The island of Yinak rose out of the pale blue waters like some vast tortoise shell covered with tall, slender ilanu trees. Their broad, dark green leaves waved back and forth in the strong, hot wind that blew in from the east. The lush jungle blanketed the island right to the edge of the rocky cliffs that rose up from the water’s edge around the perimeter of the island.
On the southern face, however, the cliffs sloped downwards toward the surface of the water to bracket the entrance to a sheltered bay, where a single, wide beach stretched up from the water to the very edge of the thick jungle. Scattered across the upper reaches of the beach were a collection of small wooden buildings and smaller huts, a village with no name where dwelt the human inhabitants of the island.
Yinak was not a large island—without the jungle’s vegetation to slow a traveler, one could cross the widest part on foot in less than two days. And yet the inhabitants of the island were rumored to have never explored most of its inner region due to the heavy growth that blanketed the surface.
Other rumors, so old they had turned into nearly-forgotten legends, told of an ancient temple deep in the jungles of Yinak, and a perfect emerald of great size and perhaps supernal power that rested in its central chamber. Only a handful of scholars throughout the world—men and women who spent their days in the dim and dusty halls of the greatest libraries to be found in the world’s greatest empires—had encountered such legends in the past hundred years.
And perhaps a few purveyors of occult practices as well.
On this day of blazing heat and strong wind, only a league out from the entrance to the calm waters of the bay, the sleek, black hull of the Titan’s Blight cut through the choppy waves. Coming in from the east, the ship had the wind at her back and was making good speed toward the island. Above the deck, the painted silhouette of the blood-red peregrine falcon nearly glowed on the brilliant white background of the sails, the dazzling sunlight reflecting off the taut canvas and turning the sails into beacons.
Kaus Kagunvar—Captain of the Titan’s Blight, legendary adventurer, sometimes pirate, and traveler of the nine seas—stood unmoving as the deck of his famous ship rolled and pitched beneath him. He scanned the skies about them and noted, in the far distance, a dark bundle of storm clouds which seemed to be heading in his direction. By late afternoon, he knew, the storm would hit the island and bring intense, but short, rains before moving off.
He glanced back at Zeero, his first mate, to find her giving instructions to the helmsman. She glanced over, met his eyes, and then looked around the ship to make sure the crew were in positions. A sailor of great skill, on any other ship Zeero would easily be the captain, but she had chosen to serve as first mate to Kaus Kagunvar and sail under his symbol. The Titan’s Blight never lacked for people to sail under its banner, and for that Kaus remained grateful.
Kaus turned back to watch the skies. The storm clouds were coming faster than he had thought—he revised his estimate of when the rains would hit by a couple of hours. There would still be plenty of time to meet with the shaman before the storm broke.
A shout from Zeero sent sailors scurrying about to trim the sails and prepare to enter the calm waters of the bay. Kaus lowered his eyes from the sky and focused on the jungle-covered cliffs that rose from the line where water met land. As the ship made its way around the final promontory that protected the bay from the churning waters of the sea beyond, Kaus watched for the first glimpse of the beach and the village.
But what caught his attention first was not on land, but in the water. His brow creased in a frown as he saw a large, red-hulled vessel anchored in the calm waters of the bay.
Kaus grabbed one of the sailors by the arm.
“Tell Ho’gheysh to get up on deck. We’ve got company.”
The man hurried off and Kaus climbed to the upper deck where Eshyo held the wheel steady while the other sailors worked hurriedly around him.
“That’s a Charnai ship, Captain,” Zeero said in greeting. Her penetrating green eyes were focused on the other vessel, and Kaus could read the tension in her stance.
“I know.” Kaus replied.
“What’s it doing here?”
“We’ll find out soon enough. Put in beside it, but far enough away so they don’t get nervous.”
A few moments later, as the Titan’s Blight slid smoothly into the bay and angled toward the beach, the door to the belowdecks banged open and a figure emerged. He was an old man with long, white hair and drooping moustaches. His overly large head was thrust forward on a thin neck, and his sapphire-blue robes hung on his emaciated frame like a blanket tossed over a pile of sticks. The man turned his perpetual scowl on Kaus, who motioned toward the Charnai ship.
Ho’gheysh the scholar and alchemist—and rumored magician—turned and regarded the other ship for a long moment. Kaus stepped down to join the elder man on the main deck.
“I guess it wasn’t a secret, after all,” Kaus said. Ho’gheysh grunted and glanced sideways at the Captain.
“Maybe your crew talks too much!” Ho’gheysh retorted in his raspy, nasal voice.
“Only you and I knew our destination until after we left port,” Kaus replied evenly. “Unless you’re implying I might have spoken out of turn?”
Ho’gheysh said nothing, but lowered his eyes to the deck. He knew better than to suggest Kaus might have made such a mistake. Still, the alchemist was not one to apologize.
