With the navigator and the captain, they'd sliced the meat into cutlets so they could pretend they feasted upon some animal. It was brutal work that forever changed the butcher. By the third draw of tarnished silver, men threw their slain mates right into the fire, hacking crisped limbs away, leaving fingers and toes intact, making no pretense of their foul work. To date, Korm and Aebos had remained on the right side of the dinner knives, but he knew their luck would only last so long. Korm dropped the mate's arm into his lap and brought his bloody fingers to his mouth, plucking a hair from between his front teeth.
A shadow darkened the stairs to the deck. Then another. And another.
The thin wooden stairs creaked under the weight of six emaciated sailors, led by Hurmat, a lanky, thin-bearded Vudran in a blood-spattered blue vest. He held a red-greased knife in his left hand, and the capped tankard in his right.
"We miss you on deck, Calladan," he said with a wicked smile. "There's still some of Armad left, if you hurry. We wouldn't want you to go hungry. Why do you always disappear during meals?"
Korm flicked away the thin black strand of hair and let his left hand fall to the thin saber at his side.
"It's not that I dislike the company," he said. "I had to bring a portion down to Aebos."
The men behind Hurmat shifted nervously, their eyes darting to the cabin door. Korm noticed that all of them held short blades, belaying hooks, or curved daggers. That and the presence of the tankard suggested that they hadn't just come to talk. Even with the little strength provided by their latest meal, Korm doubted he would be able to take all of them in a fight. Unshaken, Hurmat stepped forward and leaned down to look Korm straight in the eyes.
"Yes. Aebos. We'd like to talk to you about him." The sailor's hot breath carried the stench of urine in its second or third cycle. The potable water had lasted just longer than the food. "He's a big boy, that friend of yours. It takes more than a man's share to keep him fed, and his meat alone is worth twice that of any of us. There's no wind in sight, Calladan. Perhaps it has died across the entire ocean. If we take Aebos, it will give us a week without need for more draws from the cup. But it must be done now, while we still have the strength. Even the mighty Aebos grows thin, and if we wait too long, even his flesh won't sustain us for long."
"To Hell with you, Hurmat, and to all of you bastards. We all agreed to the system. The next draw is three days from now. Then we will let the coins decide."
"Wrong," said Hurmat, stepping back to stand with his fellows. "The next draw is today. Now." He flung the tankard to the floor between Korm's outstretched legs. As it clattered upon the wooden planks two pieces of tarnished silver clinked from the cup and onto the floor. No one spoke as the coin nearest Korm spun to a slow stop.
"Let me guess," Korm said, staring at the death-dealing coin. "Everyone else has already taken their draw?"
"Indeed, Calladan. It appears that your luck has run out. I know you keep the key to your friend's compartment in your pocket, and I'd hoped you would turn it over willingly. You're a brave man. But I tell you one thing: I will not die with an empty stomach."
"No, you won't," Korm said, leaping to his feet with a burst of energy that surprised even himself. Somewhat less steadily, he raised his slender blade and crouched into a defensive stance.
"Take him!" shouted Hurmat. "And don't let him open that door!"
The crew surged forward in a wave of flashing swords. A black-skinned Garundi with white hair and a wicked scar across his face pushed past Hurmat to thrust a short blade at Korm's abdomen. Korm sidestepped and raised his saber, deflecting the attack. In a single movement that drained more energy than it should have, Korm shouldered the Garundi to the wall and brought the sharpened pommel of his sword down on his enemy's neck. A gout of warm blood spurted from the wound, coating Korm's sword hand and spraying a trail of death as the Garundi slumped to the floor. Five more. He'd have to dispatch all of them as quickly if he hoped to survive.
Next came a blond youth with a missing eye and a dagger in each hand. Korm grimaced as he recognized his attacker as Delmios, an orphan befriended by the dead captain years ago in some godsforsaken Andoren smuggler's port. Delmios had been as close to a friend as Korm and Aebos had on the ship, filled with questions about their travels and eager to learn the rudiments of Korm's swordcraft. Early in the voyage, Korm had even given the lad some basic fighting instruction.
