“We’re too late.” Fanthys knelt down in the ankle-deep slurry of seawater, sweat and human excrement and picked up a discarded set of manacles. His companion cast a shadow over him, standing wielding a crowbar in the entrance to the enormous crate that they’d suspected was being used to smuggle people. Fanthys stood up and carried the manacles out into the morning light. He ran a slender thumb over the emblem stamped onto the left cuff of the manacle: a galley cresting the waves with an airborne drake instead of a sail. His jaw and grip tightened, and his pale elven cheeks flushed ever so slightly. “We’re too late.”
“He must have known we were coming,” mused Cathran. “One of the locals betrayed us?”
“We weren’t exactly secret about our goals here. ‘The Clerics of Nethys, abroad in Indrevest, out to catch the Sea Drake.’ We were hoping to flush him out or rally his enemies to our cause, right? Maybe all we did was tip him off.” Fanthys hurled the manacles to the ground. “There were fifty people crammed into that box. Fifty people locked up in there for weeks at sea, and now they’re chained up in some mine somewhere and we’ll never find them.”
“So this has been a colossal waste of time.” Battralias paced back and forth in her room. Back at the inn now, Fanthys reported his near miss to his superior, the High Priestess Battralias. “I’ve indulged you in this misguided crusade long enough. Tomorrow night, I will be back aboard our ship, and so will you,” imperated Battralias.
“We are getting closer, High Priestess!” protested Fanthys. “If you’d just give us a little more time—”
“We’re needed by actual elves, Fanthys. The internal affairs of human tribes are no concern of ours. Is there even any difference between their enslavement and so-called human ‘careers’? In any case they’re going to be working until their dying day just to eat and sleep in shelter. No, we’ve done enough here.” Battralias ceased her pacing and turned to watch Fanthys expectantly. One of her aides opened the door to her room at the inn. Fanthys turned to leave.
Outside, Cathran was waiting in the hallway.
“I heard shouting. I assume it did not go well.”
“Battralias is being unreasonable. Says it’s human business, not ours. But she’s wrong. People have disappeared from elven port towns before. Elf slaves fetch higher prices, especially the women,” Fanthys paused grimly. “Boat home leaves tomorrow evening.”
“You can’t miss it, Fanty. You’re already in trouble with the church. Defy a high priestess again and you could be expelled from the order!”
“Battralias said tomorrow. We’ve got thirty hours left in this degenerate godless city. If the Sea Drake is still in town, I’m going to find him.”
“This is absolutely ridiculous,” said Cathran. “Nobody is going to believe I am a slaver.” Cathran held out her arms and looked herself up and down. Fanthys had bartered some salt-rimed leathers from a rough-looking sailor strolling the wharf. Fanthys had been too tall to fit into the clothes, so he’d had Cathran don them. He ignored her protests and reached up to tie a filthy scrap of sailcloth over one of her eyes. “Really?” Even with only one eye, Cathran could convey 100% of the disdain she felt in a glance.
“We know where the Sea Drake hangs out. You don’t get in there wearing cleric’s vestments. You’re going to have to toughen up though,” Fanthys fixed Cathran with a stare. Cathran shot him a withering look but said nothing. Fanthys noticed a bead of perspiration form on her upper lip. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. I’ll be right outside, and Nethys is with you.”
Cathran stepped out of the disused warehouse they’d set up in to stake out the more unsavoury parts of the seafront. She walked stiffly out of the shadows and onto the wooden boardwalk that led down to a closed-off part of the quay, away from the prying eyes of customs authorities and law enforcement. “Psst,” hissed Fanthys from the shadows. “Loosen up! You look like a mess of nerves.” Cathran nodded briefly without looking back, and made a controlled effort to affect an easy sea dog’s swagger. The result ended up looking more like a limp, but amongst pirates there were more than a few with long-term injuries. Maybe she’d pull it off?
Fanthys lost sight of his colleague as she rounded a corner. He whispered a constant stream of prayer that she’d be okay. She was gone an agonisingly long time. Fanthys wasn’t sure the exact duration; being terrified for a friend’s well-being tends to mess with the perception of time when, with every second you count, that friend could be in peril. He was quick to react once he felt the unnatural stirring of the wind, and heard raised voices coming from Cathran’s direction. He barrelled out of his hiding spot, paying no heed to those he knocked aside as he ran. Cathran was crouched behind a small pile of waterfront debris, a congealed mess of pieces of broken barrel, barnacle-encrusted buoys, and rat-chewed sailcloth, all bound together by netting. One of Cathran’s arms hung limply at her side. A telltale fluttering of strands of seaweed from the waterlogged walkway and stirring of dust particles indicated a wind wall had been erected between her and some advancing waterfront thugs, who were unloading crossbow bolts in their direction.
