Korm and Aebos emerged into the morning sun to find the bodies of their crewmates hacked apart and bleeding upon the midship deck. Red-fletched crossbow bolts stuck out from the corpses at odd angles. Korm's empty stomach lurched, and with a grimace the slender swordsman realized that the carnage had caused his mouth to water with anticipation. An hour ago, here on the windless barrens of a stillswept sea, the ship's gory deck would have been the platter for a life-saving feast. As he warily eyed the dozen armored men who circled them and held loaded heavy crossbows at the ready, Korm wondered how long that life would last.
At the head of the armed brigade stood the dark-hued woman whose arrival had saved them from the knives of the cannibal crew. Despite the readied weapons of her warriors, despite the bodies and severed limbs littering the deck at her feet, the woman's posture betrayed no hint of alarm or worry. Even the most hardened warriors often lost some of their composure in the presence of Aebos, for the day of the cyclopes had passed millennia ago, and the race stood on the precipice of legend. But the woman and her troops all came from the wizard kingdom of Nex, where swordsmen were little cause for concern, and strange, inhuman creatures walked the city streets as a matter of course.
"I'm glad we were able to find you when we did," the woman said with a thin smile. "My alchemist has been toiling away at breakfast for hours now, and it would be a shame not to honor the sole survivors of the Queen's Lament. So sad that the ship sank with nearly all hands aboard, but these are difficult times for pirates."
"I'm not hungry," Korm said, almost too quickly.
"The ribs showing beneath your shirt suggest otherwise, Mister Calladan," she replied. "Of course you are free to deny the invitation, but in that case I suggest you start looking for the choicest cuts of meat here on the deck, before the ship sinks and you have to wrestle them out of the mouths of sharks."
"You seem to know a lot about us," Aebos said warily, rubbing his meaty hands clean on a bit of shirt stolen from one of the dead crewmen at the top of the stairs. "But we don't know anything about you."
"On the contrary," the woman said. "You know that we are friends. My men do not want for ammunition, and two more shots would have made very little difference. But we spared you. It should be obvious that we mean you no harm."
Korm and Aebos shared a stern glance.
"I am Iranez," she said. "Of the Orb. Chiefmost among the Council of Three and Nine that rules in the name of the Archwizard Nex from the port of Quantium, three days to the west. I've got a ship that can sail without wind, a table topped with food prepared by the most talented chef in all of Garund, and chairs for two at the head of it. And I grow weary of waiting. Won't you please be my guests?"
"We seem to have little choice," Korm scowled.
"Oh, lighten up, Mister Calladan!" She pivoted on a slippered foot and laughed over her shoulder. "I'm fairly certain my men and I just saved your lives."
The soldiers shifted starboard, urging Korm and Aebos along in their wake. The cyclops bent down to whisper in his partner's ear.
"She's probably right, you know," he said. "Besides, what harm can come of it?"
Korm frowned. "Ask me again after I've had a bit of her alchemist's breakfast."
As the group approached the starboard rails, Iranez's ship came into view, and Korm's breath caught in his throat. Thin cords, gangplanks, and rope bridges connected the Queen's Lament to the attacking vessel, but the two boats could hardly have been more different. Iranez's ship stood tall in the water on two sleek hulls, like a catamaran, and came to a sharp point at the front, as if designed to slip through waves like a knife slides through a ribcage. Its smooth surface looked as if it had been shaped from ceramic or carved from lightweight stone. Two tall, impossibly thin masts rose from the slender deck, but neither had been rigged with a sail. However the Nexian ship had made it alongside the Queen's Lament, it had arrived under its own power.
"Gentlemen," said Iranez, "I present the Relentless, very nearly the last of its kind. Shaped by the otherworldly shipwrights of the archmage Nex himself, she once stood at the vanguard of our nation's armada. I rescued her from a sargasso on the edge of the Eye of Abendego a century ago, and she's been my personal vessel ever since."
As Iranez turned to admire the ship, she gently placed her left hand upon the top of the orb at her side, which seemed to hover of its own accord. The crystalline sphere pulsed with a soft green illumination, and the woman's slippered feet lifted off the deck. Without any hint of effort, the Nexian rose over the siderail and glided across a dozen feet of open ocean toward her vessel. The armored guards sheathed their weapons and scampered across the ropes and planks connecting the ships. Aebos looked to his companion, shrugged, and scrambled after them.
Korm stepped forward and looked over the deckrail to the glistening azure waters between both ships. The high morning sun shone brightly upon the placid surface, giving the water a radiant, almost mystical quality. In the last weeks he had come to think of the sea as a prison, and very likely a tomb. Now he saw the brilliant blue as a crystal portal between two dimensions, a wizard's membrane separating the world of the living from the world of the dead. Without so much as a glance behind him, Korm hauled himself up onto the rail near a thin gangplank and took a decisive step toward life.
