Didn’t we used to be pirates?
Zegran pondered the question while he examined his cards. Those at the poker table could tell it was occupying his thoughts because he had stopped his normal routine. When playing poker Zegran twirled his lucky card, the Jack of Diamonds, through the fingers of his unoccupied hand. Normally the presence of an extra card at the table of a pirate game would require a severe beating. But this was no ordinary card. It was the card. The lucky card. Every member of the crew had a tale of how the presence of the card had saved their life. It did not just bring Zegran luck; it shed its blessings on them all. In a way it was a member of the crew…the other Red Jack. The card stood still between the fingers of his left hand.
Nevyn Talshar, the ships boatswain, had asked the question. She waited as patiently as she could: Which meant with a scowl and slight agitation. Nevyn was the kind of woman who impressed. Nearly six and a half feet tall and imposing, she was attractive in the way a storm or fire was attractive. On the deck she kept perfect order through a combination of skill and intimidation that served as impressive partners. She decided to give Zegran time. She smiled inwardly at the three nines in her hand and looked around the table.
Aeta Earthcut, the ships munitions expert, was the hardest to read. She kept the dwarf face on as she looked at her cards. She seldom had a tell that revealed what her cards were because dwarves only gave you what they wanted. She was a strange woman. A dwarf on the water is more than uncommon, it was unheard of.
Glynis smiled. It was impossible to tell if her hand was good or bad. The young bard was an odd combination of easily distracted and competent. She was an amazing cartographer. She was a happy girl who specialized in dirges and songs of appalling horror. The smiling bubbly scholar of death customs was a contradiction in all terms that could describe her. Nevyn had a respect for artists, or rather for art. Everyone had their art. But the term artists was often an excuse for or other way of saying…distracted. Glynis was often distracted. But almost always reliable.
Marlais was easy. Despite being the best fighter of the crew and the rock they could trust when all things had gone to hell; he was awful at cards. Marlais was not a bluffer, except in combat for an advantage. Someone once compared cards to fighting in a long allegory. Marlais wanted to throw the man overboard. Life and death was never a game to him… cards was just a game. The one place, Nevyn mused, where his guard was down. Where he allowed it to be down. With cards the only thing you risked was money. And money meant less than nothing to him. Marlais has served in the army of Iuz to save his loved ones. He lost his honor. He was happy with the woman he loved his whole life and their child. His home was destroyed and his family slaughtered. He lost what he lost his honor for. And like everyone else, Jack had given him a fragment of his lost purpose back.
Nasim sat smiling with no hand in front of him. He was the dealer. The cleric of Istus was always the dealer. He played once. And without trying cleaned everyone out in less than an hour. The crew weighed the joy of his company and the merriment of Baklunish stories at the game…against the proposal to hang him naked upside down from the top of the mast. They decided to make the hand of fate the dealer. He accepted, for a small percentage, and was the perfect choice. He watched as Nevyn examined the others for tells. The cleric who had run from his destiny had once said that the surest way to get to your fate was not to run at it, but from it. She asked was he trying to be wise. He told her it was not wise, simply unfair but true. She decided not to run from winning this hand…it would not matter since it was a sure thing.
Zegran raised by two gold and shook his head, “We are pirates,” he said unconvincingly.
Nevyn laughed. “Not even close.”
“Privateers then,” Zegran said.
Aeta folded, “And when have we pillaged a ship of a rival nation?”
“Well…” Zegran dodged, “that hasn’t been necessary.”
“But,” Glynnis jumped in, “We get to go to the most interesting places still.”
“Not exactly the job description of a Pirate,” said Nevyn. “Let’s tick off the boxes. Someone say yes when I list something we have done in the last few months…Taking a ship by force, taking it’s loot, going on shore and getting embarrassingly drunk, disrupting trade, kidnapping…”
“With the exception of getting drunk,” Aeta scoffed, “when did we do any of that…nevermind the last few months?”
“We boarded ships and killed people all the time and took their loot,” Nevyn supplied. She was more than a little irritated that her point had been interrupted.
“Well,” the dwarf continued, “Innocent people…did we kill them? Did we cripple their way of life without remorse?”
Nevyn shook her head. “That’s not the point.”
