Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by POOHEAD189
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Markus had shimmied his way up the mainmast, hanging off the left side, clinging to the web of ropes and surveying the battle they would engage in within mere minutes. There was an ease about how he took the situation that both unnerved and encouraged the men scrambling below. He wore a grin that by all accounts shouldn't be there, but Calliope would be able to see his eyes. He looked almost lustful, though unlike the base desire of sex that often supersede the mind, he was was sharp as a razor's edge.

"Sketti! Load the payload!" Markus ordered. Sketti repeated him and drove on Sron and Halvar to lift the miniature barrel into the Seige Ballista, hauling it on as gently as they could and cranking the coiled ropes back to realign and set ready the weapon once more. Sketti's smile was almost as mad as Markus', and when the payload was loaded he whipped the two burly crew members to head to the middeck. "Off with ye, ye dogs!"

Halvar looked at the canine-like Sron, and then at himself. The Norgardian not used to such terms. "I'm not a dog."

The two hustled over to the main rope on the stern as Markus directed from above with his sword, ordering them to stay there and await his call. The crew was beyond nervous. It was in the air of the ship, palpable as the sea around them. They were miles from shore and about to engage in six to one odds, and their Captain seemed to pay it little mind. "Hold!" he cried to them, keeping everyone at their stations.

Calliope gazed up at Markus, looking at him like he was mad. Recalling he was some vagabond she had met in the dungeons! On the crow's nest, Jax the Elf, normally jovial and carefree, looked a few paces below him at the Captain. "Orders, Captain?" he asked shakily. He wielded a longbow made of Caelic yew, laminated with various bits of the blessed trees that twirled around in overlapping colors of brown and tan.

"The second ship at the portbow." Markus said to him, quiet enough to where only he and whoever bothered to listen could hear. "You find the Captain and kill him."

"Aye sir!"

"Captain!?" Phil called from below. Sketti and Markus were of a like mind here, both holding for the opportune moment. Likewise the enemy ships would be curious as to their next move, perhaps even contemplating the Weathered Witch was surrendering. Only the crashing waves and the distant shouts on the other ships were audible as Markus and Sketti held the crew for a few more paces...

"Fire!" Markus ordered, Sketti following suit and releasing the payload on the Ballista. The Dwarves were famous for their nightvision, even more than Elves, but even if he couldn't see any particular person, all he needed to do was hit the leading ship. The powerful cables of the weapon snapped forward and the projectile was launched, sailing through the air and impacing on the aft of the front ship. Markus, without the aid of a railing to block the wind, could feel the heat on his face when the payload exploded into flames and engulfed the ship. It was as if Satan himself had turned the sea on fire.

"Starboard!" Markus ordered. "Pull!"

Sron and Halvar pulled on the rope with all of their might, and the Weathered Witch began to turn to the right, bypassing the ship that now was encumbered with flames and bodies. The payload was not designed to defeat a crew or destroy a ship, but leave it so badly charred they would be put out of a fight. Now their aft side was covered by a burning vessel, and their starboard had an enemy only a dozen paces away.

"Fire the guns!"

"Give them hell!"

The broadside from both were defeaning, tearing chunks into the ships as the powder smoke billowed and overran the top of the deck as certainly as the fire did on the flame-occupied Galley. Markus' crew might not be well trained, but the guns from the keep had bolstered their arsenal enough to make the difference. They tore through the enemy's hull and shattered their resolve in two volleys. Even the aft mast was broken by a well aimed cannon ball, and whoever occupied the decks above the gun deck would have been hard pressed to survive. The Weathered Witch slowly passed them, until a Thunderbolt from another ship ripped into the ship, blasting Sketti and sending the Dwarf flying back into the mast, unconscious.

If any other of the crew had been hit, they would be dead. But Dwarves are resilient to magic, Perhaps Calliope could cripple the wizard, and then maybe they could make for open water...but Markus doubted it.
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The Witch heeled to the wind as it rushed past the shattered corsair. Broken bodies lay in piles on the deck as the ship fell off the wind and wallowed. Screams and moan rose from the ship as they drew passed and Calliope could see men quilled with splinters as long as her arm as they thrashed in their death struggles. Another bolt of lighting leaped from the pursing ship and Calliope snapped a counter spell, detonating the blast well short of its mark. The galleries behind them were gaining despite the greater spread of canvas the Weather Witch could boast. Their lateen yards were not the best choice, but the rowers more than made up the difference. While the crewmen would eventually tire that would be well after they had closed with their prey. Puffs of smoke erupted from the bows of the fleeing vessels and a monet later great jets of spray rose up just behind the fleeing pirate vessel as heavy shot splashed down about them.

Calliope hurled bolts of black fire back at their pursuers, but the mage following them was more experience than she and manage to blot out her efforts in a fizzle of arcane power. She lashed out again fueling the spell with her hate and frustration but they merely evaporated as her opponent countered her with her own arts. The medallion at her breast pulsed and throbbed filling her with the desire to rend and tear and burn but offering her now practical method to achieve such viceral satisfaction. Instead she began to recite a spell from the codex, the alien words spilling from her lips in a liquid flow that was unnerving to see. Above them clouds began to thicken and darken like congealing blood. Calliope’s vision dimmed and again she found herself in the strange grey interstices she always glimpsed when she used the strange and alien magics in the books cursed pages. This time though something was different. The menacing presence was still there, just out of sight behind the walls of fog, but there was something else, dark and serpentine that wove its way through the darkness.

