Red Jack, the boogeyman on the seas even to other pirates who would act with dishonor, looked out over the edge of the ship’s forecastle. Below him the clouds sped by with wild abandon. He had gone from a feared pirate, orphan who had lost all he knew in the world to a bred monster who may play a role in the unleashing of the lord of all devils. Jaquard Von Slythe, heir of a noble and ancient family of the Great Kingdom. He was the most current in a long list of powerful magic users who, apparently, were bred with dragon and devil blood over a thousand years to become the physical vessel for Asmodeus. That revelation, you could say, made it a bad year. And the year was really only halfway done. There was no other word for it, Jack was brooding.
This was obvious to the two men behind him: His first mate Zegran and Nasim, a cleric of Istus who served as navigator and healer. Of all the crew, the two were arguably the closest to Jack.
With Zegran there was no argument. The first made was closer than anyone on the ship to the Captain. He knew all of Jack’s secrets and more about Jack than he allowed himself to realize. Zegran was tasked by Jack with the unenviable duty of keeping his anger in check. Inside of Jack was an anger that was epically dangerous. Zegran was the failsafe on keeping that controlled.
Nasim was a young cleric of Istus, but he was chosen by the goddess herself and was powerful: Two things that infuriated him. In reality he was at heart a teenager who wished to walk his own path but saw the hand of Fate in all things and it made him both amused and exasperated. He ran away from his destiny and that ended up being the decision that made it all happen. Granted wisdom in many things, Nasim was not as close as Zegran, but he was often sought by Jack for advice.
The two men waited behind the Captain until it seemed right to speak. The both knew Jack’s brooding moments and wanted to hit the right mark for the conversation. Nasim gently pushed Zegran forward. The Flan looked back as he stumbled slightly ahead and turned back with an amused but slightly stern look.
Jack sighed, “What is it?”
“What it is,” Zegran said immediately, “is that you are in the forecastle brooding.”
“Come back into the middle of the ship.”
“You mean come back into the area near the engine room, where the crook of Rao powers the ship so I can have more peace and not worry about things.”
“Yes,” Nasim said, “That is exactly what we mean.”
Jack glared at him, “You want a Captain mentally drugged, pacified, unable to reflect on the lessons of his life?”
Zegran shook his head, “No, I want a Captain who is not about to break into a ballad by those teams of five or so young bards who sing for the teenage girls, such trite songs of love and longing that soon are being sung everywhere. Face it Captain, you are dangerously close to singing something those boy troubadours would make gold from.“
Jack smiled at the humor of the situation and relaxed. “I’ll stay here. But what else is happening? Word yet from the investigators?”
“Not yet,” Zegran answered, “but I expect soon. Their reputation is solid and good.”
Indeed it was. Jack had promised Will he would find the ex-Paladin, Bernard Culp, before she and her friends returned from the Clockwork Dungeon. To that end he had put the skills of the Necromancer detective Jeremy Moonrise and his bodyguard Fredrik to use. He was having them track Culp and then contact the ship when they had found him. Culp was dangerous. He was a former Paladin of Heironeous who was driven mad by whatever he saw in the fall of the great city of Rauxes. Now he was more animal than man, seeking to find the hungry beast that many thought would destroy the world. He was a near mindless monster who served the will of the mythical Tarrasque.
“Well they had better report soon,” Jack said, “I promised Will I would find him before they returned.”
“No, you did not.” It was Nasim.
Jack raised an eyebrow.
“With respects Captain; I have no knowledge of your conversation specifically but I believe Fate is clear that you told Miss Wilhelmina that you would get him. But you promised yourself you would get him for her first, then told her you would. Such a thing is different from promising her. The promise was to yourself to do this for her.”
Jack quietly starred at the young cleric as Zegran looked anywhere else. “Be that as it may,” Jack continued, “They had best be punctual.” There was a pause before Jack looked toward a section of the crew cabins that had been modified as a laboratory. Smoke was pouring out of a modified vent at the top of the isolated area. “Is Daugir in his lab?”