“We all know why we are here and who and what we are,” Marlais said. He waited for everyone to become silent. He was used to people being silent when he spoke. It was the benefit of talking only when it was important. “We’re the Captain’s crew. Whatever he needs us to be. Each and every one of us was as good as dead in a life that was either ashes or headed to worse. And the Captain gave us back something or gave us something we needed." He looked around the room waiting uncomfortably long on each person with his eyes. “Freedom. Everyone got a type of freedom. From slavery, expectations of our races, freedom to follow dreams, freedom from irreverence or from…regret. Freedom and purpose. So pirate, privateer or whatever name you want to put on it…we’re the Captain’s.”
There was a long silence. It was broken when Nasim said, “I was going to say that.”
The laughter broke out quickly. Zegran smiled, twirled his lucky card, and looked back as the door to the room opened. It was Chal, the young Olman girl who was a master of disguise and infiltration. Like everyone else on board, she owed much to Jack. Unlike them, she thought, Zegran wagered, that Jack might be some kind of god. The Olman were odd, but it was how she looked at him. If Jack knew, he would be embarrassed and try to dissuade the girl from it. But Zegran knew it was best to not try…It would be harder than it was worth.
Chal handed him the duty roster and he nodded and handed it to Nevyn. “Seems a normal day,” he said. “Nothing too intense.”
Just as he finished his sentence the ship jolted and they heard a roar that sounded as if the air itself was enraged. It shook the ship so hard that some of the wood screamed in capitulation. Zegran jumped up. “Marlais, am I right? That it’s…”
Marlais interrupted, “A dragon.”
“I don’t think we have to wonder which one,” Glynis added. “Zegran?” she asked in a question she wouldn’t phrase.
He nodded, “It’s time. Get it all ready. You and Chal. The rest with me to the deck.”
They burst into a warzone. The dragon shot by the ship like an arrow. It spun in the air and began to turn back. She was huge. Lianna. Jack’s ancestor who helped start the process of making modification to the family in order to breed a host for Asmodeus. A process that culminated in Jack. The Great Wyrm shadow dragon seemed to be keeping her distance after the first attack.
Most of the deck was on fire – the initial sweep was an obvious warning.
Zegran gave orders and sent Nevyan to give more as he ran to where the Captain was coming in his direction. He cut an imposing figure, red clad and casually moving the dragon fire out of his way with his magic. For the first time ever, Zegran thought that this might be the last time he saw him. “Fire?” Zegran asked.
Jack nodded, “Many dragons have magic that can substitute for their natural breath weapon. She knows her negative energy attack is of little use with the Crook of Rao on board. Seems dear many-times-grandmother can become a dragon even though she is only half. Princesses of hell are tricky I suppose.. shapeshifting with blood affinity.”
Zegran wondered why she was attacking. Not because he did not know why. She wanted Jack; her master wanted Jack. But what would it gain? This was the ship Reason’s Might. An airship built by Geoff and powered by the legendary Crook of Rao itself. All in order to protect Jack. So given that, she could not actually get very close…What was this?
Jack gave orders to get the weapons aimed at her and prepare for other attacks. The crew readied everything and took care of the wounded. Jack ordered them to close the distance. “Since she can’t get too close…let’s drive her on our terms.”
The ship sped toward the dragon, who grew larger as the distance closed. Jack smiled, “If she wants to hover there we can take out her wings.” He raised his hand in the air. “ON MY SIGNAL, AIM FOR THE WINGS!”
Zegran looked at the monster in front of them. This was all wrong. This was some kind of trap. He tried to make out what was on her chest. Something was on her chest. Chains. Was it armor?
Jack had seen it too. “I think armor is a bit of an overkill for the old girl…What does..?”
They noticed at the same time. She had someone chained to her chest. Zegran noticed who it was and prayed Jack didn’t. If he did he would not fire. But he heard the Captain’s sharp intake of breath.
“Uncle Donovan,” Jack said.
Lianna began to move and dart about in the air. In her movements something was happening. And whatever it was, Reason’s Might was heading straight for it at a speed too fast to stop. She had achieved her goal. She made Jack close distance and hesitate just long enough to run into whatever this spell was.