Bold, little wyrm, a voice sounded in her head.

The magic of the black heavens is a dangerous toy…

Calliope tried to keep her concentration on the spell she was incanting in the real world but her mind seemed to be composed of thick panes of glass and the arcane formula slipped and slid. Somehow she knew she was second from disaster and she worked desperately to keep her concentration.

Back in the real world streams of blood were rising from the shattered galley, flying up into the gathering maelstrom in a perverse negation of natural rain. Where Calliope stood on the deck a circle of black shadow flowed, encircling the mage like a ward circle. Another thunderbolt struck the tafrail, showering splinters that burst into smoke as they touched the edge of the circle and pepering Markus with flaming debris.

Let me show you, before the monarch of this place takes you

Something dark and winged flashed out of the clouds like a inverse lightning. Calliope saw the deck and the enemy mage rushing up at her, a feeling of wild exultation in her heart. A half mile away she could see herself standing on the poop of the Weather Witch, chanting while her eyes stared sightlessly. She could see each of the crew members with far greater clarity than she could have with her own eyes. She could feel the heat of their bodies, smell the stink of their sweat, but all was meaningless compared to the mad thrill of the dive. Her wings spread at the last moment and her talons tore at the screaming mage. The man held up his hands as though to ward her off, his white robes flapping in the tumult of her decent. Claws of shadow tore into him and he screamed in agony before staggering back, dead without a mark on his body. Calliope rushed back up into the clouds and suddenly she was standing on the deck of the Witch again, the last syllables of the spell rolling off her tongue.

“What in the seven hells!” Markus demanded. In her memory Calliope could see the black winged shadow fall like a lance from the sky striking the enemy mage dead. To others it had appeared that way, but she had been the thing which swept down upon the luckless mage. The clouds roiled and swirled above her and the last syllable of the spell tumbled from her lips. The clouds fell. In an instant the sea was carpeted with fog so thick that she couldn’t see Markus five feet away. The crew yelled in panic.

“Quiet!” Markus roared and the ship fell silent save for the snap of the rigging and the slap of waves against the hull. Behind them came hollow booms of cannon. A geyser of water shot up behind them, close enough that it showered Calliope and Markus with its plume. Another spout rose ahead of the ship and with a shriek of splintering timbers one of the balls crashed down on the deck, tossing one of the unmanned cannons back into the waist. Markus put the wheel over several points, veering the Witch off the last course the enemy had been able to see. Behind them Calliope could hear the hammer of the drums urging the rowers forward. They were still badly outnumbered, but perhaps they could lose the enemy in the magical fog.

Calliope’s lungs burned and she felt her knees wobble from the effort of the spell, catching onto the railing so that she didn’t fall. The amulet at her breast burned like fire against her skin, but it wasn’t the unpleasant sensation it should have been. No one in the crew could see her through the fog, but she forced herself to remain standing, striving to appear calm and in control
Hidden 28 days ago Post by POOHEAD189
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Jax leaned over the crow's nest, though he could see no one and no one could see him. He yelled despite it though. "There's a fog Capt'n!"

If he could see Markus, he'd see the mercenary swordsman rolling his eyes. He did just say to be quiet. He supposed the lookout wasn't certain if the fog effected them on the deck or just at his elevation. Markus called up as quietly as he dared. "I know, shut up!" with his hands cupped to his mouth. Due to the low light of the day even if there was no fog, it was far from comfortable. In fact, it was probably the closest thing to a waking nightmare Markus had ever experienced. The roiling cloud of wet fog seemed to threaten all of his senses, not just his sight.

"Captain?" he heard to his right, and Markus spun. It sounded like his first mate. He crept forward through the fog, keeping his sword point away from his front to keep it from poking the woman. "Calli?" he whispered into the miasma, his entire body focused on what was in front of him. As her face came into view, she had on a smirk despite her obvious state, which seemed a strange mixture of concupiscent exhaustion.

"So we're using nicknames now?" she asked.

He sheathed his sword. "I don't make you call me Captain, now do I? Even though I probably should." he said, amused.

"I'm not getting into trouble, am I?" she asked slyly. There was a strange pulse to her, somehow. As if she had another's energy that gave her far more vitality than a normal woman would have, even as one as skillful in enchantments as she. The ex-merc was about to reply when an immense shadow came into view not two paces away. At first Markus thought it was a whale surfacing, but a split second later, he saw it was one of the Blooded Axe ships about to collide with the Weathered Witch!

The ship hit them hard, sending Calliope off of her feet to hit Markus, who, despite catching her, was sent to the floor of the deck. Calliope would lift her head up to notice she was straddling Markus, and his hands were around her upperback and thigh. They were interrupted yet again, however, when another object appeared behind them through the fog. Only this was far more humanoid, and yet still immense. Markus thanked the Gods he still had his wits about him. "I think you have a knack for trouble." Markus said as she looked behind her to see the danger.

They both rolled away, Markus to the left and Calliope to the right. Where they had just been, a wooden club with metal studs in it the size of a man splintered the thick planks of the deck. The Ogre roared in frustration. Its body was proportioned like a thick man, with yellow-tan skin, and stunted, primitive features within a body that was fully ten feet tall and six feet wide at the stomach. It wore a garb of roughly stitched together trousers and a bandana caked in what Calliope and Markus sincerely hoped was dried mud.