Zegran nodded, “Yes sir, that’s why we came to get you. He wants to show you what he has per your request.”
Jack stepped down from the forecastle. “Good.”
“That was why Mr. Zegran is here,” said Nasim.
Jack looked at him with interest, “Some prophecy?” He said smiling.
“In a fashion, I suppose. You would say a message: Look for the old man when darkest night descends; he will find the underwater sun.”
All three exchanged looks. They knew what it meant; at least who it meant. The underwater sun part had them stumped.
“Fine,” Jack said, “Tell your goddess message cryptically delivered.”
“She does not require you sign for it, Captain. She is aware.”
“Good, then, back to important business. Let’s hope the investigators live up to their reputation and we end this soon.”
The road from Gorna through Geoff and into Veluna was an easy one. It was a main tourist road and as such was well traveled and safe. It was exactly the kind of road a shambling bestial Paladin now in service to hunger itself would instinctually avoid. So the question was obvious: Why were they on it? Before Frederik could ask his master turned and looked at him from his horse ahead.
“Are you writing again?”
“I write all your adventures down.”
“But this isn’t one…it’s a side case. A favor.”
“A side case?”
“Or side quest, something like that.”
Frederick shook his head, “There is no such thing as a side quest. Quests are too grand to be side issues.”
Jeremy laughed, “Stickler.”
“Linguist,” Frederick corrected, “But fine. You’d rather be without my first person narrative of this…so be it.” He put away his notes. “So, we are on a main road looking for a monster. That’s not promising.”
“It would not be,” Jeremy agreed, “if we were looking for him here. But we aren’t. We are taking this road to get to where he is.”
Frederick laughed, “How can you know where he is?”
Jeremy smiled. “That’s why this is not worthy of narration. Too fast on our end. I surmised Mr. Culp had to eat. So I asked Sir Christopher for any reports from hunters of odd events. Assuming he is traveling through forested areas instinctually to avoid detection. And that he is hunting like an animal. There would be a path across Oerth. It was a hunch.“
“And?” Frederick asked after he realized his master had paused so he could ask.
“You found a path of destruction then?”
“Well wonderful. I understand completely…”
“What I found was a path where things were killed but not eaten. From within one mile of where he was last encountered to just outside of a small farming and hunting village in Veluna. It is a path with dead but not eaten animals. A path with no sign of camping or eating…or…well, a human relieving of oneself.”
“So,” Jeremy finished, “he was a monster when they fought him but a kind of well-kept one. That made me think: Why was he was not covered in refuse and waste? Obviously he was living like an animal…so should he not be more…filthy?”
Frederik realized what his master was saying, “He’s not eating.”
“Has not,” Jeremy confirmed, “Since the fall of Rauxes decades ago. His service to the great beast keeps him hungry. Always hungry. Instead of this manifesting as an appetite it is a vacant hole that seeks no nourishment and keeps him hungry.”
“I’ve never heard of…wait…”
“See, Frederick, you come to the same conclusion. We have heard of that. It is part of the state of all undead: The desire to feed or the empty hole to be filled by service or action. But Culp is not undead. However he, in a sense thinks like one. He is driven to raise his master and nothing else, always hungry and empty it drives him on. So we get to the next village in his path, Kellistran in Veluna, and call the ship. They conduct an aerial search.”
“That sounds easy.”
“It does,” Jeremy replied warily, “It does.”
“You are going to get me eaten by a monster paladin, aren’t you?”
“Don’t be silly, Frederick… He doesn’t eat.”
Jack and Zegran stood outside the laboratory and knocked. Daugir, the elf alchemist, was odd. To be more honest, he was insane. It was not his fault. Being captured by Orcs and tortured for a century or so will do that to you. When his captors saw how useful an alchemist was, they kept him alive. After a hundred years or so of escalating madness, they tried to sell him to humans. But no one would take him. So they set the cage adrift to sink into the sea. Found by Jack and the crew of the Second Chance, he had been with the crew ever since.
