After detailing a watch to keep an eye on both the village and the Charnai ship, Kaus retired to his own cabin to rest. Something bad was coming—he could feel it in his blood. He knew he should get what rest he could, in case the night turned out to have unpleasant surprises in store for him.
A few hours after returning to the ship, one of the lookouts cried out in alarm. Kaus was up and striding out on deck before his mind fully registered the lookout’s call. The man was pointing at a large bird of prey that was circling the deck.
“It came from the other ship!” the sailor yelled to Kaus. The Captain watched the bird circle twice and then dive down to perch on the ship’s rail. Kaus recognized the bird as a type of eagle native to the Charnai continent. A rolled parchment was attached to the eagle’s leg.
Kaus approached the bird and held out one hand. The eagle regarded him silently, and then turned sideways to show him the leg with the message. Kaus carefully untied the parchment and stepped back. The eagle did not leave, but sat on the railing, watching him.
He unrolled the parchment as Ho’gheysh came out on deck. The flowing script was written in the Imperial tongue, a gesture Kaus recognized as deliberately considerate from the Charnai. He scanned the words and considered their import before turning to the alchemist.
“It’s a message from Ayodeji,” he told the other man. “He’s inviting us to dine with him on his ship this evening.”
Ho’gheysh’s scowl deepened.
“Of course. He wishes to show us that he is in control here, that he already has us beaten.”
“Or perhaps,” Kaus said evenly, “He wants to eat dinner with another scholar and talk about whatever it is that you people study.”
Ho’gheysh snorted in amusement, the scowl never leaving his face.
“Perhaps. It would be rude to decline the invitation, and the vaunted Charnai honor means we will be safer on his ship than we would be even here on the Titan’s Blight. At least for tonight.”
Kaus took the parchment into his cabin and grabbed an inkpot and quill. He wrote a short message of acceptance and gratitude, and returned to the deck. The eagle remained motionless as Kaus tied his response to the bird’s leg, and then with a single, powerful thrust of its wings it was airborne and flying back across the space between the two ships.
After a short discussion with Zeero about the unnatural storm clouds and instructions to keep some portion of the men ready at all times to fight or sail, Kaus changed his outfit, selected a half-dozen sailors to accompany them, and once again helped Ho’gheysh into the launch and it was lowered to the water.
Minutes later, they pulled alongside the Charnai ship. Kaus saw the name painted with a precise hand in gold lettering on the side of the hull.
“What does Namafu Emvula mean?” he asked Ho’gheysh.
“It means ‘Storm Clouds’,” the alchemist replied. Kaus glanced up at the rapidly-darkening skies. He could not see the sun setting—the island blocked his view—and the clouds still hid the stars above.
Once the boat was secured to the side of the ship, the sailors up above lowered a wooden board attached to two ropes for Ho’gheysh so that he wouldn’t have to climb the ladder up to the deck. He stepped onto the board and was gently lifted onto the ship. Kaus grabbed the rope ladder and quickly ascended, followed by his sailors.
When all of them were finally aboard, the Charnai sailors stepped back to give room for their leader to approach Ho’gheysh. He was tall and solidly built, his dark brown skin in contrast to the bright and colorful robe he wore. His dark eyes regarded Ho’gheysh and then Kaus and his sailors. Then his mouth broke open in a wide smile, and Kaus saw that he was a handsome man with a friendly demeanor.
“Welcome to the Namafu Emvula, my friends,” he said in fluent Imperial. “I am pleased you accepted my invitation to dine with me this evening.”
He stepped forward and clasped hands with Ho’gheysh, and the alchemist’s scowl lessened somewhat, though did not entirely disappear. He turned to Kaus and reached out, clasping forearms rather than hands in the common gesture of ship captains who want to show respect to each other.
“I am Ayodeji, and you are the legendary Kaus Kagunvar. It is a great honor to meet you.”
Kaus returned the grip and took an instant liking to this man. He hoped they would not be at odds before this trip was over.
“The honor is mine, Ayodeji,” Kaus said in the Charnai language. He was not fully fluent, but had learned enough to make a proper greeting and to get by in their port cities.
Ayodeji raised his eyebrows, and then laughed, stepping between Kaus and Ho’gheysh and sliding an arm around each man’s shoulders.
“Come, my friends. We have a feast laid out on the foredeck, though I fear we may have to move it to my cabin if these clouds decide to open up on us.”
“Are they yours?” Kaus asked him in an offhand manner. Ayodeji looked puzzled for a moment and then smiled again.
“A coincidence, I assure you. Had I the power to control the skies, I would not have to travel around the world myself tracking down mystical trinkets.”
Ho’gheysh stopped at the foot of the steep stairs leading up to the foredeck.
“It’s hardly a trinket! The Book of Iskosia says the gem has the power to—”
“It was a jest, nothing more,” Ayodeji interrupted smoothly before Ho’gheysh could get going. The alchemist stopped, blinked at their host a few times, and closed his mouth with a snap. Kaus noted that his scowl had fully returned.
‘Feast’ was the right word for the banquet that lay spread out before them as they ascended to the foredeck. Kaus wondered at how they had managed to store such food without spoiling on their long journey, for they had surely not acquired some of these meats and vegetables on the island. Was it possible that they used arcane arts on so mundane a purpose as to preserve supplies?