"Don't worry, I do too." Markus said, finishing the earlier statement and taking out his sword. The blow of the club had dissipated the immediate fog, though their surroundings were still thickly obscured other than the flashes and cries of steel on steel that had erupted upon the ship. Shouting for all hands to the weapons would likely be redundant.
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Calliope stumbled back as the troll swung its massive fist into the wheel, showering the foggy darkness with splintered timber. Incanting quickly she wove a sphere of silence around the vessel, abruptly cutting off sound that might pass to other ships questing for them in the fog. Calliope didn’t think there were other mages out there but she didn’t want to do anything further to give away their position. Instead she drew her own slender blade and thrust at the back of the trolls leg as it focused on tearing Markus limb from limb. The sharp steel turned on the things tough leathery skin, flexing the thing steel of the blade.

Cursing she turned to find a bill hook or a firelock in time to see an Arad stumble through the magical fog. He was naked from the waist up and clutched a scimitar that looked as though it weighed as much as she did. Without hesitation she lunged at the man, her light weapon too quick for the corsair, caught him in the right side. He stumbled back, blood bubbling from his lips. The rapier point opened his throat and send him tumbling over the rail into the water between the two ships. By their cries more corsairs were swarming onto the deck. She could hear Sketti roaring down in the waist and could hear the whistle thunk of his axe as it chopped through something meaty.

The troll howled in rage and pain as Markus struck home, though even that was hard to make out in the gloom. Another corsair stumbled out of the mist but this one was clutching a wound in his chest, dying from a pistol shot. Calliope seized one of the pike like boat hooks and turned to find Markus on the trolls back, stabbing down between its shoulder blades while the thing twisted its ape like arms to try and tear him free. Putting her slight weight behind it she thrust the boat hook into the knotted muscles and tendons of its left shoulder and was rewarded with a howl of pain. It pivoted to swat her but she stepped back, letting the hook, still lodged in the things shoulder swing free. Blood was pouring down its back from where Markus was chopping at it. She knew that fire was the best thing for trolls but a fire on a ship at sea was at least as deadly to the crew as it would be to the beat.

A freak gust of wind cleared enough of the fog that she could glimpse the enemy ship snugged up to them with grappling lines. Set into the railing were a number of small swivel guns. Glancing about she seized a loose line and leaped fluttering out over the gap where the ships tumbled home and landing on the deck. Most of the crew were away now but a few startled pirates looked up in shock as she landed cat like on the deck.

The deck of the enemy galley was a narrow walkway that ringed a large open waist in which two banks of oarsmen could be seated. The fog was too thick for Calliope to see how many of the crew were still at their posts. She was in the process of prying up the swivel gun when a sudden rush of air warned her and she pivoted aside as a turbaned man with a heavy scimitar rushed at her out of the gloom. She ducked under the blow, driving her shoulder up into the man's bulging stomach, they both went down in a tangle of limbs and prying fingers. Calliopes sharp fingernails raked the mans neck bloody, but he outwiehed her by a hundred pounts and he rolled atop of her pinning her to the deck. In desperation she grabbed for the nearest object and her hand closed around a two pound ball for one of the swivels. The mans fat fingers closed around her throat and he howled with triump a moment before the steel ball caved in the side of his skull and he slumped to the side, oozing blood from his nose and babbling stupidly. Gasping for air Calliope pulled herself to her feet and grabbed the fallen scimitar, finishing the man off with a quick thrust to the heart. With the heavy blade in hand she began to work her way aft, severing each of the grappling lines with a swipe of the heavy blade. The enemy corsair was pulling away from the Witch as the cabled tethering the ships were cut and timbers and ropes creaked under the strain.

“Wait!” called a voice from behind her and Calliope spun, scimitar gripped in both hands. Behind her was one of the small forward masts that the ship could use to hoist a spanker if she needed to tack hard. Affixed to the mast from a rusting metal hook was an iron cage a little bigger than a man. Inside of the cage was a dusky skinned man of Arad descent. He was dressed in what had once been fine silks, but the fabric was soiled with blood, salt and the man's own waste. His face was badly beaten but even so he had the sharp aquiline features of Arad nobility.

“Take me with you, I can pay my weight in gold!” he begged in a thick Arad accent. Calliope’s only reply was to swing her scimitar at the lock that held the door shut. It was poorly crafted and split like timber as the heavy steel blade cut it free with a shower of sparks. The fellow tried to jump free but his limbs were obviously atrophied from long imprisonment in his tiny cage and he collapsed face first onto the deck. Calliope hauled him to his feet and tried to ignore the stink. The remaining boarding lines were giving way with a series of musical twangs as the tension on each rope became too much to hold. Rushing to the aft she grabbed one of the lines not yet pulled taut and tied it around the prisoners silken girdle. Another Corsair rushed her and she split his head open with the Scimitar, abandoning the blade as it lodged in his skull. In a final act of pique she kicked over a bag of powder that had been bought for one of the cannons, spilling the grey powder over the coiled cordage and sail cloth, then whispered a word. Fire sprang up in a sheet, engulfing powder and cord in a moment. The prisoner screamed but Calliope had already severed the line, it jerked them both into empty air as the Witch staggered free of her attacker, the fire already spreading over the doomed corsairs decks.