The door opened on its own, it could have been a spell or some small unseen device. The cause did not matter; it was the invitation to come in that did. The two men entered and looked at the goggle wearing grey elf clothed fully in protective leathers. Daugir was always ensconced in some kind of full clothing. A hundred years of torture leaves scars, and the elf, even though insane, had no wish to exhibit them.
“Captain,” he said somewhat louder than needed, “I can’t wait for you to see the progress!! You wanted, I believe, something that could hold even the strongest monster type man. Like a werewolf but stronger, you said.”
The elf smiled. “I have perfected it. It was a side project until you asked if there was anything I could do that would hold a person firm.” Daugir produced a bladder of liquid. “Tell Zegran to put his hand on the table.”
“He is not a slave. And I will not experiment on him as I would never on you. Of all people, you should know that.”
Daugir paused in some internal chastisement. “I spoke in excitement. Mr. Zegran, there is no danger, if you would consent to placing your hand on the table. “
The first mate complied.
Daugir squeezed the bladder and liquid foam came out and covered his hand. In seconds it hardened, sealing the hand fast to the table.
Zegran tried to move his hand but it was impossible. “Pretty amazing,” he said. “Four seconds. That is certainly fast enough. The delivery system could use some work.”
“Oh,” said the Elf, “could it?” Daugir had brought out a large device that he held on his shoulder. It looked like a small version of the ship’s cannon. “This delivery system can coat a man in this in moments.”
Jack smiled. Capture may be easier than he had thought.
There was a hectic knocking at the door, and he could hear Nasim on the other side. “Captain, a message, something has gone wrong. They are engaged in battle with Culp. And, sir…I think I saw a tree flying in the message.”
A tree flew by Jeremy as he hovered in the air. Bernard Culp’s strength was beyond any human measurement. The former Paladin looked at him as he levitated safely out of reach. The man’s eyes were wild and violent. His black hair should have been curly but it was a tangled mat on his head and down his back. His nose had been broken and left to heal disjointed. The service to the Tarrasque had changed the man too…made him faster, stronger and more of a beast. It also gave him a kind of hide that made it almost impossible to harm him. And, above all, it gave him a hunger to free his master. There was something else; This beard was not as long as Jeremy would have thought, though it still was unkempt…but not filthy. As he pondered the inconsistency he just barely dodged another half tree.
Frederick screamed, “Could you possibly pay attention, master?! This is a nearly 7 foot, 400 lbs monster after all. You did send the message, correct?” Frederick was backing away, sizing up his opponent. The odds were not good, but for an unfailing they seldom were.
“Yes, I sent the message. Bad luck he could smell us so quickly and at such a distance. If not for that, we wouldn’t be engaging him.”
Frederick nodded, “I will mention the bad luck to Wee Jas this evening since we should be in her presence soon if this plays out as it seems it will.”
Jeremy did not correct him because this encounter could very well be deadly. They were trying to not kill Culp, and he was trying his hardest to tear them apart. Jeremy would not let Frederick die, even if he killed this monster and people were at a disadvantage entering Rauxes. But it bothered him. His beard should be longer. And those were cuts on his cheeks and the edges of the beard were almost methodically uneven.
He had little time to wonder on it too much. Culp grabbed Frederick by the arm and snapped it back at the elbow. It hung in the opposite direction for a moment before it snapped back into place, guided by an infusion of negative energy. Frederick sheathed his blade in negative energy and drove it through Culp’s kneecap. The man-thing screamed but shook off the blow. Frederick pulled out the blade and retreated a few steps.
“Every time I slow him down he redirects. He is trying to get to that hill half a mile distant,” Frederick yelled as Jeremy send a fireball directly into Culp’s head. “Why? Why is he doing that?”
