Chapter 1: Here there be Monsters

Uncharted Waters
25th of the 6th Month, 1551 (by Kandar reckoning)
The Present

Out in the mists, the huge shape moved again and a long, resounding moan drifted across the open waters. The fog deepened visibly: an impenetrable wall on every side.

Captain Jonathan Consangth gripped the railing surrounding the Vionna's aft deck, tightly enough to whiten his knuckles under the pressure. He was sweating because the immense weight of the fog was as unbearable as the tension, and he had pulled his long hair back into a ponytail to keep the irritating strands from sticking to his face. His eyes narrowed as he stared at the hulking shadow that stood out in the distance – due north, in the middle of their course.

All hands aboard the Vionna stood on the main deck in silence, all watching the expanse of gray emptiness beyond the ship's prow, marred by the growing shadow. Anxiety was as dense as the fog, not to mention as suffocating. The apprehension was not something new – it had been mounting ever since the outset of the journey. Now, a week and four days later, things only continued to move downhill.

Consangth was not one to be easily discouraged, but even his determination was slacking. Bad weather had sapped their spirits since day one, and although no major storms had yet confronted them, the days had been predominantly humid and overcast. Grey skies, light showers, and distant–yet–threatening rumbles of thunder. The ocean itself remained relatively calm, but the crew could feel the tension building: when the storm finally broke, it would be a monster.

And then, of course, the perpetual anxiety dragged on morale. Not many ships in recent memory had sailed this far north from Kandar: things could go terribly wrong in the unknown regions of unforgiving sea. After all, no one knew exactly where the world ended, and ships had been known to disappear in pockets of unexplored ocean. Granted, the Vionna was technically still in Nevig waters but that really didn't make a difference. Nevig's monarchy was understandably stingy when it came to sharing maps and resources with her neighbor and rival. Both nations were extremely territorial.

But perhaps the greatest cause of fear in the crew was the fact that their mission parameters were so unclear. With so many factors left to fate and Consangth's intuition, it wasn't much of a mission at all: it was a goddamned quest. While the crew trusted their Captain completely, none of them was exactly thrilled to be risking his life for an unknown cause – much less one that could go horribly wrong. And now, with the appearance of this thing… It was an ill omen, and sailors by nature are extremely superstitious.

Consangth ground his teeth, going over the details in his head for the hundredth time – if only in desperation for some type of new understanding.

If they continued on this northwest course heading, they would eventually hit the shores of the New Lands – hopefully not far from Delathat itself, which was their destination. But once they reached the shallower waters off the coast of the unexplored country, getting their bearings to locate the city would be a cinch.

It sounded so simple in theory. Yet Viaalkar, Kandar's current monarch, had given Consangth little more by which to navigate than incomplete maps and halfhearted prayers, and even those had been scant. The only thing that was certain was that two weeks ago – almost three now – a plea for help had arrived from Delathat, an infant harbor village on the shores of the New Lands. There were no specifics as to the nature of the emergency. However, if one of Kandar's territories had been attacked, it would only mean one thing: war.

King Viaalkar was a wise man, not prone to swing at what he couldn't see. Instead of dispatching the Kandar's Royal Fleet to deal with the crisis – if it was even worthy of such a title – he had decided to first investigate. Consangth's Vionna, the fastest ship in the navy, had been dispatched immediately with a contingent of sixty dragoons for the protection of her crew. Their mission included two specific goals: one was to find out what had really happened in Delathat, and the second was to defend the city – if need be – until help arrived.

One hundred and twenty-four men exactly, to defend a city of several hundred against an unknown foe in a land that had not yet truly been defined. To Consangth, it was a force too small for comfort, yet too large to accommodate. There were only sixty hammocks in the Vionna's hold as it was, let alone another sixty for these extra soldiers. This also meant that they had sixty additional mouths to feed. Extra provisions had been made, of course, and yet the whole thing still felt wrong. Hell, the whole thing was absurd.