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Gunshots echoed in the deep. The mist held shapes, and it was often far too late to tell if it was an ally or foe before the blade pierced your side. The fog was lifting, but all too slowly as the blood began to cause the deck to become slick and stained. An eerie howl shot out of the darkness, indicating that Sron had found a kill during the calamity, though it was drowned out by the screams of the dying.

Markus had nearly run into the back of a bare chested Rasheek, ebony skin outlined in metal studs that ran from his lower back to the bridge of his nose, with a scimitar the bulk of a shield that he moved with haunting ease. Markus backpedaled and whipped his sword across to gain distance as he took measure of his foe, who leaped back with an agile gait that spoke of many years upon the sea. "Brabandos will take you to de Capten!" he roared.

The scimitar was thrust through the fog and nearly gave Markus a push cut, who retaliated by knocking the blade up high to gain room for a counter, though his foe was no amateur and pulled back to strike again before Markus could run him through. It looked like this battle would take longer than he thought, until the Rasheek's chest exploded from behind as a black powder weapon discharged. The man fell to his knees, and blood began to pool out of his mouth before he hit the deck heavily. Sketti stood behind him, smoking blunderbuss in his hand.

Suddenly a loud twang could be heard, and a slight weightlessness to the weathered witch.

"What in the blazes?" Sketti grumbled, before Calliope and a shit covered man in rags fell out of the smog and onto the burly Dwarf, nearly breaking the deck and sending them through the next level. Nearly.

The fog would clear as the Weathered Witch slowly sailed out of the entrenchment of foes, revealing the carnage that had been wrought upon them. Markus helped Calliope up, checking her eyes and arm to make sure she was still able to stand despite her protests. Sketti stood up next, pushing the dirt laden prisoner off of him, who had subsequently been knocked out from the fall. "We will need him, trust me." Calliope said, as she blew some of her hair out of her vision.

Markus gave a nod, though his face went from stern to severe when he looked at the deck of the ship. A dead ogre, along with over a dozen Arad men were slain. Though they had not come out without casualties. The clear air revealed Corsica slain, cut and stabbed though surrounded by five dead Corsairs. And Phil held the body of Will, who had died fighting, having killed an Arad as the Arad killed him in a double thrust.

The east wind blew, bringing with it the stench of death. A stench that would likely follow them, Markus knew. He looked toward the rising sun, and behind them, a Galley capsized in their wake, as the surviving two ships fled from the scene.

The next day...

"I trust you, but the men are getting skeptical." Markus said to Calliope as they walked through the lower decks, having just spoken to a few members of the crew on how their 'guest' was doing. Phil and Bill were in the mess hall with Halvar, eating what rations they had left, making sure to leave the most 'prime cuts' for Achmed, the supposed Prince of Dalib Shara.

"I know wealth when I see it," Calliope replied, testily. "He might have been covered in shit, and he might act like a little shit, but he is of noble blood." She was mature enough to know Markus was not questioning her, but giving her fair warning and concern should this turn out to be a fool's errand. The battle had done wonders for Markus' credibility as Captain. None of them had expected to survive, and yet they had.

Though Calliope had become even more of a subject of scrutiny after the excitement had died down. They had buried their dead in the sea, and they still grieved for comrades lost. And as they did so, they needed something to aim their ire at. Calliope was the best fit. Her witching had scared them, when the shadow dragon had engulfed the enemy mage. What's more, there were rumors she had led them into the trap, or that she whispered into Markus' ear and he obeyed. The ex-merc had grown to enjoy Calliope over the time they've known each other, but he did well not to meet with her in private unless absolutely necessary (or late at night) to dispell the notion there was an enchantment over him.

Their new guest had not helped either. At first, when he awoke, he was congenial and very happy. He claimed to be impressed beyond imagining, and that such a battle against the odds had never happened since Sayrahed the Sailor in the age of myth. However, he soon began to lose his rose colored glasses, and demanded a bath. A bath in the drinking water, something that Markus agreed to once Callipe had confided into him who he was. The next day, the prince had been an insufferable lout, and both Markus and Calliope, along with the rest of the crew wished to run him through with their blades.

Markus and Calliope turned the corner, the rakish swordsman gave a chuckle. "You know I always heard it was good to have friends in high places. Didn't know it would take this long to cash on it, though."

"Am I not a friend in high places?"

"Yeah, but unlike Achmed I see no signs of you not being hard to handle." Markus said with a smirk, stopping at the door to her quarters. She gave a giggle that to others would likely sound sinister.

"Well, you've never had a friend like me." She said cryptically, and disappeared into her room. Markus was amused, but he needed to continue with the orders of the day. Stepping out onto the deck, the day was windy with light clouds to the south, but it was hot and humid as all hell. He heard Jax call from above.

"Land ho!" the half elf cried.

Markus and Jim, who had been up on deck with him, headed over to the southern edge of the deck to overlook the sight of the shoreline. Even at this distance, the city was visible. Curved spires overtook the sky like smooth, bloated mushrooms surrounded by pillars and vast plazas that were centered upon exotic gardens behind the great walls of the High section. It was only a fraction of the city however, and the disparity of wealth was apparent.