Jeremy looked over. It was a normal hill, average and nothing special. He glanced again at Culp. His hide-like skin bore a similarity to the hill. The same tan earth color and kind of pattern. There was a kinship between the two things. The hill and Culp. Culp who had one goal: to wake the Tarrasque. Jeremy cursed. The hill was not a hill. It was the back of the sleeping Tarrasque. For centuries is was accepted as a hill as earth came over it. But in reality it was the sleeping monster that many felt was only a story.
“Frederick, he wasn’t heading for the town; he was heading for the hill. It’s the back of the Tarrasque buried in thousands of years of earth!”
Frederick retreated all the way back to his master. “We have to kill him. We can’t let him get to that hill.”
Jeremy looked up as the airship, Reason’s Might, tore through the sky toward them. “I think he wins the award for most timely arrival in history.”
Jack was not used to flight spells. He and Zegran leapt from the deck and sped down toward the fight. He had never done this before, flown from such a height. There was something natural in it, something exhilarating. Zegran looked over at his captain; he was a natural at this. He flew like he was born for it. Jack, for his part readied a spell that he thought would be entertaining. He outpaced Zegran to the fight, knowing more pirates were coming if needed. He flew at Culp in a direct line then turned up in a strafing attack and activated the spell that gave him a breath weapon of flame. The Paladin fell back a step under the attack. Preparing to take a rush he took the full force and damage of the breath.
Jack soared back into the air and only an act of will made him remember the battle. It was disconcerting, the sudden realization of the open air as something as natural as water. He turned back toward earth and landed next to Zegran.
“Situation?” he asked as he drew his sword.
“The hill is actually the resting place of the Tarrasque. He gets there, the world ends.” Frederick said.
“I have something more shocking,” Jeremy said. And with a somber, dramatic voice announced, “He’s been shaving.”
“If you don’t mind,” replied Zegran, “I’m gonna focus on the first part.”
“Really,” said Jeremy, “A man monster filled with the rage and hunger of the tarrasque. He has been roaming the world like an animal with one thought…free his master to satisfy the endless hunger. Except he has had two thoughts…that…and grooming his beard.”
Jack looked closer. The necromancer was right. He might have done it with a sharp rock but he had done it. He had shaved. He had been shaving. Because he was not just a Paladin. He was a Knight Protector of the Great Kingdom. He had a code. A dignity. A dress code. All this time. All this suffering he was trying to hold on to something. Jack noticed something else. He was in the remains of his armor, but it was dress armor. Ceremonial armor used on special occasions. This form was specific but he would never had noticed had the necromancer not said about the beard and made him look closer. Whoever Bernard Culp was and whatever his story happened to be…whatever happened to Rauxes; Jack was sure now of one thing. It had happened during the man’s wedding.
Culp was sniffing the air. Jack turned to Frederick, “How’s his sense of smell?”
“He smelled us a mile off. That was how he found us…otherwise we would not have engaged him.”
“Zegran,” Jack yelled, “He knows!”
At that moment Culp spun and grabbed something invisible behind him that then became visible. The former Paladin lifted the elf by the neck as the chemical globes and the launcher fell to the ground. He held him like a rag doll, about to snap his neck.
Zegran would look back on this moment, in the weeks to come. He had never been so terrified before in his life. Never thought someone could be so fast and so brutal. Jack saw a member of his crew in danger and something let loose within him. He roared louder and more bestial than Culp ever could. In one moment, he had extracted Daugir from Culp’s grasp and thrown him safely to Frederick. That is when he began to mercilessly beat Culp. He hit him faster than Zegran imagined the Captain could move. Each blow was like the rhythm of sledgehammers hitting their mark. His sword discarded, Jack fought with his hands… staggering Culp backward.
Culp was shocked by both the speed and ferocity of the attack. Jeremy watched as he instinctively reached to protect a pouch on his belt, resigned that in doing so he left himself open for a vicious attack. Culp fell to one knee clutching the pouch as Jack stumbled backwards and fell onto all fours, overcome by the exhaustion of his own attack.