The captain smeared sweat from his brow with a forearm, growling low in his throat. He habitually retreated inward when things got tough, but nurturing his anxieties wasn't helping the situation at hand. The fact of the matter was that he was afraid and far from ashamed to admit it. No matter how well they were trained, no matter how highly King Viaalkar thought of their commander, sixty marines might not be enough to save Delathat. They might be walking into a trap, or a war in which they should have no part. For all they knew, they would find nothing but Delathat's ashes when they arrived.

Against his better judgment, Consangth had spent many nights since his meeting with Viaalkar rationalizing instead of sleeping. Again and again, he told himself that – if this was a truly serious threat – the people living in Delathat would have boarded their ships and immediately headed back to Kandar. He told himself that it would be a quick and easy mission, that they would perhaps get to Delathat only to find that the city's militia had already handled the situation. He told himself that there was no possible way anything was going to go wrong. Well, that was all well and good for the sake of his nerves, but the cynic in him demanded he keep alert and prepared. The cynic in him also told him he was an idiot for thinking so wishfully.

Enough. He shook his head to clear it.

If only it were possible to clear the fog in the same manner. The low visibility demanded greatly reduced speed: fog meant there was a landmass nearby, and the last thing they needed was to run aground on an uncharted isle. If such a catastrophe was to occur, it would take weeks – months – for help to find them if it ever did. Regardless, they were still making decent enough headway, even at this reduced pace, and they would leave the mists behind soon. It was a goal, it was incentive, and it kept them breathing.

Absently, Consangth ran his hand absently over the smooth wood of the rail, wishing to lose himself in the gentle creak of the rigging, pulled by the faint breeze above his head, and the gentle sound of waves licking the sides of the ship.

And the black mass out in the distance shifted again, this time dramatically, yet somehow remained within the Vionna's trajectory. An audible murmur ran through the ranks as a low tremor caused the deck beneath his feet to quiver, and Consangth shifted his stance uneasily. And then a return growl came from somewhere in the distance, somewhere behind them: a longing coo like an overgrown infant, but dripping with hunger.

So there were two of them, then. Whatever "they" were.

Consangth's throat was parched and his eyes burned, but he could not blink for fear of the thingblocking their path. It seemed that the mist weighing so heavily on the Vionna and her crew had sucked all the moisture from within his body and condensed it on his flesh.

Silence fell once more, leaving only the creak of rigging in the stillness. There was no wind, only the faintest breeze that none could feel. Collectively they held their breath as the thing in the distance approached. It had become a solid wall, completely filling the horizon. It was like sailing directly at a mountain.

Sudden movement to his left attracted the Captain's attention and almost made him jump, but he relaxed again immediately. The Vionna's first mate was ascending the ladder that led from the main deck up to the poop.

Her deeply tanned arms were bare, glistening almost like wax as mist condensed on her skin; the strangely shaped wolf tattoo on her upper left arm seemed alive. Gently pointed ears rose past a teal headband, and her auburn hair hung loosely about her shoulders. She stood about two inches taller than Consangth and knew more about the Vionna than he did. In fact, Consangth was fairly certain that the elf had some sort of mental or spiritual connection with the vessel.

Her name was Baradur, which – as Consangth understood – was an archaic Elvish word for "freedom". The elf was the most faithful companion that anyone could ever hope to have, and her loyalties to Consangth ran second only to her loyalty to the Vionna. Consangth had more than once been seized by the realization that Baradur would most likely go down with the ship were the Vionna ever to sink.

She must have felt his gaze, because as she stepped off the last rung, she looked him in the eye and smiled thinly – almost amused. The captain looked away immediately, embarrassed. Although he was not romantically interested in Baradur, she somehow made him think of Mandi back home in Kandar.

Consangth winced. Thinking about his ex–lover was painful.

Shifting the subject of his thoughts again, the captain inclined his head in the direction they were sailing. As he spoke, his voice came out in a croak: "Steady as we go."