As Delmios advanced, Korm noticed with pride that he kept to the balls of his feet as he had taught. The youth slashed with his left dagger while keeping the right ready to parry a counterattack. But one-eyed is no way to go into a fight, and Korm easily took advantage of the youth's damaged perception, sidestepping his blow and raising his saber in a jab aimed right at Delmios's working eye. The blade scraped past the parrying blow and slid easily into the socket, catching for a moment inside the boy's skull. Delmios screamed, dropped his daggers, and fell to the floor, blindly clutching the bleeding mess of his remaining eye. The act gave Korm no pleasure, but it was kill or be killed.
The sharp point of Hurmat's knife cut a thin slice through the meat of Korm's left arm. He dropped his sword reflexively, spinning to face his attacker. Somehow, during the fight with Delmios, Hurmat had slid behind him. Korm cursed his clumsiness and fell into a quick kneel to reach for his fallen blade. Instead, his hand came down upon the bare planks of the floor, where a heavy boot soon fell upon it, crushing the fingers of his sword hand. Korm swore. He looked up the long leg attached to the boot to see the bushy black beard of a burly attacker. The sailor brought his other boot up in a fierce kick to Korm's face, sending him spinning, weaponless, to Hurmat's feet.
"You should have joined us when you had the chance, Calladan," muttered the Vudran, looking at Korm and the two bodies next to him on the floor. The Garundi's neck still seeped dark red blood, albeit less enthusiastically than before. He didn't move. Delmios squirmed upon the floor, moaning softly. Hurmat stood against the door, licking his lips as he decided how to strike the killing blow. Behind Korm, the black-bearded sailor, a squat half-orc deckhand, and the ship's hook-nosed quartermaster blocked escape up the stairs. Korm's saber rested on the floor behind them near the first step to freedom. But even if he could somehow make it through their legs without being killed, he'd still have the rest of the crew on deck to deal with. From the howls and screams thundering down the stairs from up above, they seemed energized as ever.
Hurmat spoke from before the door. "It's all over for you. I'll raise a toast to Korm and Aebos as we divide the meal. With the addition of these two," he said, gesturing to the Garundi and Delmios, "we'll not be hungry for a week or more."
On his knees before Hurmat and with little energy to spare, Korm managed a crooked smile. "You forget, Hurmat, that yours is not the greatest hunger on board. I kept my friend behind closed doors not for his protection, but for yours."
Hurmat raised a dark eyebrow at Korm's bravado and opened his mouth to retort, only to flinch terribly as the door behind him shuddered from a tremendous blow from within. His face curtained with sudden worry, Hurmat turned toward the sound just as a hairy, meaty arm as thick as a man's thigh smashed through the door. A massive hand grasped Hurmat's face like a boy grips a ball, and the Vudran released a short squeal of terror as the powerful fingers squeezed his head. From the floor Korm heard the cracking of bone.
Then, in a moment, the arm flexed and pulled Hurmat through the door and into the dark room beyond, shattering the broken portal. Hurmat's screams echoed through the ship's underdecks, and must have been audible all the way to the crow's nest.
The armed sailors at the foot of the stairs exchanged terrified glances. Korm chuckled, balancing himself against the wall as he rose to his feet. A looming presence emerged from the darkened cabin, stepping into candlelight to reveal the form of a giant garbed in a rough leather garment stitched together from the skins of unknown beasts. Hurmat's blood coated the creature's powerful hands and forearms to the elbow, streaking across a barrel chest and up to a wide, angry mouth filled with irregularly spaced teeth. A single eye the size of a man's fist leered from the center of the beast's bald head, glaring hate at the fear-frozen sailors near the foot of the stair.
"Gentlemen," announced Korm as he stooped to retrieve his saber, "you remember Aebos?"
Like the rest of them, Aebos had lost a lot of muscle over the last several weeks, but his emergence evened the odds. The half-orc and the quartermaster looked to the black-bearded sailor and back up the stairs, toward the indistinct shouting of the abovedeck crew. For a moment they appeared ready to flee toward sunlight, but the noise from above grew louder, and soon a crowd of sailors thundered down the stairs, pressing the worried warriors toward Korm and Aebos.
Korm grabbed a handful of black beard in his right hand, pulling his enemy's face into a rising knee with a loud crunch. As the sailor collapsed to the floor, Korm saw a flash of the hook-nosed quartermaster's surprised face rush past him, pushed forward by the newcomers.
"What have you gotten us into, Korm?" shouted Aebos in a low voice as he grappled with the quartermaster. A vicious scream tumbled down the stairs before ending abruptly in a blood-choked gurgle. Korm realized that what he had at first taken as the sounds of celebration must instead have been slaughter.
