The deafening crack of the shattering mast above Mathias’ head was just enough distraction for the warrior’s mace to connect with his enemy. The brigand screamed in pain as the mace crushed through his leg, before being cut short by a downward swing to his head. A spatter of blood decorated Mathias’ cheek before he leapt over the fresh corpse toward the Captain’s cabin. With a frontward kick through the wooden door, Mathias caught a blast of flames to his face and covered himself with his shield. The heat subsided moments later, and Mathias glanced around the cabin through narrowed eyes.
The walls had two massive, gaping holes on either side of the room. A cannon shot had torn clean through, taking an array of furniture with it. Mathias knew Captain Gordon was sleeping moments before the attack, and now, peering into the corner of the flaming room, he noted that there was no longer a bed present. Turning from the flames, Mathias rushed back onto deck, before being hurled forward as another shot struck the ship. An ear-shattering splash rocked the ship to one side, and Mathias knew that it meant simultaneous shots had hit the ship below water level. It was a death sentence for the ship, and likely for her crew.
Mathias heard a crackle and looked up to see the mast crashing down in his direction. Stifling a gasp, he sprinted to the stern of the ship, as the weight of the mast pulled the breached aft deeper into the water. As he struggled to keep balance against the slippery wood, Mathias looked around to see some of the crew still fighting the boarding party. As far as the boarding action was concerned, they had defeated the attackers. But the reckless attacks on their ships had doomed them anyway. Mathias could see, now, the flag that flew above the mast of the enemy ship that loomed in the distance, twice the size of their own. The flag bore the Imperial insignia. Gritting his teeth, Mathias felt the ship breath its last. As he turned his gaze, he heard the distinct snapping of wood, and knew she was about to snap. He dropped to his rear and slid down the deck, before slamming his foot into the railing of the ship and shoving himself off. The freefall plunge into the tropical waters was a distance of nearly ten meters, and the impact held Mathias underwater for several seconds. Finally he emerged, his mace and shield stuffed into place on his hip and back respectively, and swam furiously to a nearby boat-- it had belonged to the enemy boarding party.
Using the one broken oar, Mathias guided the boat away from the sinking wreckage just as it snapped and hurled a massive wave in his direction. He managed to keep the boat from capsizing, but his luck did not last long. He was rounded up with the few other survivors by the Imperial ship a few hours after the attack. His battered body finally gave out beneath the fists and rods of his capturers, and he faded into unconsciousness.
When his eyes fluttered open, he found himself in a warm, comfortable bed. Lifting his head from the pillow, he glanced down to see that he was not clothed. Just as he turned to slink to his feet, he saw the form of another in the bed beside him. He paused briefly before turning towards the shape, gently touching the shoulder. The beautiful body of Raleigh rolled onto her back, and she beamed a dizzying smile to him. “Good morning, my love,” she breathed softly. Mathias’ breath caught in his chest, and as a smile stole his lips, he felt sleep taking him again. He laid his head in Raleigh’s neck, and fell asleep.
The next time his eyes opened, reality seemed all too harsh. The ship, the capture, awaking beside Raleigh-- all painful flashbacks that haunted his dreams. Mathias realized he was indeed on board a ship, and groaned at the familiar feeling. It was not a feeling he cared to recall, despite his fondness for the open sea. He took to his feet and dressed himself, not leaving his quarters without his mace. As he stepped into the lower deck of the ship, he heard the laughter of the crew down the hall, drinking and gambling. As he approached, a friend of his turned to greet him.
“Mathias!” exclaimed the man. “You finally decided to wake up!”
“I did not decide, Arik. It was an accident.”
With a laugh, Arik replied, “Well, in any event you’re just I time for a bit of gambling before we land.”
“I am not interested in gambling, my friend,” Mathias replied with a light chuckle. “I am interested in breakfast.”
“Then you’re in luck! Breakfast is the next bet!” Arik motioned for Mathias to join at their card table, but Mathias waved off their drunken games with a flippant sigh. Instead, he left the lower decks and leaned against the railing of the ship. Above was the peaceful sea, the beautiful sunset, and the still landmass before them. The clear sky shone radiant hues of pink and purple onto the rippling waters, and the serene setting reminded Mathias of why he liked the open sea in the first place. He studied the land before him and nodded I silent approval to his decision.
The stars were shining brightly through the cold night sky as Mathias stepped off the ship. There was a crowd of people waiting for the sailors and travelers on the ship, but of course, no one for him. The warrior didn’t bother addressing anyone as he pushed past the crowd. He stopped and turned, however, upon hearing his name being called.
“Mathias!” called Arik. “Mathias, hold on!”
Glancing past the people, he saw Arik charging in his direction, and sighed softly. He had mixed feelings about Arik; he was a good man, and Mathias knew he was a good fighter from spars. But the distaste came from the fact that he was a bit of a glutton and a drunk, and he had a startling lack of moral fiber. As a former pirate and adventurer, Arik’s career came to an end when his wife was killed by his old enemies, who were searching for him. Arik left his homeland, the Imperial continent of Azakan, behind to travel the seas as a sailor, and see the world. But he, like Mathias, was prone to trouble, and often found himself exercising the skills that earned him enemies to begin with.