Baradur nodded in agreement. "Gods willing," she said shortly. Her voice was rich and somehow suited her appearance perfectly. Her Man–Tongue was flawless with a distinctly elven accent.

Although Consangth was fairly fluent in Elvish, Baradur preferred to speak in Man–Tongue, perhaps to emphasize her departure from her people. Consangth fostered no complaints in that regard: Elvish words were certainly beautiful to say, hear, and see transcribed, but they twisted his tongue into a knot.

They said nothing more to each other. The crew was maintaining optimal silence – so as not to alert the thing to their presence. It seemed like an unnecessary measure to Consangth. He had the distinct sense that, whatever the beast was, it already knew they were there.

The hulk had gotten very close now. They still could see nothing but blackness, ever–growing before them. The Vionna glided smoothly and silently through the waters, a sudden breeze dancing about her sails and blowing strands of Baradur's hair in all directions. Waves gently lapped the sides of the vessel.

And then, suddenly, the sea in front of them opened up and the shadow was moving alongside the vessel, serpentine and agile, so close now that the Vionna tilted dangerously to port, riding the massive swells of its passage. The behemoth finally came to rest several hundred yards away, now towering over them. An artificial night fell over them as the beast's shadow coated the ocean.

As the Vionna settled back to a more stable position in the water, crewmen and soldiers scrambled to the starboard side of the vessel. Even as close as they were, there was still no way to make out what the thing was. Imagination was a powerful thing when left in the dark.

"Steady!" Baradur snapped at the crew, posting steadying hands on the rail. "Steady."

The crew heeded the order and held their fire, although tense looks did not fade from gaunt faces. Several of the men began lighting their shot with fire in preparation, but held back their projectiles obediently. The bow scorpions had been loaded and primed with the armor–piercing projectiles, and Viaalkar's marines had lined up along the starboard gunwales, bows and javelins shouldered tensely. Their commanding officer, Lieutenant Jillian Rhodes, paced confidently behind them, his hands clasped at the small of his back.

Throughout the journey, the man had remained largely inconspicuous. He seemed content to merely survey Consangth's crew while they worked and understood his role in the operation very clearly. He was not a large man, but he was self–confident, having achieved his status through hard work as opposed to gaining a leg–up from the family name. He was fond of elven tobacco but staunchly refused all forms of alcohol, constantly detailed days' events in the journal he kept in his breast pocket, and maintained a respectful, surnames–only terminology with everyone.

The lieutenant turned on his heel, and as he paced back down the line towards the poop deck, he caught Consangth's eye from afar and nodded in a respectful, reassuring sort of way. Consangth returned the gesture almost imperceptively. He appreciated the man's discipline and his authoritative personality, yet there was something he didn't like about the man – something upon which he couldn't quite put his finger.

And then, without warning, the growl came for a third time. However, this time it was not so much a distant cry as it was a scream, an explosion of sound that caused the surface of the sea to vibrate. Swells buffeted the sides of the Vionna, heeling her over to port.

Sailors and soldiers alike fell to the deck, clutching their ears in dismay as waves rose up over the Vionna's sides, soaking them all with brine. Rigging snapped like twine and the mizzen sail tilted dangerously. Lines tightened as netting sagged towards the water, rope fraying away to nothing beneath the strain –

Clutching the rail to keep himself upright, Consangth hurled the wheel to port with all the strength he could muster, jerking the Vionna away from the beast as the wall of water behind them grew to tremendous heights – a moving mountain.

The Vionna was rising up on a magnificent wave, swaying dangerously to port, lying almost parallel with the water's surface. It was all Consangth could do to stay on his feet as he clung to the wheel desperately for support, willing the ship to go faster, faster, faster – away from the creature before it could crush them, before the growing tidal wave could bury them. Violent waves continued to roll, washing over the Vionna's decks, but they were simultaneously pushing the tiny ship further away, aiding their escape, and the rumble was beginning to subside.