If one were to take Calaverde's population and multiply it tenfold, they would not be able to fill the streets of the vast shantytown that surrounded the inner gates. Buildings of clay, sand, and stone looked like vast honeycombs or rock formations, though the carved nature of them spoke of human work. Below them, wooden shacks and tarps were raised like an immense plain of poverty. The poor and destitute wailed to Hayashim for mercy, or to one another for some boon. And yet somehow, merchants made killings in the streets just as the thieves guilds did. Markus saw a few larger buildings, nondescript and boarded within the poorer section of the city, and he knew what resided in their. Pashas of criminal organizations thrives within, living nearly as opulently as the Sultan likely did in his grand Palace.

"By the Gods..." Jim breathed.

"No," Markus said as he looked at the teeming masses who could barely afford the clothes on their back. "This is man's fault."
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The Witch swept toward the coast on a soldiers wind. It was a stroke of good fortune, for the winds off the desert coasts were notoriously fickle. Many a ship had been pinned up against the arid rocky coast to fight the wind for hours to keep off the rocks, or trust the dubious sandy bottom to hold a storm anchor until the winds shifted again. The great harbor of Dalib Sahara yawned before them, the natural points of stone had been expanded with vast moles of of roughly cut sandstone. Here and there the thirty foot wide arms bulged with platforms like jewels on a string. Each bulge housed a weapons platform manned by two or three bored looking guards in turbans and archaic looking chain mail lounged. Most of the weapons looked old and in poor repair, though if even a fraction of them were functional then attacking the port was a chancy proposition. Whether time, lack of interest or graft had weakened the defences didn’t really matter, the fickle winds were a better defence than man could devise.

Inside the harbor dozens of ships were anchored. Tall square rigged ships from Vrettonia, massive teak built galleons with huge lateen rigs from Punt, and the distant semi mythical trading kingdoms in Sylon’ika and Kushapti. There were a pack of corsair galleys with their banked oars and large forward mounted bombards, trader or raider depending only on how the captain calculated the odds, and how far from port they got. Smaller craft of all description moved between them, loading and unloading cargo, and peddling local goods. If the arrival of the Witch was even noticed it wasn’t visible as they swept towards the break waters. A disreputable looking galley began to pull out towards the witch. A man in ornate but dirty robes stood on the prow yelling in Arad through a bras speaking trumpet that made the words attenuated and basso.

Before Markus could speak Achmed cupped his hands and began to yell in Arad back. The conversation went back and forth for several minutes and it grew increasingly irrate as it went on. Calliope, who spoke Arad well enough to get by snickered.

“What is he saying?” Jim who was on his knees scrubbing the deck asked, looking around in eager excitement. Calliope cleared her throat.

“The price says that if this camel turd does not turn around and inform his lord and father that he has returned, that the vultures will feast on his genitals while he lives, that he will be strung up with his own guts, that his asshole will be seared with red hot…”

“I think we get the gist,” Markus said with an amused grin at Jim’s widening eyes. The steersman in the approaching galley was apparently also getting the gist and began yelling and gesticulating back over his shoulder. The disreputable little vessel turned a slow circle and shot of back towards the harbor. Achmed folded his arms in satisfaction.

“How is it that the land support so many people?” Jim asked as they swept past the breakwater. Achmed had directed them to a long wooden pier near the center of the harbor. Already men in gold chased armor with veils of chainmail and rich silk sashes had gathered. As Calliope had suspected Achmed must have been the real deal, otherwise the men gathered on the pier would function as executioners as easily as an honor guard. Jim’s question was a fair one, the hills behind the city were of sear rock and scarcely a thing grew upon them. Heat shimmered up in waves, that danced like witch fire on the air.

“There is a great spring that rises at the base of the hills, it feeds a short river that doesn't quite reach the sea, it's all diverted to canals,” Calliope explained, pointing to the green fringes where palm and date trees grew along the boulevards and greenery dotted the room.

“All of the cities of the coast have a spring like it,” Calliope went on, the attention of the crew and even Achmed focused on her as she spoke.

“Legend has it that each spring erupts from a spot where Hayashim conceived a son,” Calliope went on, oblivious to her audience.

“Do you think it’s true?” Jim asked in breathless wonder. Calliope snickered.

“I doubt it, if Hayashim was like any other priest i’ve met there would be rivers spurting out of every brothel and knocking shop from her to Poitan.” The remark bought a gale of laughter from the crew and bought a flush to Achmed’s sun burned face.

“Best keep such thoughts to yourself once we reach the shore lad,” Markus declared in a voice that was loud enough to carry to the whole crew.

“They take such things seriously in Arad Lind.”

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Trumpets greeted them as they landed on the docks. Seagulls glided in the breeze, for once being the most populous thing upon the dockyard now that the normal citizens had been evacuated to make way for Prince Achmed. He did not change from his cleaned but haggard garb, though a servant rushed over to don a pointed sarik upon his noble head. Behind him, guards in lamellar armor with sheathed scimitars stood in line, flanked by dozens upon dozens of what Markus could not tell between servants or slaves.

With a click of his tongue, Achmed gestured for Markus' crew to remain upon the ship, which didn't immediately register with the crew. Once Sketti scoffed, Markus motioned for them to follow what he said and stay with the ship. He gave a subtle wink to the disappointed faces, indicating he'd see them rewarded, and both Calliope and Markus would step off and onto the cleared docks. Even now, the sun baked the rock and timber they stood upon.