∗ ∗ ∗
The alchemist's lips quivered in self-satisfaction as the translucent slug pulled a trail of brilliant amber across the serving tray. "We begin with a delicacy unique to the untamed jungles west of our homeland, brought to the table of Lady Iranez by the reach of almighty Nex's unparalleled merchant network and prepared by yours truly, Epostian Creeg."
From his vantage at the head of the table, the well-manicured dandy raised an eyebrow and surveyed his audience for reaction to his name. Iranez offered a thin smile while Korm and Aebos looked on without expression. He continued.
"The creature's slime deadens the tongue's acidity, triggering a mild euphoria in the taster. When combined with the ink of the Blanchess urchin smuggled from the depths of Lake Ocota, this effect unlocks what the Mwangi mystics call the 'seventh flavor,' a sensation ordinarily reserved for their haughty, ancient spirit-gods."
He surveyed the panoply of dining implements before him—mirrored at each place setting—and gingerly selected a long length of polished whale bone stained with dark purple resin. The three diners followed suit. Iranez drew her bone across the viscid trail, gathering a dollop of slime no larger than a silver coin upon the flattened end. Epostian Creeg returned a smile and nod, and the woman brought the slime to her tongue with a steady, practiced hand. She carefully placed the implement back on the table, closed her eyes, and focused on the sensation. Her nostrils flared and her head fell back slightly, betraying just a hint of ecstasy. Korm looked awkwardly toward his companion across the table, unsure of his next move. For his part, the cyclops eagerly dipped his stick into the slime and brought it to his wide mouth. His huge eye shut almost immediately, and Korm noticed swift movements behind the lid, as if his friend were dreaming. Korm felt Creeg's eyes upon him. Expectant.
He hadn't eaten proper food in weeks, he thought, musing on the change in perspective that had classified euphoric slug slime as "proper food." It beat human, anyway. With a resigned sigh and an eye on some of the more appetizing provender crowding the table, Korm dipped his utensil into the trail and reluctantly raised the amber slime to his tongue.
It had an earthy, sharp taste Korm usually associated with poison, but just as soon as it registered the sensation faded into a dull, comfortable stupefaction that began at the tip of his tongue and ran slowly down his throat and into his chest. Almost against his will, Korm's heavy head tilted back against the padded chair and his shoulders began to sink into a pleasant lethargy. For the first time in weeks, Korm Calladan allowed himself to relax.
"A fitting start for what it to come," the alchemist said, eyes flashing, "for the slime is but the first of eleven courses we will enjoy this morning." Creeg motioned to a long porcelain tray to his left, drawing his slender fingers across a meticulous display of dozens of small gray hard-boiled eggs shot through with flaky gold spices that sparkled in the nimbus of Iranez's orb.
"In the wilds of Nex's southern plains, too near the treacherous, blasted landscape of the Mana Wastes for human settlement, dwells a peculiar avian known to the roving tribes as the aubekan. Aubekans mate for life, and a pair of these rare birds produces a single offspring only once every six years. These creatures never survive in captivity, but their eggs convey a rich flavor unlike that of any other creature on Golarion. When seasoned with a special spice of my own creation, these eggs serve as the perfect opening to our feast."
Without need for further explanation, Aebos reached across the table and grasped a half-dozen eggs in his powerful hand. Smiling at Korm under a heavy-lidded eye, the giant threw the whole handful into his mouth, smacking his lips with all the decorum of a Queen's Lament crewman feasting on his fellow sailor. Iranez selected a single egg, spearing it on a long-tined fork and cutting it into several pieces on her fine porcelain plate before taking tiny, delicate bites. Korm followed suit, bringing a small portion of aubekan egg to his mouth.
It didn't taste anything like he expected. Creeg's golden spice gave the egg a powdery consistency that didn't match its succulent appearance. At first he detected a hint of sourness redolent of a ripe apple, but the sensation soon slipped to sharpness suggestive of aged cheese. Korm wondered if the shifting tastes were inherent to the aubekan egg, to the euphoric slime, or simply to his weariness and recent unfamiliarity with decent food. Before he could decide, the flavor changed again, and the swordsman almost spit out the egg into his embroidered napkin. It tasted just like every meal he had eaten in the last month. Like human.
Aebos didn't seem to notice, and kept shoveling the gray-and-gold delicacies into his huge mouth. Iranez and Epostian Creeg both marveled at the cyclops's appetite, completely ignoring Korm, oblivious to his growing disgust. As Aebos neared the end of the tray, Creeg turned to a wide plate to his right, cleared his throat quietly, and continued.
"Next we have a rare delicacy claimed from the deep waters east of Katapesh: the finest ocean caviar wrapped in the dried skin of a giant river gar, pierced by mussel skewers flavored with a variety of spices imported from distant Tian Xia and supplemented with a unique herbal blend of my own design."
