razor’s words bit deeper and deeper into her body. Something was changing. She was dying. He was enjoying it. Bastard.
Pulling back, he (predictably) started to laugh again. “Remember the flag, girl. You’ve been given the honor of being the first soldier in what will be a truly fantastic war,” he said, unable to contain his mirth. As the laughter subsided, once more allowing Razor’s words to fill her mind, he continued, distracting her from sweet merciful death once more. “Your King thanks you for your service, Jeranna, and he thanks you for the sword. One down, only twelve to go. Happy hunting, girl. You’ll have a feast, tonight!” Laughter again, this time drowned out by the cutting words of the sorceress standing above her.
More cuts, more razors, more changes. She screamed, an unholy cry, as if her soul were trying to escape the prison her body now represented. Then, the world went dark. This time, for good.