"This isn't my doing, friend! I think the ship's under some kind of attack!" Korm ducked the wild swing of a scimitar just in time. The blade bit into the wooden wall, eliciting a grunt from a new attacker. As the deckhand struggled to free his trapped sword, he cast a worried glance at the stairs. Korm's saber pierced his throat before he had the chance to look back. In the doorway, Aebos held a man by the neck in each hand, using their struggling bodies to deflect the blows of their allies. As he watched, the jerking victims sprouted crossbow bolts with red fletching, and Korm cursed. Someone on the stairs was firing randomly into the melee, and it was only a matter of time before their shots struck true.
The sailors fought on in desperation, trying to push past Korm and Aebos rather than defeat them. Fear, chaos, and clumsy blows filled the candlelit hall. Korm stepped left to avoid the hasty chop of a boarding axe, only to slip on a smear of viscera and fall hard to the ground. A bolt-pierced sailor collapsed upon his legs, trapping him on the floor. Korm struggled to pull himself free, but the weakness of starvation and the rigors of battle had drained him of energy. His fingers clutched for his dropped saber. Found nothing.
Clammy hands scrambled across Korm's face, threading through his long black hair and snarling his thick mustache. A slight form pulled its way atop Korm's body, grimy fingernails hooking into his mouth. Korm clamped his eyes shut reflexively.
"Calladan!" His name came in a thin whisper from a dying voice he immediately recognized. Delmios. Korm opened his eyes to stare into the dripping socket of his former pupil. The boy straddled his chest, one blind hand on Korm's face and the other holding aloft a dagger for the killing strike. Korm released a resigned sigh, wondering what had happened to Aebos. So this is how it all ends. Shit. He braced himself for death.
Instead, a red-fletched bolt pierced Delmios's eyepatch, and the boy collapsed upon him. With all of his effort, Korm shoved the lifeless form aside and sat up, casting a wary glance at the stairs.
There, arrayed in long coats of ringed mail and wielding powerful crossbows loaded with red-fletched bolts, stood a half-dozen helmed warriors clad in the red-and-yellow livery of the wizard kingdom of Nex. They stood in taut formation, unharmed, their weapons pointed at his heart. Korm looked behind him to see Aebos standing dumbfounded in the doorway, surrounded by the bolt-pierced forms of the crew. The cyclops shrugged, offering a feeble smile that revealed blood-crusted teeth. Aside from the soft moans of the dying crew, all was silent.
At once, the crossbowmen relaxed their weapons and parted with a fluid motion, snapping to attention with their backs against the stairway walls. Soft footfalls descended the steps, and a feminine figure emerged from the sunlight and into the darkened, body-choked hall. The woman's jeweled slippers came first, followed by legs cloaked in a filmy red silken dress gathered around a circlet of filigreed bone that ringed her navel. The garment pulled tight against her smooth hips and generous breasts, and while the complete effect suggested seduction and a woman well acquainted with her physical charms, the precision of the cut and the elaborate decoration upon the cloth suggested wealth and influence. She carried a stout black wooden staff carved with runic symbols in one hand, and a small glowing crystal sphere in the other. As the woman reached the final stair, the crystal's brilliance flared, revealing a cold, beautiful face framed by an elaborate headdress of beaded glass and tropical feathers.
The orb's coruscations played upon the glass beads and the woman's dark eyes as she surveyed the scene. She regarded the slain crewmen without an ounce of sympathy, pausing only a moment to gaze at Korm as he slowly stood. With a flash she turned her attention directly to the cyclops. Her red lips curled into a wide smile.
"Korm and Aebos," she said with satisfaction. "I've been looking for you."
Coming Next Week: An offer that can't be refused in Chapter Two of Erik Mona's "Two Pieces of Tarnished Silver."
Erik Mona is the Publisher of Paizo Publishing and one of the primary architects of the Pathfinder campaign setting, as well as the former Editor-in-Chief of Dungeon and Dragon magazines. His previous game books have won numerous awards, and include the Pathfinder Campaign Setting Gazetteer, The Inner Sea World Guide, Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, "The Whispering Cairn" in Dungeon #124 (which kicked off the Age of Worms Adventure Path), and Pathfinder Adventure Path #19: Howl of the Carrion King, among many others. To find out more about Erik, visit his Facebook page.
Art by John Stanko.