Fanthys tossed Cathran’s enchanted glaive, which she caught with her good hand. He dropped to one knee and summoned a bolt of lightning down the walkway. The thugs scrambled aside to get out of the way and Fanthys helped Cathran to her feet. The pair of them ran full-tilt out of the dead end, whipping around the corner just as the advancing gang passed the magical barrier. A hail of crossbow bolts whizzed through space they’d just occupied. They moved into a busier street, hoping to lose their pursuers in the crowd.
It seemed they could not make ground fast enough. The crossbow-wielders were more than happy to shove aside or shoot down pedestrians in the way. If they feared Cathran’s knowledge was a threat to their smuggling organisation, Fanthys was sure they would hunt her down to her death.
Suddenly, they were face to face with a charging horse. Cathran pushed Fanthys aside as a mounted warrior, decked out in heavy mismatched armour and enough weapons to outfit an entire barracks, sped down the road and collided with the crossbowmen with a crash. Quicker than a blink, Fanthys saw the warrior was now dismounted, and both fighter and horse were thick in the fray, slashing, biting, kicking and kicking (with hooves), happily engaging multiple gang members at once. It seemed over in seconds, the figure standing over numerous slain thugs.
Cathran tugged at his arm to leave, but Fanthys was too curious. He stood and hailed their mysterious saviour, ready to offer his thanks.
“I’m never trusting a seemingly-friendly stranger ever again,” huffed Cathran as she dragged Fanthys’s unconscious body over the rowers’ benches of the lowest deck of the slave galley. His body was limp and heavy. Reaching the door and the steps to the upper decks, sweat was streaming from her brow and her arms ached. There was no way she was going to be able to carry Fanthys’s body out of this boat, let alone do so undetected.
She sat down on the slimy floor with her back against the door and tried to think. What spells did she bring with her today? “Sorry, Nethys,” she began. “But I don’t think air can help me right now.” She closed her eyes and recalled the hymnal intonations to a summoning spell.
A few seconds later, a small fire elemental bloomed into existence. Barely a metre high, the little creature immediately set about finding the highest ground in the wooden room, trying to get up off the waterlogged floor.
“Hi, little flame,” whispered Cathran. “Can you understand me?” She was more used to trafficking with air creatures; her Ignan was consequently very poor. Summons were most useful when there was an obvious enemy to attack, but being practically alone here with this one, she’d have to find some way to convince it that the hull was the enemy. If she could get the elemental to set the side of the ship on fire, she hoped it would burn a hole big enough to climb through.
“Come on, just hit here, look,” Cathran gestured at the wall of the ship. She made a circular motion with her hands on the planks and thrusted towards it, even attempting some fiery sound effects with her voice. The elemental simply cocked its head in confusion, not understanding what was being asked of it. She rolled her eyes. “Fine. I didn’t want it to come to this, but…” Cathran unslung her enchanted glaive from her back. She reversed it, pointing the blunt haft towards the elemental, and issued a firm prod.
The creature attempted to bat the shaft away at first, but Cathran was persistent. She poked it in the abdomen, or where she assumed an abdomen would be if this thing’s body wasn’t made out of living flame. She jabbed its feet. She even made to bop it on the nose, which was the catalyst it needed. It leapt at her, momentum carrying its body forward in a miniature slam attack. Cathran ducked and dodged to the side. She raised the glaive again and resumed the relentless barrage.
By the time the summon spell had worn off, sending the irate elemental back to its home plane, Cathran had succeeded in aggravating it so much that it had blindly thrown its body into the side of the ship in a number of places. Batting out the embers in her charred robes from the few slams she’d failed to dodge, Cathran started poking at the wooden beams with her glaive, trying to help the fire eat a destructive hole in the hull that she could drop Fanthys’s body out of. Even out of the ship, there was a decent chance she would drown herself or be unable to carry his body to shore, but it was better than leaving him to be sold into some anonymous mine somewhere, or worse, the exotic slave dancers of the Dashan Imperial Palace.
The enclosed space was filling with smoke. It was only a matter of time before the rescue operation was discovered. She’d have to make do with this hole. She took one swing with the glaive at the Sea Drake manacles around Fanthys’s ankles to free his legs, and began shoving him head-first through the smouldering hole.
The pain of being forced through a too-narrow opening in a wall of flaming wooden beams was enough to wake the cleric up. Fanthys regained consciousness only to find his arms were pinned to his sides and having the skin rapidly scorched off them. He immediately began screaming, and Cathran heard boots on the decks above. Mustering as much strength as she possibly could, she landed one solid kick on a fire-weakened beam and both she and the screaming Fanthys tumbled into the ocean below. Thankfully he had the presence of mind to tread water after he broke the surface. Cathran struggled to stay afloat and attach her glaive to her back at the same time.
It was clear the remaining crew members were torn between retaining their first captured slave of the trip and putting out the fire burning a hole in the side of their ship. Fortunately for them and for Cathran and Fanthys, they chose the latter. The two clerics were able to swim the short distance to shore, an unmarked and anonymous cove just outside the city.