Daugir, who had recovered ran and used his captain’s back as a launching pad. “NEVER TOUCH ME!!!” He screamed as he struck Culp in the chest with both feet. The Paladin was on his back now, and in the same second Daugir was on him tearing gashes in the hide of his neck with his teeth. He spit a chunk of neck out “ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS ENCASE YOU IN SOME NICE HARDENING FOAM!!!”
Zegran was helping Jack to his feet. “We need to call him off, Captain. We need Culp alive.”
Jack looked at where his first mate was pointing. He moved forward careful not to touch Daugir. “Daugir, I need him alive. “
The elf continued to batter the fallen Paladin. Jack noticed that Culp was taking the blows unfazed. He was recovering. Even after all that, he was recovering. “Daugir, I need to see if the foam works! DAUGIR!! I NEED YOUR HELP!” The elf stood up as quickly as he had snapped and ran toward where his launcher had fallen.
Jeremy used a mage hand spell to call the pouch to his hand. Culp noticed and screamed in fury, but was unable to move as the foam encased all but his head and hardened into an unbreakable block. Jack modified an air spell and placed a bubble of no air around Culp’s head until he passed out.
The men stood around the unconscious captive. Jeremy held up the pouch. “When you attacked him he protected this like it was the most important thing in the world. I wonder what’s in it?”
Jack was facing the other way and not looking at Jeremy as he emptied the contents of the bag into his hand. But he said, “My guess is two rings.”
Jeremy looked at him, “How did you know?”
“The armor he has on is the wedding raiment of the Knight Protectors of the Great Kingdom. Whatever corrupted Rauxes happened during his wedding.”
“And the other thing?” Daugir asked.
Jack turned around. In Jeremy’s hand were two rings; one for a man and one for a woman. Also there was a small bead that seemed half blast scarred. Jack looked at it. It was old, but not ancient. It was definitely magical. “Is that what I think it is?” Jack muttered. He also sensed something familiar about the scarring. He tried to hide his recognition but saw that Zegran noticed it.
“A bead of summoning,“ Jeremy said. “And you said whatever happened did so during his wedding?”
Jack nodded as the ship came in lower to retrieve the cargo.
“So,” Jeremy continued, “something happens. It’s massive and damaging. The entire city is in chaos. A Paladin at his wedding decided to use a bead of summoning to call his god. It’s that bad. But the strange energies cause an explosion. Outward.” Jeremy held the bead as if he was going to use it. “The energies of a bead go outward from the one holding it. And if there was a reaction and it exploded in that direction at a wedding. The chances are the person vaporized or at least killed would be…”
“The bride,” Jack finished, “He tried to summon Heironeous for help and it killed his bride.”
They stood silent for a long time as the others loaded Culp onto the ship. Finally just Zegran and Jack stood alone as Nasim came out to discover what was taking so long.
Jack looked at him, “Did Daugir tell you how we think Culp went mad?”
“He’s telling everyone,” Nasim said, “So they do not treat him as cargo.”
“Maybe Daugir isn’t as mad as we think.” Zegran added peacefully.
“Or we could remember that he is,” said Jack, “and remember to get the bits of Culp out of his teeth.”
Nasim looked at the ship. “The influence of the Crook of Rao should bring him some peace. For now. And Istus indicates he will serve a purpose and we might be able to have him help in Rauxes.“
Jack scowled, “Haven’t the gods used him enough?”
Zegran looked at his Captain, “Whatever happened in Rauxes had little to do with the gods, Jack. What can scar a bead of summoning like that? What did you feel?”
Jack looked back at the ship, “The infernal. Which means they may need help in Rauxes.”
“You’re going to ask if you can go?” asked Nasim.
“Istus has said to beware the chamber of the King.”
“One of these days I am going to do the opposite of what she says.”
“If you manage it,” Nasim said, “I will happily buy you a drink.”