Another set of trumpets sounded, and then something bellowed. A bestial sound, though very imitative of the trumpets the slaves used. Markus and Calliope would see a massive beast, twice the height of a man at the shoulder and easily twenty times a man's weight trotting towards them with a resplendent carpet upon its back, and a small hut with two chairs. It almost seemed like it was a beast from another world. It had two massive tusks swirling out of its face, and a trunk that slithered like a snake, as if it had a mind of its own. Markus had heard of the exotic 'Elephant' before, but he had never seen one. Behind were creatures just as strange, though he had seen their like before. Three camels were strutting down the sand infested streets like performers who danced to a very slow, mellow beat.

Two eunuchs in nothing but loin wraps walked the beasts, their sun blackened skin shining in the intense light, their eyes dead and focused, as if they were broken as infants to serve their betters. They approached almost mechanically, and then graciously bowed to the Prince. Or it seemed as if they did, until Achmed stood upon their backs to mount the elephant. Once inside, he waved with boths hands. "Come, come! The Lady Calliope, please join me, yes?" he asked her. One eunuch rose, and took the reins of a camel, the biggest with a golden saddle, bringing it to Markus.

"Well, at least I get an honorable mention," he deadpanned, mounting it and taking the reins. He gained control of it as soon as the Elephant turned, with Soldiers all spinning and beginning to march in unison. Their feet tramped the ground as loudly as the Elephant's, though it would soon be drowned out by the milling throng of commoners in the streets that were kept back by even further guardsmen.

Up close, Markus could see the men and women, exotic and darkened, though obscured in mostly rags, watched in awe at their princes return. Still others seemed better off, in curious looking blue and purple robes, some even having guards of their own. Women stood upon the balconies and rooftops, calling for the Prince's hand in marriage. Some even took off their tops and pressed their breasts together to draw the eye. Kids simply waved, and old men displayed weaves of silk, hoping the Prince or his guests would stop to buy.

Even during such a procession, some entertainers still worked. A man swallowed swords, his body so bony and thin Markus was surprised the swords could even fit within him, but he performed without pause. Another man in a red and white garb of satin played a flute as a voluptuous beauty coiled and uncoiled a massive boa constrictor across her scantily clad form seductively. Markus was both taken aback by the odd culture, yet also painfully aware that a man in his position could benefit greatly for even docking here, much less being a guest of the Sultan's Son.

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Although Calliope congratulated herself that she had been right about Achmed, she also kicked herself for not having anticipated the need for more formal clothing. Nothing irritated her more than being underdressed. Fortunately the prince was in much the same position as her, dressed as he was in a set of clothing scrounged from Markus. One of the servants who accompanied the elephant quickly dressed the prince in a silk robe, draping it over the simple pirate clothing before winding a turban around his forehead and fastening it with a ruby the size of a thumbnail, set into a gold band.

They moved through the city with considerable fanfare. Ahead of them the guards moved in an armored wedge, beating aside those who moved too slowly for their liking. The trumpets blared as they moved into a great open air bazzar where men and women of a dozen races bartered and traded. Every imaginable good appeared to be for sale. Fruit, carpets, brass, wonderous instruments, maps, swords and armor, arcana, perfume and a thousand other things beside. They were crammed into booths of canvas or wood, or simply piled in squares marked out by the flagstones. Smoke rose from brazzers where meat was being roasted, pungent spices assailed her from small eateries and cook shops. Suddenly she wanted very badly to be down amongst it all, exploring, but instead she sat beside Achmed as his elephant swayed its way up the slight hill towards the great arabesque encrusted gate which marked the entrance to the Pasha’s palace.

They passed through into a large paved courtyard which was surrounded ornately maintained gardens. Water ran in tiled channels to fill elegant fountains which were fringed with lilies or large sinuous lotus blossoms that filled the courtyard with a subtle perfume which banished the dust. Dates and palms curled from the walls towards the sunlit center creating covered walkways that were shaded from the sun. In the center of the courtyard a large tamaron tree stood majestically, greyish brown seed pods hanging from its branches in neat manicured clumps. A long set of steps lead up towards the palace itself. Rose petals had already been strewn along the sand stone steps and at each level a guard stood with a spear held at a perfect vertical.

“Ahhh My Lady Calliope,” Achmed said extending her a hand which she took.

“Allow me to repay your hospitality.”
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Markus had always done his best to remain stoic for appearances sake in front of the men. But seeing the indescribably lavish palace, still riding atop these strange creatures from distant lands, his eyes widened and he looked around in awe. The inside was far more beautiful than even he had anticipated. Birds of every color flocked in the tamaron tree, from parrots to eagles, to what looked like birds with beaks larger than their multicolored bodies.

In the distance, a large spotted hunting cat lounged, its fangs easily four inches long and razor sharp to pierce the skull of its prey. Markus wondered why it did not eye them hungrily, but he supposed they fed it often. They had to. No doubt the fountains were where it loved to keep cool in the intense heat.

As they halted, Calliope would take Achmed's hand. Markus dismounted from his camel somewhat awkwardly, the beast stepping uneasily once he got his feet on the ground. He patted its neck and shushed it, soothing the foreign animal how he would a horse. He reached into his pack and pulled out a dried berry, offering it to the Camel. If any of the nobility saw him calming the camel, they would have likely gasped at him doing servant's work. But as it were, they were focused upon the returned prince and the darkly beautiful Calliope.

