A large man stood behind the counter of the inn, quietly drying the glazed earthen cups before him. His arms were large and his body full, but by no mean was the man overweight. Both his hands were moving in perfect sync, handling his job with a peaceful practiced tranquility.
An eye-patch covered his right eye, and along with the many scars and scratches marring his face, it gave him a gruff and aggressive appearance.
The man was preparing for the day’s customers, while watching over the few who were sitting around the tables. In the kitchen, his wife and the few workers in their employ were preparing food for their many guests, while his daughter busily ran about, serving drinks to those who were patiently awaiting breakfast.
The door to his inn opened, and a young man walked in. Black hair and wearing a cloak of dark red that seemed to flitter with the slightest of motions. The young man carried a small rucksack, and on his waist was a sheathed sword without a guard. “Excuse me sir. Is this the One-Eyed Ducas Inn?”
“It certainly is.” The man confirmed, leaning forward to show the boy how the name came to be. “Ducas is the name. How can I help ya?”
“My name is Kaidus Paltos. I believe there’s something here for me?”
“Ah, so you’re the boy…” He quietly evaluated the young man standing before him then turned to his daughter. “Meryl. Where’s Vick?”
“Probably still asleep.” The girl answered as she grabbed two of the clean cups.
“Go wake’im up and tell’im to come down.”
“Forgive my late introduction. I am Ducas Lavernus, the owner of this fine establishment.” The man spoke, taking a seat across from him at one of the tables.
“Pleasure to meet you. Thank you for going along with my father’s selfishness.” Kaidus replied, getting up to make an apologetic bow before sitting down again.
“Hmmm… Now that I’ve seen you up close, I don’t know what your father is thinking, allowing you to travel by yourself.”
“… Do you know my father, Mr. Lavernus?”
“I don’t know him personally, but he did send me a letter of gratitude.”
“You mentioned Vick, and your surname is Lavernus. Might you possibly be related to Vick Lavernus, from the Droxxon mercenaries?”
Kaidus wasn’t sure if it was the same Vick he was thinking about. He had never heard Vick talking about his parents.
A proud smile appeared on the man’s face. “I am. He is my nephew.”
Suddenly there was some sort of commotion from upstairs, and the young lady who had left earlier came running back down.
“Slow down before you hurt yourself Meryl! And where’s Vick?!” Ducas yelled.
“He- He was with- Abbie and Vick were-” The girl’s face was flushed.
“Slow down and tell me what happened.”
“Interrupting me so early in the morning… What do you want, uncle?” A familiar voice came down from the upper floor, followed by an irritable looking man with short brown hair, a handsome narrow face with square jaws, and tired eyes. It was Vick Lavernus, 19th chair of the Droxxon Mercenaries. “And Meryl. Next time you knock, alright?”
“S-sorry.” The girl began nodding her head, but avoided all eye contacts with Vick.
“Dammit boy. You’re going to scar Meryl for life.”
“Not my fault she barged in on us.” Vick retorted, walking over to them. “Well well, look who’s finally here.” He smiled.
“Have you been waiting for me?” Kaidus himself was surprised to see the mercenary.
“That I have. Expected you four days ago. Was starting to think you weren’t going to show.”
“Sorry. I got sidetracked. Anyways, what was the package my father arranged for me?”
“You’re looking at it. One baby sitter.” Vick replied with a wide grin.
“Don’t give me that look. Just let me go prepare my stuff and we can get out of here.” Vick quickly bolted back upstairs.
“Meryl, go see if your Mom’s ready with the food.” Ducas quickly instructed his daughter and the girl left for the kitchen, leaving them to sit in silence.
Soon after, instead of Vick, a young woman came down from the stairs.
“Good morning, Abbigail.” Ducas greeted.
“G-good morning, sir. I’m so sorry about earlier.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for. But you know… if he’s to your liking, perhaps I could talk with your parents about it. I’m sure Vick’s folks would be delighted.” Ducas offered.
“I-I couldn’t do that to him, sir. Please excuse me.” She replied with a bright red face and left the inn.
“That girl… as indecisive as that fool.”
“Who’s a fool?” A voice interjected from the stairs and Vick descended.
Vick was all dressed up in gray traveling garbs. A brown cloak was slung over his shoulder, and he carried two swords with one hand while holding onto a bag in the other.
“My idiot of a nephew, that’s who.”
“Uncle, if you don’t address Kural by name I might take offense with that statement.” Vick grinned, walking over to join them.
“Hah! Act stupid all you want, boy. Perhaps you going on this trip will change your mind about the world.” Ducas smiled, getting up and heading back to the front counter.
“You weren’t joking…” Kaidus spoke, seeing Vick all prepared before him.
“Indeed I was not joking. It’s gonna be you and me, just the two of us again. It’ll be fun like the last time we went to Vanass and Heveston.”
“You mean that time you got drunk and lost all your money on rings? Or were you talking about that time you wasted all your money on women and came to ask me so you could continue whoring?”
“In my defense, those guys were cheating. And whoring is such a vulgar and unattractive word. How about we go with: saving the beauties of Heveston from brutes who dares to call themselves gentlemen?”