The ship passed directly through the energy field. Everything was stunningly bright and then a soft grey that gave way to a rush of air that was filled with grit and dust. Zegran looked over the edge. Below them was a stark grey and white desert. The Sea of Dust. The home of the ancient Suel empire that was destroyed by the Rain of Colorless fire.
The ship suddenly became listless..undriven. Zegran, spun toward Jack. “Does the Sea block magic?!”
Jack nodded, “Some areas. My magic is gone. And it seems this part is amazingly strong. The Crook has stopped powering the ship.”
Zegran could hear the clerics of Rao panicking below deck. It was a rare event – the normally calm clerics driven into panic. Sighing deeply he turned toward the aft of the ship to look at the portal. He knew what he would see…he just wanted to face it. The dragon dove through the portal. She dug her claws into the ship and raked across the length of the deck. Zegran looked at Jack’s ring. A gift from Will to let her know when he was in danger. It was pulsing. Some magic still worked. It made Zegran happy. And that happiness firmed his resolve.
Taking a deep breath he faked excitement. He was anything but excited. “Sir, please follow me. I have a plan.” Jack nodded and began to follow him to where the poker game had been. As they ran along the deck, Zegran yelled for Marlais to join them. He fell in behind Jack.
As they entered the room Jack laughed. “I hope your plan is not to play cards.”
Zegran looked his captain in the eyes. “Do you trust me, sir?”
Jack nodded. “Totally.”
“Then,” Zegran said, “I am even sorrier. Goodby, Jack.”
Marlias slammed his fist into the back of Jack’s head and brought only darkness for the Captain.
Reason’s Might lay broken and battered on the shifting landscape of the Sea of Dust. The battle with the Dragon had been fierce. The crew watched as the Shadow Dragon flew away into the morning with her red clad prize. Nevyn resisted the urge to cry for one of the few times in her life. She said without looking back, “Amazing, Chal. Amazing job.”
“Mr. Zegran said I had to be able to imitate scent, look and resonance without magic, only with chemicals and other means. He knew when she came, she would suppress magic somehow to catch the captain. Without that vile trick he would have killed her instantly.” She said it all with regret and with no pride.
Marlias smiled. She had such faith in the captain. “Still,” he said, “to add inches in height. Get everything done so quickly.”
Chal dismissed the praise. “We had all been preparing for a long time. Mr. Zegran had the black dye in his hair for months. We all played our part.”
Glynis nodded. “We all have blood on our hands.”
Nevyn looked back into the room. Jack lay unconscious and covered by a sheet. She walked in and looked at Nasim, who was taking care of the Captain. “How is he?” she asked.
“About ten minutes from being so angry he might kill us all.”
“So, ten minutes until he wakes up.”
Outside the clerics of Rao were telling the crew how the dragon had somehow stolen the Crook of Rao. Glynis was assuring them that it was somewhere in the damage and they would all look. Nevyn made a note to organize a party to assess what the damage was and gather supplies. They would get out of this. No matter what else it was…it was a sea.
“Did you get Donavan? That was a last minute snag.” Nasim asked.
She nodded. “Marlais got him right off her chest when she took Zegran.”
“Is he ok?”
“He’ll be fine. She was willing let him go without much of a fight. She got what she wanted.”
“Or thought she did,” Nesim added.
“Yes, or thought she did.”
“So,” he pressed, “What about the other part of the plan that you hid from us?”
Nevyn met his gaze unblinking.
“Please,” Nasim continued, “Zegran came up with this plan months ago to take Jack’s place if devils or the dragon came for him. We all bought in. But why did you steal the Crook of Rao?”
“Zegran had nothing to do with that,” She said smiling. “He was surprised when I shoved it in his coat. I had Glynis steal it while we made the switch with the Captain. I wasn’t sending my friend into Hell unarmed.”
Nasim shook his head. “Geoff is going to lose their minds when they find out we stole it.”
“Why?” Nevyn asked smiling. “We’re pirates.”
Chal walked into the room. “I am worried about Mr. Zegran.”
“Don’t worry about him,” Nevyn said, “He’s…” The word lucky died on her lips as Chal held up a Jack of Diamonds.
It was old and worn from years of spinning around a man’s hand. It was singed by fire from where Zegran had dropped it on the deck when he ran with the Captain. Chal set it reverently at Zegran’s seat at the table.