Their anonymous hero had turned out to be not so anonymous. After Cathran had been sniffed out by the smuggling gang members, they chased her out of their territory with crossbows. One of them had sent for the Sea Drake himself, whose subsequent slaughter of the pursuing gang members was, it turned out, a simple expression of dissatisfaction at their indiscretion. After posing as their saviour, the cavalier had conspiratorially shared information about the Sea Drake’s whereabouts. He claimed he lacked only the reinforcements required to bring the villain to justice. Cathran, initially distrustful, was partially brought round by Fanthys, and agreed to join forces with the cavalier to catch the Sea Drake unawares.
Predictably, it was a trap. The cavalier was the Sea Drake, apparently as feared a warrior as he was a slave driver. Cathran had had a last-minute crisis of conscience that led to her being late for the meeting, but arriving just in time to see the Sea Drake’s men carrying Fanthys off, shackled in trademarked irons; another free pickup to be sold into servitude.
That had been two nights ago. Cathran had petitioned High Priestess Battralias for more time, and to send rescuers after Fanthys, but her request had been dismissed. In the words of Battralias, Fanthys was “as good as dead anyway” once the higher-ups of the order agreed on his punishment for disobeying her, so what was the point? Cathran disagreed. She did not have nearly as many black marks on her record as Fanthys did, and she was willing to earn one for staying behind to free him.
She was able to track the slavers that took Fanthys to their ship. It wasn’t the Sea Drake’s ship, but she did overhear his next destination: Alepia, some human kingdom in Eocia to the west. She’d seen the Sea Drake’s face now, so there would be no way he could hide from her again. And from what she knew of human society, slavery was illegal in most places, so presumably it would be possible to recruit some local help seeing as the cause was to bring down a well-known villain.
The rest of her cleric comrades having left, Cathran waited, watched, and listened using all of Nethys’s gifts at her disposal. With enough information gathered, she had waited for most of the slaver ship’s crew to leave to help transport the other kidnap victims destined for the ship. That was when she had struck, and now she was watching with a satisfied smile as the foul people-smugglers tried desperately to fight the multiple points of fire growing healthily from the hull.
Fanthys was conscious; the swim had been hard on both of them but Cathran still had some healing magic left to expend. She caught him up to speed with the situation.
“And where are the rest of the prisoners coming from?” he asked her.
“There’s a hidden tunnel that leads from the city all the way out here and emerges somewhere in the shallows over there,” Cathran pointed at a jagged-looking rock formation. “They’ll be bundled up and rowed out to the ship, probably unconscious, and they’ll be chained up to oars like you were. But I don’t know what will happen to the slaves now the boat’s on fire.”
Fanthys and Cathran lurked in the shadows of the cliff. Slavers were hurriedly unloading the first boatful of slaves they were due to ferry over to the ship. Instead, all but two of them climbed into the boat and began rowing as hard as they could towards the flaming galley anchored in the cove.
“Now’s our chance,” said Fanthys. “There are only two of them. One quick strike and fifty unwary tourists get to go home to their families tonight, instead of relocating to literal hell on earth.”
“I’m ready, Fanty.”
When the dinghy was comfortably far out of the cove, they struck. Cathran, armed with her electrified glaive, took one slaver. Fanthys, armed with nothing but a short length of broken manacle, took the other. Cathran charged, driving her opponent backwards over the loose shale beside the hidden door. He loosed a crossbow bolt which struck a glancing blow, and then stepped inside her glaive’s range to strike at her face with a gauntleted fist. Cathran sidestepped, attempting to put space between them, and charged her weapon’s enchantment, delivering a jolt of lightning to the slaver’s leather-armoured side. He fell to one knee, and Cathran followed up, with maybe a little more venom than she might have intended, plunging the blade through the smuggler’s chest.
She looked up in time to see the other slaver pull her curved knife from Fanthys’s shredded torso.
“No!” Cathran charged the woman with renewed rage, skewering her instantly and pinning her against the cliff face. She spun around and knelt at Fanthys’s side, her eyes swiftly roving his mangled body, looking for vital wounds to put pressure on. She let a blast of holy energy emanate from her core, but it was too late. The damage was too much. She couldn’t revive him.
Cathran stood solemnly on a local hilltop, watching the funeral pyre she had constructed. The fire would turn Fanthys’s body to smoke so it could return to the air and Nethys’s embrace.
“We saved them, Fanty,” she said to the smoke tendrils. “Forty six souls freed. You saved them. I made sure they knew.” She lowered her head, her voice cracking. “The church has a lot to answer for, leaving us here.” The sun was low in the sky, and dusk was approaching. Cathran had booked passage on a merchant ship bound for Alepia. “I never got a chance to tell you; I found out where the Sea Drake is going next. Some logging country in Eocia. We know his face now. He won’t fool us again.”
Birdsong uncharacteristically filled the air. Nethys’s chosen were producing a dusk chorus in tribute to the fallen cleric, a haunting refrain in a heartwrenching minor key. Cathran wiped away tears that were freely streaming down her face.