“Hah…” Kaidus sighed.
“Not to mention, that was years ago and I’ve grown more responsible since.”
“Heveston was barely a year ago.”
“Hey, people can change a lot in a year.”
‘Then what was that earlier?’ He wanted to ask about the young lady earlier, but decided not to. “If you say so. And this… my dad arranged for you to accompany me to Malpaars?” He questioned, changing the topic.
“He sure did. Notified the captain of your plans three turns ago and hired us. We figured someone who is capable and closer to your age should accompany you: thus, I was chosen for the job.” Vick patted his two azurite swords by his side. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep you safe.”
“Ugh… Is there any way I can rescind the job order? Or possibly ask for someone more responsible?”
“Guh- What are you talking about? NO. Your dad paid a hefty sum and called in some favors. If I returned to HQ now, the captain would kick my ass and send me right back to follow you.”
Suppressing his laughter, “It will be dangerous.” Kaidus warned.
“Do I look scared?”
“It might be a while before we come back to Darsus.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“You might die.”
“If it’s that dangerous, then even more reason for me to come along.”
“What about Abbigail?”
“Enough. I’m coming with you whether you want me to or not.”
“I’m serious here.”
“So am I, Kaidus. You’re not leaving Darsus alone.”
Vick’s tone had changed. It was no longer the sarcastic and spirited tone full of cheerfulness, but one filled with resolve. The resolve of a true mercenary, ready to see his task through to the end. He could see it in Vick’s eyes that any form of persuasion was futile. “… Fine.” He reluctantly agreed.
“Glad we got that sorted out. Have you gone to the harbor to look for a ship yet?”
“Not yet. I was planning to do so after this.”
“Well then, how about breakfast before we head off?”
After giving their thanks to the Lavernus family for the hearty meal, Kaidus and Vick left the inn and made their way to the harbor.
All around them, blocks of wooden buildings were spewing clouds of smoke into the air. A group of children around Kaidus’ age were running with handfuls of fishing rods and nets, yelling at each other and heading for the shore. The sound of friendly chatters resounded through the streets as residents greeted one another, talking about what to expect of the day’s bounty.
The smell of brine and raw fish wafted over to greet them as they arrived at the harbor.
Large transport and merchant ships were anchored at the docks, along with a number of smaller fishing boats that were still unloading the night’s catch. Across from the docks, a bustling fish market was happening with people yelling and shouting loudly for prices.
With full bellies and deprived of a need for anything else, they squeezed through the throngs of people and made their way to the docks.
“The answer is no. None have yet to return from there, and there’s no news.”
“Can’t help ya boy. The seas have become dangerous around Malpaars.”
“Malpaars? No. It’s Kulis we sail for.”
“There are a lot of pirate activities, and the whole kingdom is unstable. It’s very dangerous there right now.”
Such were the answers he got from asking for passage to Malpaars. Even amongst hardy traders from the other continents, none wanted to make such a dangerous voyage.
None of the passenger ships were heading for Malpaars nor did any of them want to. It was a hitch in his plan.
Not giving up, they continued their search. Towards the smaller docking area, they came upon a battered ship. It was a smuggler’s vessel, designed to be fast. Painted to match the dark colors of the sea, it would blend in with its surroundings when out in the water at night. Although upon closer inspection, the dark coloration on the hull was coming off, and there were large scratch marks on the front like it had been ramming something.
As they ascended the plank onto the ship, they saw an older man standing on deck and throwing orders around.
“Alvir! Get that down to storage! Zesha hurry up and patch up that sail! We need to get out of here by evening! Cass–” The man looked over in their direction. “What are you two doing on my ship? We don’t hire children here.”
“Actually, we were wondering if we might hire your ship for a little excursion.” Vick quickly spoke, walking towards the man.
“No. Now leave.”
“This is a smuggling ship is it not?” Kaidus quickly interjected.
“We want you to smuggle us into Malpaars.”
“Malpaars? Why in the world would you want to go there?”
“For my own reasons.”
“Hah! Good luck finding a ship to take you.”
“I can pay. 400 up front, and another 400 when we get to Malpaars. It’ll be a one way trip, and you can leave after getting us there.”
The usual fare was only around 150 erns, but seeing that transport ships were unwilling to go where he wanted, he had no other options.
“Kaidus, you sure? That’s a lot of money.” Vick whispered.
“It shouldn’t be a problem for smugglers to do that much, right?”
“Smugglers or not, going there is a death sentence. 800 is too cheap for my life and that of my crew.”
“If you are that scared, 800, and I will guarantee the safety of you and your crew until we get there.
“Scared? You’ve got nerves boy.” The man carefully looked him up and down. “You talk about guarantees, but the two of you don’t even look like you can protect yourselves.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, mister.” Vick countered, pulling back his cloak to reveal the two swords on his waist.
“Hmph. We’ll see about that. Cassius!” The man shouted.
A portly but muscular man walked over to them. “Captain?”
“Teach them a lesson then throw them out. Show them what would happen on the open sea.” The man quickly instructed.
“Gladly.” The portly man called Cassius grinned.
“A test?” Vick smiled and stepped forward.