The Elephant had bent down, and Achmed had led Calliope down (as she pretended that she needed his help to descend) and a great cry of "By Hayashim and the Blessed Moon!" was heard from atop the large staircase. All eyes turned to see a man in robes of silk, with a plumed hat that burgeoned into what looked to be a bloated beehive. Markus would have thought him a crazy man if not for the bejeweled pendants and rings upon his person, and a large diamond the size of Markus' fist at the base of his hat.

"Father! I have returned!" Achmed cried, and he embraced the Sultan after the elderly man descended to see him. He had a grey goatee, well groomed to seamlessly integrate into his somewhat light skin (for a Rasheeki). They smiled and hugged, though there was a tenseness there Calliope would be able to detect.

"Come come, let us go and clean you up my son."

"Father, I have guests." he said, and indicated Calliope, and Markus who strode up. Immediately the Sultan's eyes narrowed, and he muttered something in his native tongue, before saying. "No one is to be armed in my presence, save my guards."

It was an order, one to be followed or you would lose your head. Markus hesitated, glancing at Achmed and Calliope, before unbuckling his sword belt to comply. "Nonesense, nonsense!" Achmed exclaimed, gesturing with his hands. "Father, this man is my ally, having helped me escape the vile corsairs! And this woman directly saved me from certain doom! They are my guests, father." he explained, placing a hand on the sweeping shoulderline of the Sultan.

For many moments, he was quiet. Until he gave an inclination of his head. "Very well. Now come! We must get you clean, all of you. There will be a feast tonight to celebrate the return of my son, and may Hayashim bless the night on this hallowed day. Come come, we have much to prepare for..."

Servants immediately approached as they made it to the top of the stairs. Somehow, it was far cooler even at the opening of the Palace, refreshing and lightly smelling of lavender. As the nearly naked men approached, Achmed grinned and patted Markus' shoulder as if they had known one another for decades. "Smile, my friend! Tonight, we shall feast. And I will allow you the pick of my harem as much as you wish. We have many things to discuss."

"Uhm..." the Captain began, not unhappy at the mention of the harem. It had been a particularly long time before he had enjoyed the company of a woman. Perhaps a month before he and Calliope had fled Calaverde. He had mostly focused on survival and captaining a ship since, but he felt his arousal at the mere thought. No, this was all a bit too good to be true. Yes, they had survived odds none of them had thought possible, and they had rescured a Prince. But he has always preferred to earn his woman rather than have one given to him. And even if he let himself go at this one time, there was always a catch...

Calliope was whisked away into a hall that loomed above her like a horizon line, with potted plants of unknown nature leaning lazily fifty feet above her and the servants that led her through a door of satin drapes, into a connected room that was the size of a yeoman's plot of land. It took her a moment to realize they stood within a closet. Rows upon rows of cleaned, comfortable, gorgeous outfits; most revealing at least some skin were arrayed before them. Within, a bald eunuch stood, eyebrow raised. The part of his face between his nose and upper lip was a seamed slope.

"Ah, as beautiful as I had heard, and as gaudy as I had feared." He quipped, clapping twice as more eunuchs appeared, stripping Calliope down to nothing. She kept her necklace on her, guarding it like a hyena at bay. The master eunuch examined her studiously. "Black is her color" he said in northern, and then began to call out in Rasheeki, causing the eunuchs to move mechanically, grabbing an odd mixture of black and dark red garments that they began to slip upon her, caring not whether they touched her inappropriately or uncomfortably, though it was obvious they did not do it with lecherous intent.

By the time they were done, two small slave boys with lashes upon their backs were ushered in holding a mirror of golden filigree. Calliope would see herself presented in a courtly yet appealing garb. Black silk was expertly wrapped around her waist and legs to hug her curves but give freedom of movement to walk, tied together at the base of a shining agate stone that swirled with an unknown substance within. Her midriff was expodes, though sliding up it to fall over her dress was a crimson sarong. Her croptop was black like her dress, sleeveless and strapless, her shoulders covered by a dark veil. Her hair had been reformed into bun, with a diamond circlet resting above her brow.

"Now, Prince Achmed has informed me to bring you to the courtyard. If you would follow me..."
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Calliope followed the servant into the courtyard where Prince Achmed waited. Gone was the unwashed captive she had rescued from the corsair galley. Instead Achmed stood in shining white silks. A vest of sky blue cotton was slashed by a brilliant crimson sash, generously embroidered with gold thread. A turban of pure white silk was bound around his head and gold and jewels seemed to drip from him. Each finger contained a different ring and a chain of gold links hung from his neck. He was immaculately clean and groomed and a jewel encrusted scimitar hung from the sash. It didn’t look to Calliope like it was anything more than an ornament.

“You look absolutely stunning,” Achmed said and held out his hand. Calliope was unsure whether she was supposed to kiss it or take it but she opted for the latter and the prince gave no objection.

“Let us to dinner,” he declared.

The dining room, like every other room Calliope had seen, was luxuriously appointed. A long table ran most of the length of the room and the walls were covered with mosaic scenes. Calliope wasn’t familiar enough with Arad art to recognise the scenes depicted but they seemed to be of a religious nature. Numerous plants grew in shallow troughs by the walls, giving the room a greenery which was a luxury in this barren place and filling the room with the odors of their various flowers. The pollen tickled Calliope’s sinuses but she resisted the urge to sneeze. Somewhere out of sight a harp played, filling the room with gentle music. People stood as they entered and each bowed from the waist as the prince passed by. They were the great and the good of Dalib Sahara, come to eat with the Sultan.