“What is it, Arik?”
Catching his breath, the man adjusted the strap of his bulky backpack and said, “I just wanted to let you in on something, is all. A job opportunity.”
“Oh?” replied Mathias, interested.
“Yes-- there is a guild near here that is offering a reward for a group of men they want taken down. I figure that kind o’ work is right up our alley, eh?
Mathias became suddenly disinterested, and turned away to continue moving. Arik, he assumed, would follow. At the moment, he was not intent to start his first few days in Thatchia with mercenary work. “What is the name of this guild?” he asked, wondering if he would recognize it.
“Er,” thought Arik, struggling to recall. “The Keepers of the Faith, I think. I’d heard of them before, I know that much.”
Mathias quirked a brow. “Really?” he said, surprised. He had had dealings with them before-- he spent a few years as a professional paladin under their religious flag. And it was in those days that he had spent the most time with the friend for whom he was now intent to find. Perhaps this job could reveal more information on his whereabouts. “I think I could help.”
“Aha! Wonderful,” exclaimed Arik. “We should head for their guild hall first thing tomorrow morning. It’s in--”
“Numera Secus,” Mathias interjected. “I know. We’ll make for Therae and head east from there.”
With a blank expression, Arik peered back at him. “You know who these blokes are, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do,” he replied. “And I think they can help me as much as I can help them. But we shall see.”
“Be careful with that,” Arik said as he nestled into the grass, looking from Mathias to the fire.
Casting a jokingly-insulted glance to him, Mathias shook his head and continued to inspect Arik’s pistol. “It cannot go off, Arik,” he said assuredly, “it’s primed, but not loaded.”
“I didn’t mean ‘be careful not to hurt yourself’. I meant be careful not to break the damn thing. It’s a very expensive piece.”
“I can see that,” he replied, clicking the hammer back. He pulled the trigger and it clicked down, touching the hammer to the pan. The click of the trigger was instantly followed by the barrels rotating, one of the five clicking into place. This mechanism fascinated Mathias, and he fully intended to dismember the pistol and find out how the gears were assembled after Arik fell asleep. He reached over and grabbed one of Arik’s munitions packets.
It was a simple design. A small wooden rod, shorter than an inch, with five led balls attached to it by bits of twine. When the ammunition was made, the led balls were melted and pressed around the twine for this purpose. Mathias slid the wooden peg into place between the five barrels, and dropped the balls into the barrels.
“It’s a funny thing, how I came by that beauty,” Arik started. Mathias glanced up to him curiously, before he went on. “I was on a trader ship to Synexa from Azakan, and when we reached the docks a group of thieves tried to take the ship. Well, they killed the captain, and I was right next to him when he went down. My flintlock rifle was spent and I had no time to reload. Five men were boarding the ship, and there were no guards in sight.
“I bent down and grabbed Captain Shay’s gun-- his “clockwork” pistol, he called it-- and just pointed and shot. In retrospect, if it had been anything less than what it is, I would’ve been killed. But somehow I knew it was going to get me through. I pulled the trigger five times, I fired five shots, and I killed five thieves. That pistol has never left my side since that day, three years ago.”
“That is pretty impressive,” Mathias commented, setting the pistol aside.
“How about you? Where did you come by that mace of yours? The way you guard the thing, you’d think it was an ancient artifact.”
Glancing down, a smile crossed Mathias’ lips as he patted the haft of his mace. “Stormy Night?” he questioned. “It was a reward for earning Captain in the Thatchian Brigandine Brigade. We were a group of soldiers, who then became mercenaries, and then became guildsmen. Skirmishes were our specialty-- skirmishes and assaults. I was the heaviest fighter there, and the only blunt-weapon specialist. So when I made Captain, Commander Nolan had this mace crafted for me.”
“I see,” said Arik, nodding along to his story. “And the name?”
Again, Mathias smiled as he spoke. “My father always used to warn me when I would go off to train as a child, ‘When the sun is out, you can see storm clouds. But when it sleeps, and you lose perspective, clouds become invisible. Death comes like a stormy night.’ It always stuck with me-- taught me to trust my instincts and go with my gut feelings. So, I made a point to take that Stormy Night to my enemies, and save them the trouble of seeing the clouds at all.”
Arik laughed lightly, and soon, Mathias joined in a chuckle. But as his laughter died, he noticed that there were two other men standing before them, laughing as well. When Arik noticed, he leapt to his feet and took a step back, reaching for his cutlass. One man drew a blade while the other aimed a crossbow at Arik.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were in your spot,” said the swordsman. Arik froze in place
Mathias, surprised, just sat perfectly still. He was not foolish enough to think the men didn’t see him. But he knew as well as they did that he could not possibly get to them with his mace before the crossbowman dropped him. “What do you want?” Mathias demanded.
“We only wanted to hear your story,” mused the swordsman. Clearly, he was relishing the fact that he was in control of the situation. “Well, that, and whatever valuables you have.”