“No point in throwing your life away in the ocean. We can do that for you right here.” The captain replied as he took a few steps back to allow them room.
Those who had been working on the deck had stopped whatever they were doing and were watching.
“It doesn’t look like you lot are from around here. Be warned, I am quite well known around these parts.”
“That so? Cassius. You know what to do.”
“Of course.” Cassius lowered his stance and put his hands forward, ready to charge.
“Let’s do this then.” Vick grinned as the man dashed at him.
He was surprised at how fast the round man was, but with some quick and precise movements, he was able to evade the two punches thrown at him. Stepping out of the way, he brought up his arms to prepare against a follow up attack. Yet instead of being hit, the man ran past him, heading straight for Kaidus. “Stop!” He cried out, but the man kept running. “Kuh–” He relaxed his body and quickly fell into blade-form, then suddenly vanished.
Using the explosive speed from Rising Talon, he appeared right next to Cassius. From a low angle, he thrusted his arm forward, planting his palm into the man’s sternum—dropping him instantly. “Haa… That was close.” Vick breathed a sigh of relief.
He had called for the man to stop not because he was afraid for Kaidus, but because he was afraid for the man.
“… Guess I misjudged you.” The captain voiced with a tone of irritation.
“Do we have a deal?” Not caring about what just happened, Kaidus calmly questioned.
“No. We already have a destination, and it’s not Malpaars. Now get off my ship.” The man rebuked.
“How about my ship and crew?” A woman’s voice spoke up from behind them.
Turning around, an older woman in her early thirties, wearing weathered clothes and brown traveling leathers was standing on the plank. There were bluish green plates covering her head, and she had long slender powerful arms that went down to her knees. She was a Kovus, and from her physical appearance, a full blooded Kovus.
“What do you think you’re doing Narissa?” The captain questioned.
“As you can see, I am offering my services.”
“Do you know what you’re getting into? Those pirates will shred apart that dingy you call a ship before you can even get close to Malpaars.”
“Maybe so, but I’m sick of doing nothing and waiting around.” The woman turned to Kaidus. “I am Narissa, captain of the Maid Marie. I heard what you said earlier, and as it turns out, I too have business in Malpaars. If you can guarantee my crew’s safety as you professed, then we are at your service.”
“I can.” Kaidus calmly replied. The red cloak around him began fluttering as if a draft was blowing through it. Luckily, no one paid it any attention.
“Ugh… you certain about that Kaidus?” Vick questioned apprehensively from beside him.
“Come on, Narissa. Stop fooling yourself.”
“Did you not just see Cas get knocked out with a single strike? I’m willing to take my chances.”
“Argh! Do whatever you want, you stupid woman!” The captain of the smuggling ship shouted. “Everyone, get back to work! We’re getting out of here as soon as we can!”
After leaving the smuggling ship, they followed the woman called Narissa and made their way towards the northern side of the docks.
“It’s a little smaller, but it’s fast and will get us to where we need to go. If we’re lucky and we don’t run afoul of pirates or bad weather, it should only take around half a turn to get to Malpaars.”
“Lady Narissa right? Everyone is steering clear of Malpaars. Why are you going there?” Kaidus enquired.
“Kuhehehe! Please, just Narissa is fine. It’s been a long time since I’ve been anything resembling a lady.” The woman smiled brightly. “And to answer your question, I’m going because everyone I know and love are back there. Stuck in the midst of that stupid war that’s still going on…” Her voice trailed off into one of sorrow.
“What about you two?”
“Well, my friend here wants to go sightseeing. He thought a war torn country freshly out of a revolution would be a great place to start.” Vick quipped.
Narissa turned around and gave Kaidus a curious glance.
“No, that is not the reason. Have you ever heard of Karugas?”
“Karugas??? Can’t say I have.”
“Large flying creatures that are even larger than Kargalls and Hvarals or any drakalls we know of?”
“Hmm… now that you mentioned it, I did hear about people spotting an extremely large creature when I was younger.”
“Really?” A tinge of excitement unraveled within him.
“Yea. I believe the king even offered a bounty for people to find it. Although in the end, no such creature was ever found- Oh, we’re here. This is it. Welcome to the Maid Marie.”
A small modest ship, two-thirds the size of the smuggling ship sat on the water before them. It too was painted a bluish green color to blend in with the water at night, and two large masts were standing tall in the middle. The sails were rolled up, and a handful of people were lazing around the deck.
“Now let’s talk about the fare. You offered Bastin 800, but since our arrangement is a mutually beneficial one, how about 400 for the both of you? Of course that money will be used to purchase much needed supplies for the voyage.”
“How long did you say it would take to get to Malpaars again?” Kaidus asked.
“If we’re lucky and there’s wind, fifteen to twenty days. Give or take a few depending on the wind’s direction. If there’s no wind or we run into problems, possibly a turn or more, or never. I guess what I’m saying is, you better remember what you said.”
“Does the fare cover our accommodations and meals?”
“Alright. You’ve got yourself a deal then.”
By nightfall, a small ship pulled away from the docks of Aristolk and made its way westward. Pushed by a nice constant breeze, it sailed over the water quickly and quietly.