Each portion of the extravagant dish measured no wider than the palm of Korm's hand, so it was a good thing that Creeg had prepared far more than a single serving for each diner. Again, Aebos devoured the stuff moments after its introduction, tossing the packets of fish eggs into his maw three at a time. One was enough for Korm. Again, the dish produced a profusion of flavors ending in the familiar tang of long pig.
Each course that followed was the same. Meticulously prepared and delicately spiced with Creeg's golden flakes, the plates looked more like fine art than food, yet despite his hunger, Korm had to force himself to continue. After the caviar, everything started to run together in his mind, and they all led to the same revolting conclusion. To Korm, everything tasted like human.
Boletus and dungeness crab handkerchiefs. Human. Aurochs tongue on a bed of pesh flowers. Human. Truffled mammoth curd. Human. His fellow diners didn't seem to notice, treating each new course as a wonderful delicacy to be savored and enjoyed. After a while Korm decided his affliction was psychological, and once he had swallowed enough of Creeg's food to stave off starvation, he took only the smallest of bites, tuned out the alchemist's pretentious presentation, and allowed his mind to wander.
With walls of dark wood appointed with elaborate trim along the floor and ceiling, the room in which they dined conveyed a sense of power and wealth. At most six diners could sit around the fine marble-topped table, suggesting that the ship's crew was meant to dine elsewhere, in a presumably far more humble setting. Finely wrought wooden doors marked the port and starboard walls. They'd come in from the port, and Korm suspected the opposite door led to the quarters of the ship's senior staff. His mind subconsciously began to wonder what the bedchambers of a national ruler might look like, and Korm smiled as he sensed the return of his old self now that food and freedom were at hand.
At the head of the table, Epostian Creeg gestured with his left hand, his first two fingers raised to the ceiling as he extolled the virtues of the next course. Korm didn't pay attention to his words, but rather focused on the man's meticulous appearance. Dressed in a supple white leather suit cut to the latest fashion and accented by a brilliant red flower in the buttonhole of his left breast pocket, Creeg appeared every bit the royal attendant he was. His short blond hair was freshly trimmed, his smooth skin without a hint of dirt or blemish. Like his beautiful dishes, every aspect of his demeanor and dress seemed perfectly arranged to impress.
A massive symbol imprinted on the wall behind Creeg framed the alchemist in a perfect circle, between two diagonal lines that suggested a road disappearing over the horizon. The image reminded Korm of the mystical symbols adorning the few alchemical reference works he'd perused in his travels, and the swordsman let out a soft snort as he decided that the pompous dandy had probably planned that, too. No doubt the alchemist fancied the dramatics of appearing to stand at the head of a long road leading to the infinite horizons of enlightenment. And then it hit him.
He'd seen that symbol before.
Creeg paused his presentation for a moment, and Korm decided it was his turn to speak. He turned to Iranez of the Orb.
"If you sit on the Council of Quantium," he asked matter-of-factly, "why does your dining chamber bear the seal of the Pathfinder Society?"
Iranez raised an eyebrow in pleasant surprise. "You've encountered it?"
"I was raised in Daggermark and spent my first two decades traveling up and down the River Road," Korm said, trying not to sneer. "You'd be surprised by what I've encountered."
Iranez pursed her lips in a bemused expression, clearly unused to being chided by a social inferior.
"Your travels serve you well," she said. "The glyph is the mark of the vessel's previous owner, a questing hero named Durvin Gest, one of the founders of that guild of explorers. He somehow infused the surface of the wall with the symbol, and no means arcane or otherwise can remove or obscure it. Believe me, I've tried. It is a mar on the eldritch craft of the archmage Nex himself, created fifty centuries ago in the Age of Destiny. Imagine discovering a perfect Azlanti statue carved by the finest artisan of that bygone kingdom of legend, preserved for thousands of years just as its creator intended. Then imagine chiseling the crude face of your sallow-cheeked daughter over the original, simply to satisfy your own sense of vanity and pride. It is an affront."
"I kind of like it," said Aebos, mouth full.
"Indeed," Korm added. "An indelible symbol imprinted by a long-dead famous hero. It adds a sort of mystery to the ship."
"The ship has plenty of mystery of its own," scoffed Creeg.
Iranez nodded. "One such mystery is the cause of your rescue, and the price of your freedom." She smiled as Korm and Aebos turned to her with a start. There had been no prior discussion of a fee.
"The Orb seems to believe that the two of you represent the best chance we have to remedy a wrong that has brought much grief to the seas of Nex."
"Wait," Korm asked. "You speak to the Orb?"
"The Orb speaks to me. 'Whispers' is perhaps a more accurate term, for its words are meant only for my ears, and cannot be heard by others."