Consangth felt horror freeze his guts as he heard not one this time, but two return growls, somewhere in the distance but growing louder. How could they possibly escape three of them?

Sunlight exploded over the Vionna. The mist was suddenly gone as the vessel lurched into open sea. Consangth finally lost his footing and fell to the deck, sprawling onto his back as the Vionna's aft end slewed violently to starboard, spinning the whole ship around with a massive crunch of wood. With a final lurch, they came to rest, rocking fitfully as the waves died away to nothing.

The sea was calm again.

For a long moment, Consangth lay on the deck, soaked and breathing hard, staring up at the blue sky. Finally, he slowly forced himself to a sitting position, looking past the silver rails to the vessel's port side where the impenetrable wall of mist hovered: a towering curtain to conceal what lay within. A faint grumble sounded distantly from somewhere beyond, even though the beast could be no more than a hundred yards away in that direction. The mists shivered and undulated, but remained trapped there – as though behind glass. Nothing breached the wall to pursue the little vessel.

The captain struggled to his feet, dripping, squinting in the dazzling sun. His coat had disappeared from where it had hung over the rail – apparently swept overboard by a wave – but his saber was still strapped dutifully to his side. He stood at the top of the ladder leading down to the main deck and surveyed his ship.

The mizzen sail was swaying like a pendulum, suspended by mere safety lines that would not hold for long. At least the mast hadn't splintered or been swept overboard: even a vessel as swift as the Vionna would not make good progress on only one sail. The crew was slowly getting to their feet, dazed and soaked amidst the strewn debris. Several men lay still on the deck, apparently unconscious. Others were clutching smashed and bleeding limbs, injuries inflicted by falling debris.

"Report!" Consangth shouted, finding his voice.

Baradur stood at the foot of the ladder, dabbing a bloody handkerchief at her ears. A warm breeze was blowing again, playing with her hair. "Structural damage to mizzenmast, but the sail seems intact. Two men overboard, minimal injuries."

"No loss of life, minimal injuries," Rhodes chimed in from his position at the starboard bow.

It was better than he had expected, but Consangth balled his hands into fists anyway. "Damn," he muttered, working his jaw. "Estimated time for repairs?"

"A couple hours, no more," Baradur replied mildly. Her gentle nature, coupled with her perpetual state of peace instilled a contagious sort of calm in the Captain.

"Alright, everyone to your stations," Consangth shouted, drawing the collective attention of the crew. "Tend to the injured, drop a lifeboat and recover those overboard, and all hands commence repairs immediately. Lower anchor!"

As the crew scurried to do their bidding, the captain descended the ladder to stand beside Baradur. "Are you alright?" he asked in an undertone, eying her bloody earlobes. He could only imagine how badly her head must be spinning.

"I'll be fine." She smiled in an offhanded manner and tossed the scarlet–speckled handkerchief over the port wale. Minor concerns never distracted her; she was the one to always keep things moving seamlessly. "We might have been in quite a fix if the men had panicked."

Consangth smiled wanly. He needed no reminder of how close the encounter had been. Things certainly could have been worse. "Oversee the repairs to the mizzen," he ordered wearily. "Hopefully we can make up for lost time."

Baradur saluted easily and turned to weave her way through the crowd of sailors bustling on the main deck. Escaping the foggy prison seemed to revitalize the crew – that, or perhaps fear of pursuit inspired their fervor. Either way it was incentive, and that was something.

As he ascended the ladder to the poop, Consangth couldn't help but spare another glance over the port rail at the dark pall hanging over the dark sea, barely a hundred yards from the Vionna's current position: the place of the monsters. He came to stand by the ship's compass, with the intentions of checking their bearings, yet somehow he couldn't tear his eyes away.

The gods were merciful, he thought grimly, almost smiling at that personal irony. We should be grateful to be alive.

And if this instance was indicative of how the rest of the mission would play out, perhaps piety was something the entire crew – and Consangth – should be seeking.

A/N: Check out my profile for maps of Secrets geography.

Thanks, all