“How did you find our camp?” Arik asked. They had set up camp in a wooded area specifically to avoid highwaymen and remain hidden.
“All we had to do was ask some of your searat friends. For a gold piece, anyone at the docks will spill information. Including the direction of any mercenary-types.”
Mathias grimaced, sighing softly. He and Arik should never have discussed their sleeping spots so close to other human ears. His eyes searched rapidly for a solution to their problem. Arik, still frozen in place, watched the crossbowman’s trigger finger. Any sign of a twitch, and Arik would dive to his blade. For a moment, there was silence; the swordsman looked as though he was estimating his take from their campsite, presumably over their dead bodies.
Suddenly, an ear-shattering crack broke the silence. The crossbowman’s head flashed open, and a spray of gore touched the ground seconds before his limp body did. The swordsman gasped and turned briefly to glance to his ally, before two more cracks rang out. The thief’s body jerked violently twice, before he, too, stumbled back, collapsing into the dirt.
“Head, gut, and chest. Hit the mark all three times,” Mathias relished, looking over the smoking barrels of the clockwork pistol.
“M-my God, Mathias! What if the crossbowman saw you? What if he had fired?”
“I would have done you a favor,” he replied with a chuckle. “You wouldn’t have had to help me clean this up.”
Arik paused a moment, and gave a light laugh as the adrenaline gave way. “You bastard,” he commented. “Thanks a lot.”
Mathias stood with a grunt and slapped the pistol to Arik’s chest, who snatched it away with a chuckle and a grumble. “Get over here,” Mathias said, grabbing hold of one of the dead thief’s ankles. The two would drag the bodies out into the fields, in hopes of keeping any wood-born creatures from stumbling into their camp in search of meat. After cleaning up the area a bit, the two packed and readied their supplies for a hasty departure in the morning. They would sleep until sunset-- six hours, give or take-- before moving northeast, to the nearest city.
As they slipped into their bedrolls, the two exchanged shots at each other’s expense. Mathias was beginning to get along better and better with Arik, and he was glad to have the company on the trip. Especially since, without Arik’s pistol, he would have likely been killed not long earlier.
The rain came down in sheets, but the sky was calm. Mathias had seen this coming: the stars and the clouds told him the night before that their journey would be in the wet. It did not stop him, of course-- unlike Arik, Mathias was utterly determined to reach the city before sunset. The fields were strangely absent of mud as the rain covered everything in sight, although sight did not go far from beneath the rain-soaked hood of the cloaks the men wore.
“How much further to Therae?” Arik called out over the roar of the rain.
“We should be coming over the last hill of Numar Leasyu soon,” he replied in a similar holler. “And it’s just past that.”
They did indeed round the top of that hill, and were soon approaching the streets of the city. By the time they reached the city streets, the rain had stopped. “Weather here seems rather unpredictable,” Arik mused with a chuckle.
“Not at all,” spoke Mathias, glancing back to him with a grin. “Actually, it is quite predictable. One must simply know what to expect, and where to look to find out when.”
“That’s not so easy for me. I’m not used to such a moody tropical climate.”
“You’ll adjust,” Mathias replied. “It will rain again tonight.”
Arik blinked, and looked up to the sky. It looked clear. With a befuddled sigh, he looked back to Mathias, who was already walking through the suddenly-gathered crowd. “Hey!” he exclaimed. “W-wait, you bastard!”
The two toured the city briefly to understand the layout. According to Mathias, much had changed since the last time he had seen it. It had become much more populous, and prosperous as well; he mentioned that there were so few shops when last he had been there. But the two were only mildly interested in shops; after stocking up on some supplies, they quickly sought out an inn; Mathias needed a room in which to set his effects, and Arik needed a drink of the sauce.
After some time spent in the ‘Wyne and Dyne’ inn, Mathias retired to his room and Arik, half-drunk, left the inn to find some ‘company’. It did not bother Mathias much; he thought it was despicable, but as long as his companion did not bring any ‘companions’ of his own back to their room, things would be fine. Instead of hitting the town, Mathias spent the time in prayer and consideration of what he had been doing the past few days. He had wandered a bit from his religion since his days as a Paladin, but his remembrance with the Keepers of the Faith had inspired him to make amends for anything he may have done wrong since last he spoke with the gods.
Sitting on his bed with his head bowed, he pressed folded hands to his forehead as he spoke flowingly to the gods in his mind. His words were no more elegant than were he speaking to a friend, as that was what he considered the gods to him. They were friends, who guided him through the right paths in life. Some considered it foolish, as though he had imaginary friends to keep him company, but he knew better than that. He knew they were there, listening from Ipsxilliovn. He had seen them work before.
A frigid breeze swept through his room, and he assumed the window must have been open. But when he realized that it was a warm night in a tropical climate, he opened his eyes and looked over. The window was closed. He glanced around the room, before seeing a sight he could not believe.
Standing before him, in all her incredible majesty, was Akaila the Icewind, Goddess if the winter and all things beautiful.