The three men sat around the table and sampled the great selection of delicious food the Charnai had provided. Kaus looked down and saw that his sailors were also being served food by the crew of the Namafu Emvula, and that a number of dice games had already broken out. Some things never changed, no matter what part of the world from which a sailor might hail.
Ayodeji was a skilled host, deftly managing the discussions to that neither Kaus nor Ho’gheysh was left out. A few moments discussing esoteric matters with the alchemist was followed by comments on sailing, pirates, and other nautical matters. Interspersed among the changing topics were questions about the stories that inevitably followed Kaus Kagunvar and his exploits.
“Tell me, Kaus, is it true that you once met the great sorcerer Hai’qep? Surely that must be an exaggeration!”
“I guess you could say that I met her, though only once. It’s not an experience I want to repeat. By the gods, man, I nearly lost control of my bowels when she appeared!”
Ayodeji laughed heartily at the sentiment.
“To my fortune, it was not me she wanted, and I was mostly a bystander in the moment. I’ll tell you honestly, I’m glad I didn’t get her full attention. Though I hear one version of the story has me adventuring with her for a time.”
Ho’gheysh nearly choked on his wine.
“How could anyone believe such a preposterous tale?”
Kaus turned to the alchemist.
“You’d be amazed at what most people believe. Legends are considered just that…legends. They’re little more than a few scattered details if you’re not a scholar. The name Hai’qep fills you and me with no little fear. But to the citizens of the Undying Empire, for example, she is merely a legendary sorcerer who travels through time.”
Ho’gheysh scoffed at Kaus’ use of the word ‘merely.’
“I mean,” he explained, “There are people who live their entire lives in Ythis, the capital of the Undying Empire, where the Five have their towers. But those people never actually see a sorcerer, never mind speak with one. Everyone fears them, but that’s from the stories and legends that get repeated and passed down older generations.”
“And just as tales grow in the telling,” Ayodeji interjected, understanding what Kaus was saying, “So do legends shrink as well. Repeat something often enough, it becomes mundane.”
Kaus raised his wine cup to Ayodeji and nodded. But the man’s face suddenly went blank, and his eyes became unfocused.
“Ayodeji?” Kaus asked, his muscles tense as a chill ran down his spine.
And then the Charnai seemed to come to his senses and he leaped to his feet.
“To arms!” he shouted in the Charnai language. “We are under attack!”
Kaus also jumped up as he saw the sailors across the deck react with speed and precision. Shields and spears were grabbed from where they hung about the masts and Kaus saw his own sailors shoved toward the center of the deck as the Charnai faced outward in all directions, weapons at the ready.
A knot of sailors charged up the stairs to the foredeck as Ayodeji guided Ho’gheysh firmly away from the side of the ship.
“We have visitors,” Ayodeji said to his guests and grabbed a long hunting knife from one of his sailors.
A war cry rose from the throats of the Charnai sailors as a horde of dark figures swarmed up the sides of the ship from the waters below and leaped onto the deck. In the light of the lanterns hung around the ship, Kaus could see the attackers were roughly human-shaped, but with arms far longer than their legs and wrinkled skin that hung off their limbs. Their heads were grotesque, misshapen lumps with tiny black holes for eyes and wide, fanged maws. The creatures were naked, and fought with no weapons but their own wickedly-long claws.
As one, the Charnai met the charge with shields and spears, skewering the first wave of creatures and driving them back toward the edge of the ship. Kaus saw his own sailors grab their short blades and ready themselves to dive into the fight wherever they might be needed.
He turned to look across the dark waters at his own ship. A flurry of activity was visible but he couldn’t see if the same creatures were attacking his people or if they were preparing to come to the aid of the Charnai.
A dozen of the creatures leaped up and over the railing of the foredeck, three of them landing directly on Charnai sailors who went down under their weight. The other sailors were focused on fighting off their own enemies and could not immediately rush to the aid of their fallen comrades. Without thought, Kaus leaped forward and hammered his fist into the face of one of the creatures, snapping its head back and knocking it off its feet.
A second creature swiped at Kaus’ abdomen with its claws, and he narrowly avoided being eviscerated as he twisted out of the way. But Ayodeji was right behind him, and the Charnai drove his blade into the creature’s chest all the way to the hilt.
Kaus picked up a fallen spear and impaled another creature, shoving it backward from the opening in the Charnai line. The creature grabbed the shaft of the spear as it staggered toward the railing, yanking it out of Kaus’ hands and taking it as it fell overboard back into the water of the bay.
But he had given the fallen sailors the moment of respite needed for them to regain their feet and they rushed back into the gap. In another moment, all the creatures on the foredeck were dead, and it appeared no more were climbing from the water.
Kaus turned to see only three of the Charnai sailors down, and his own sailors were helping out where they could be most effective. The creatures fell before the combined onslaught and the ship suddenly fell silent.
In that moment, Kaus heard the sounds of fighting from the Titan’s Blight. But that, too, rapidly died down. He couldn’t see, however, if the creatures had slaughtered his crew or if his people had repelled the attack.
He heard Ayodeji whisper something under his breath, and the eagle launched itself from its nest up in the rigging and winged its way toward Kaus’ ship. Ayodeji closed his eyes and concentrated, and then spoke in a low voice.
“There are casualties on your ship, but most of your crew is alive and the attack is over.”
Ayodeji opened his eyes and Kaus thanked him for the information.
“How did you know the attack was coming?” he asked his host.
“I could feel it, like a wave coming up from under the bottom of the bay. It was…malignant. And it was aimed only at our two ships.”