“I know that ship,” he told Kaus. “The sorcerer Ayodeji is here, no doubt for the same reason we are.”
Kaus sighed and laid his palm on the pommel of the sword that hung from his waist. He hoped they wouldn’t have to fight the crew of the other ship. The Charnai were fierce warriors, brilliant magicians, and shrewd tacticians. Their kingdom was one of the most advanced across the known world, and few could best them in direct confrontation. The fact that the Charnai had no interest in conquest was the lone reason they had not built a huge empire across the southern continents.
Eshyo brought the Titan’s Blight to within a couple hundred paces from the Charnai ship, and they dropped anchor. The Blight was smaller than the other ship and could have come closer to the beach without running aground, but Kaus didn’t want to antagonize the Charnai until he understood the situation better. He wanted to avoid any confrontation with them unless necessary.
When the ship was securely anchored and the crew had completed their preparations, a boat was lowered with Kaus, Ho’gheysh, and a handful of crew to the surface. As they rowed toward the beach, Kaus took a moment to look around.
The village was larger than he had expected, with a substantial cluster of huts on the east side of the beach leading right up to the jungle. It appeared that some dwellings sat right among the vegetation where the sand turned to rich soil. Perhaps the village had begun to outgrow the space it had on the beach.
On the west side were some larger, wooden buildings. These were built in the same style as the smaller huts, mostly round with woven leaves for the roofs, but were taller and much wider. He figured that the largest was actually two stories tall.
The Yinak people were thin and lanky, with brown skin and straight, black hair. All the people visible to Kaus were involved in some kind of labor, even the children. A group of men to one side worked on erecting the frame of another building, while another group of children cleaned and gutted fish on a simple wooden table outside a hut.
Kaus couldn’t see any Charnai on the beach or among the buildings, but he expected that at least a few would be ashore. His own sailors were looking forward to getting off the ship for a day or two, and he hoped there would be the opportunity. He wasn’t ready to let them off the Titan’s Blight just yet—not until he knew whether there was the threat of a fight first.
A few minutes later, Kaus stepped down into the warm water and strode up onto the white, sandy beach. The Yinaki villagers continued about their business, all but ignoring the arrival of the second ship. But here and there Kaus noticed furtive, angry looks at him and his crew. One boy made a strange gesture toward the group with his left hand, the first two fingers on his hand hooked like a claw.
Kaus led his group up toward the center of the village where the largest wooden structures were located. A pair of Yinaki men carrying short spears stepped out into the middle of the dirt street and nodded to Kaus. He stepped forward and greeted them in the trade tongue of the southern oceans.
“I am Kaus Kagunvar, of the Titan’s Blight. I have brought the alchemist Ho’gheysh to meet with your shaman, Ukalu.”
A look passed between the two men, and then one of them stepped forward and answered, also using the trade tongue.
“Welcome to the island of Yinak, Kaus Kagunvar. Ukalu has tasked us with giving you welcome and asking for your patience. He begs your forgiveness, but he is busy with other visitors and cannot meet with you today. He asks that you return to your ship and come back mid-morning tomorrow.”
Kaus hesitated. This was not what he had expected. He turned to Ho’gheysh and translated the message. The old man grimaced and looked back at the Charnai ship.
“What do we do?” Kaus asked him. “This was your invitation.”
Ho’gheysh considered the situation for a moment before answering.
“Tell them that I would be honored to meet with Ukalu and his guests, as I am acquainted with the sorcerer Ayodeji and look forward to seeing him again.”
Kaus translated, and the two men began to look uncomfortable as he repeated Ho’gheysh’s words.
“Please forgive me if I am not clear. Ukalu wishes you to return to your ship and come back tomorrow morning. He will not meet with you today.”
Kaus repeated the man’s words to the alchemist, who shook his head slowly.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” he said to Kaus in their own tongue. “We should go back to the ship and wait until tomorrow. Anything I do now will only offend Ukalu and make things even harder for us.”
Kaus looked around at the village. The clouds had begun to creep over the island and a wave of shadow was flowing across the ground toward them. He felt a tingle run up his spine and he knew there was nothing natural about the coming storm. A moment later, the clouds cut off the sunlight and the world became dim and grey.
Under the cloudy sky, the jungle sitting close behind the small wooden buildings took on a sinister aspect. He noticed the two men were gripping their spears tightly, and there was tension in both of them as if they expected him to pull his sword and attack.
Kaus kept his hand away from the hilt of his sword as he ushered Ho’gheysh and the rest of his men back toward their boat. In his adventures, Kaus had been in the presence of sorcery before. This felt different, but equally dangerous. Something wasn’t right here, and he was sure it was more than just the presence of the other ship in the harbor.