"That's convenient," said Aebos.
"I have found it to be so," she admitted. "On more than one occasion the Orb has saved my life, or led me to a decision that enhanced the fortunes of the Council, the nation, or its people. Over long years I have learned to trust its declarations."
Aebos cut to the point. "You speak of a grief upon the seas. You mean the stillness of the water? The lack of wind?"
"The same," she said. "Tell me, Korm, in your travels along the River Road, did you ever hear about the demon ships?"
Korm's eyes narrowed at the mention of demons. "Can't say that I did," he said, monotone.
"They date from the last days of the Age of Destiny, when the archmage Nex turned to conquest upon the seas to broaden the scope of his kingdom. Unwilling to bow to the might of storms or the whims of the wind, Nex sought a method to propel his fleet to military victories regardless of weather."
Creeg spoke up, interrupting his mistress. "He found his method by binding the souls of powerful demons into enormous, perfectly cut glass lenses, which he bonded to his ships in a supreme act of arcane mastery. While imprisoned within the false reality of the lens, the demon's essence suffused every element of the ship, from its navigation to the fine details of its appearance. In a very real sense, the ship became the creature's skin, though its mind remained forever hidden away."
"In all of our rich history," Iranez continued, "no demon has broken free from its lens or betrayed its captain. Until now."
"Let me guess," Korm said. "The Relentless is one of these demon ships?"
"Indeed it is," said Iranez. "And until recently it had been an unusually docile specimen of its kind."
"But then something happened," said Aebos, "and the demon's control extended to the waters around the ship. This whole business is your fault."
"This business is the demon's fault," Creeg corrected. "It simply decided to rebel for reasons of its own that we have not yet been able to discern. That is why we turn to you. You must resolve the situation with the demon at the heart of the ship. The disruption to trade must not be traced back to the lady."
Korm furrowed his brow. "And how, exactly, do we get the demon to change its ways?"
Iranez lowered her left arm toward the floor, from whence she hauled a fine linen bag and placed it upon the table. As it landed with a loud clink, the lip of the bag dipped below the considerable bulk of its contents, revealing the glimmering edge of a crown and the sparkle of a scepter topped with what appeared to be a large emerald. Aebos's eyebrow lifted.
Iranez spoke softly, her golden eyes perfectly locked with the gray of Korm's, her face a picture of calm and practiced diplomacy. "The creature calls itself Juval. I believe that it can be reasoned with. Like any demon, it is subject to powerful desires that can be twisted to manipulate the creature to your own ends. In this case, the wealth collected here will serve to stoke its avarice."
Korm stared at the bag of treasure for a long while before returning his attention to Iranez. "You rule an entire nation and own a ship with a demon in it. Aebos and I are not your lackeys. Why don't you do this yourself?"
Iranez sighed softly. "No kingdom in all of Golarion has as many wizards and mystics as does my homeland of Nex. As a supreme agent of the Council of Three and Nine, my every action is scried, scrutinized, and divined by numerous factions. By special design, this chamber has the power to block such divinations. This power alone allows me to speak of Juval and its influence over the waves, for if I did so elsewhere word of my involvement would reach all quarters of Quantium within the hour."
Korm scoffed. "The politics of Nex are none of our concern."
The alchemist's eyes widened comically and his jaw went slack. "The utter insolence! The Lady Iranez rescued you from certain death and brought you into her confidence! And she has provided you with this resplendent meal."
"This is her demon," Korm responded. "Her problem. The way I see it, the Lady Iranez and her demon have provided me with all of my recent meals."
"Mister Calladan," said Iranez, "you survived the River Road and the dangers of distant Vudra. I have faith in your ability to talk yourself out of a problem, as does the Orb. You must pass through the lens into the demon's territory. There, you must convince Juval to withdraw its influence to the ship itself, and return the winds and waves to the waters surrounding Nex. What trinkets Juval does not claim are yours to keep, with my blessing. Upon your return from the world of the lens, I promise you safe passage to Quantium."
A wide grin broke across Aebos's face. "My lady," he said, "we could have saved significant anguish if you had led with the bit about us getting to keep the treasure. We will agree to your terms."
"As if the two of you reprobates deserve any riches beyond your lives," snapped Epostian Creeg. "My service to the Lady Iranez has convinced me to trust the guidance of the Orb, but what it sees in you, I cannot tell. I do not believe that the two of you can be trusted."
"Nor, I confess, do I," said Iranez, her voice tinged with a hint of regret soon erased by a wan smile. "To ensure that our needs are met, Korm and Aebos will be accompanied by my most trusted agent, Epostian Creeg."
The alchemist's face turned as white as his fine leather suit.
Coming Next Week: Adventures in a new dimension in Chapter Three 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.