At the end of the hall was a raised dais where the Sultan sat in resplendent glory on a throne draped with gorgeous leopard pelts behind which a hundred peacock feathers rose to form a spectacular fringe. Four guards stood sentinel like about the ruler of Dalib Sahara each holding a large round shield of polishes silver in which a palm tree was embossed in gold. Though they wore helmets, their faces were smooth and perfect. Calliope wondered whether they were real soldiers or merely ornamentation.

To Calliope’s considerable surprise Markus sat at the Sultan’s right hand in a place of honor that normally would have been reserved for the Prince. Achmed also noticed this and tensed in anger, though nothing showed on his face or in his gait. From the look of satisfaction on the Sultan’s face she wasn’t the only one who noticed the reaction. The Sultan was clearly using Markus to deliver a none to0 subtle lesson to the prince about who ruled in Dalib Sahara.

The reached the step of the dais and Achmed prostrated himself before the throne. Calliope was fairly certain she was supposed to do something similar but, trusting to her supposed ignorance, settled for a slight curtsey instead.

“Father, by the grace of Hayashim, praised be his name, I have returned to serve you,” Achmed said formally. The Sultan waited several long heart beats before speaking.

“Rise my Son and take the place to my left, the city rejoices in your safe return, and in the gallantry of your ‘allies’ who secured your freedom.”

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Markus was not as well versed in political maneuverings as Calliope, particularly in the court of Dalib Sahara on the Corsair Coast. He could only really trust the Sultan, or better, follow the Sultan's orders so as not to anger a man who could call for his execution at any time. But when he saw that his presence on the right hand throne was seen as a problem by the subtle facial twitches of the prince, he had to keep his displeasure of being used from appearing on his face. He hoped the new garb he wore wasn't what a Prince would normally wear so as not to add insult to injury.

He was glad for the change of clothes though, and if the Sultan did not want them returned he was certain he could sell it hundreds of coin royals. His mane of black hair had been cut and styled, wavier and clipped shorter in the back to give him a less unkempt, more adventurous look to him. Much like the nobleborn swordsman he had been. He wore a royal purple kaftan with golden hemlins, that hugged his masculine shoulders and flowed down nearly to his ankles. His tan top beneath, as well as his loose fitting pants was made of seraser, likely the most expensive type of silk in the Arad Luin, and all of the northland. Luckily it didn't feel too dainty, not that he would go sailing in it.

Markus debated on whether he should rise or not at that moment, but after a moment he dispelled the notion as the Prince was now going over to sit at the Sultan's left hand. That, however, left Calliope standing there before the Sultan, awkwardly. Though she didn't show it. She had a presence that commanded respect and appeal in any situation. Still, the nuance of her standing while all others sat wasn't lost on Markus, and he figured he would solve the situation and aid her by gracefully lifting on the throne, as if this was what he had been bid all along, and hold his hand out to Calliope as he presented the chair to her.

"I thank you, wise Sultan." Markus said, using his most heroic voice. The echoes on the marbled walls certainly aided him in this endeavor. "For this great honor to sit at your right hand. But it would be a disservice to not award the true savior of your son with this esteemed seat, if you would so allow it." He ended the small speech with a bent knee, and when the Sultan, who was clearly uncomfortable with a woman in a position of power at all, hesitantly acquiesced, Calliope strode forward confidently and took Markus's hand and seat.

The Sultan then clapped, and slowly the heavy doors of the throne room opened as Satraps and Pashas entered the room, along with a retinue of fearocious and fomidable guards wearing helms that had the likeness of jackals. Their breastplates were bronze scale armor that clinked lightly as they moved in unison. "So, Captain Flintbrook and Lady Calliope, will you regale me of the tale on how you saved my son?" The Sultan began.

"They were blackguards, your highness." Calliope said with a dramatic flair, all eyes on her as she began to recount what had happened. Markus did well to keep his eye out on the crowd, but even he did not foresee a beautiful woman with olive colored skin walk up to him and take his hand from behind. He turned, about to grab the concealed dagger that was in his boot, when he saw her give a slight bow as she kissed his hand. She wore a fashionable dress of golden silk, overlapped by a garment of interwoven fabrics the color of red and orange like the setting sun that hugged her hip like a sarong, only it tightly wrapped around her snug belt. Her earrings were two suns that hung beside her healthy, flushed cheeks. The woman's hair was dark and made of long curlsm and atop her head was a crown.

"My prince," she said, her eyes filled with pleasure. "It does me well that you are safe."

Markus' eyes widened and Achmed sputtered in clear outrage. The Captain opened his mouth to speak, before large hands drapped gently across the woman's shoulders. "No my Princess Melissenos, Prince Achmed sits at the left hand of the great Sultan. This is but a skilled Sailor and personal friend." As quickly as her eyes were bright, they became dull just as swiftly until they landed on Achmed, which she hurried over to speak to. The man that had directed her was a large and fat man, black bearded with the skin of dried leather, though he hid it in robes of satin and an illustrious hat. He had a brooch of the Sidewinder Serpent upon his chest that tied his light cloak to his back.

"Ah, my Vizier. How good of you to appear. On time as usual."
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