Just off the coast of Hreyn, the Byrgena fought its way through the storm. Her sails buckled and snapped in the wind, sending sheets of rain slapping down onto the deck where the crew worked desperately. The harbour was not far away now, and their long journey was nearly at an end, but the storm was pushing them wildly off course, toward the breakers that threatened to drown them all.
At the helm, the captain tried his best to command a safe route, but things were quickly falling apart. They’d already lost a deckhand to the waves, and he shuddered at the thought of what might happen should they sink and lose their secret cargo. He could hardly believe their luck. They’d been sailing for a fortnight and three, and had so far not encountered more than a stubborn lull in the wind for a day around the halfway point. But this… this was unexpected. And so close to the end as well. It was as though something didn’t want them to reach land. Curses, he thought savagely, now the gods have given up on me. He shook his head for thinking it – he was a pious man, for the most part – but a storm like this made you wonder…
The sun was still far below the horizon. The only light came from the moon and the lanterner’s lamps tied to the centre mast, but the reddish glow they cast over the scene was beginning to make things look worse. His crew were being thrown about like some child’s playthings, and he could just barely maintain his grip of the helm. Then, like a scream, the wind came in a great gale that nearly knocked him over the side. The sail ripped like a sheet of parchment and came tumbling to drape over the bow of the Byrgena like a cowl. They were headed straight for the breakers now.
The captain could hear his crew shouting, praying, looking for a command, but there was nothing he could say. He’d spent his whole life on the water, and had faced many storms before. He’d returned from pirate dens with kidnapped duchesses and a hull of treasure to boot. He’d single-handedly slain the leviathan beast that had besieged Gyrtown when he was just a teen. He’d slept in the jungles of Iri’kh and heard their nightmare tales of the dreaded Ga’bhak, the shadow demon. In his home country they sang songs of him in taverns and halls, and his name was listed among the great heroes of ages gone by – heroes the likes of Ithel, Alwin, and Uhlohi.
But, nodding, the captain agreed that there was little and less that he could do. There was a creaking and rumbling from below deck, and he knew then that their cargo had broken free. Grimacing, the captain removed his satchel and passed it to the first mate, who accepted it relunctantly.
“Abandon ship,” he commanded. The crew looked at him oddly – they would never have expected this to happen. Surely, they thought, he must know some way out of this. But the captain’s face was grave, and he commanded them again, in a quiet growl that was only just audible above the roaring of the wind,
“But, Captain,” insisted the first mate, “the lifeboats… we’ve lost them.”
The captain looked to his first mate who he’d known for years – whom he considered a worthy leader and a brave man. He considered him, above all else, a friend. He would trust him with his life, and had done so through many perilous journeys into lands unknown. He heard the rumbling sound from below deck again. The Captain looked to his friend of many years, then to the rest of the crew. He nodded. “Then swim. There is no hope here. If you stay onboard, you will die, and I will not have it.”
The crew still didn’t move, so the captain drew his sword from its sheath. It was curved and terrible, and seemed to reflect no light other than the light of the lanterner’s lamps, making it glow a blood-red in his hand. It cut the wind in two where he held it aloft, and the crew – even the first mate – shuddered when they looked upon it. Its name was as sharp as most blades themselves. The captain’s face grew dark, and he pointed his sword at the crew. “I command you to get off my ship. Jump over the side, or I will be forced to slay you myself.”
The crew listened. Fearful of the captain’s blade and his sudden change of character, they turned and leapt from the ship into the boiling waters below – even those of them who did not know how to swim. The last to jump was the first mate. He stopped and turned to look at the captain face to face. He knew the captain better than anyone else, and when he looked into his eyes, he could see that the anger was not true. The captain would never harm his crew – they were a family to him, and more precious than any treasure or praise.
And looking closer still, the first mate saw, with horror, that the captain was afraid.
“Go,” said the captain, and the first mate leapt from the bow.
Alone on his ship, the captain turned and descended the stairs to the deck below. In the darkness of the hull, he could faintly see the door of the great iron cage swinging back and forth with the swaying of the ship. Several chains lay broken on the floor – their links twisted and torn apart. The prisoner was loose, and was hiding somewhere in the ship.
The captain lifted his terrible blade to his face, thought for a moment, and whispered something to it. With a sudden vividness that put the lamps above to shame, the blade of the sword grew alight with a glow that illuminated the inside of the ship. Standing near the bow end was the prisoner, staring him down with a face like smoke. All that could be seen of the prisoner’s identity was their eyes – cold and silver, like scoured steel below the rust.
Moving like lightning, the captain dashed toward the prisoner, who was armed with a pair of swords from the rack. They met in a clashing of steel and light, and with a powerful slash, the captain cut the prisoner’s blades clean in two – their deadly halves clanging to the planks. The captain took his chance then, and plunged his own glowing weapon into the prisoner’s chest, nailing him to the wall. But the prisoner laughed, chanted some words, and the broken blades flew through the air to slice at the captain’s back.
Wounded, the captain rolled out of the way before turning to look at his opponent. With a scream like a hurricane, the prisoner grabbed at the blade buried in his chest. There was a creaking as it slowly loosened from the wood, but the captain knew he had a little time.
He staggered to the weapons rack and took the largest axe he could find. He whispered to it, and the axe head began to glow like the sword. He stared at the prisoner’s hidden face. The two met eyes for a second.
“Fool,” said the prisoner in a voice like venom, “I cannot be killed by steel and strength alone. You will meet your death this night.”
But the captain did not falter. Fear was past him now. He knew what he must do. He was a legend. He was a hero. He was brave. “Aye,” he growled at the prisoner. “I will.”
He ran and swung the axe with all the might that his bloodied shoulders could muster. In mid-swing, he chanted a word that seemed a thousand times louder than the raging storm. The axe crashed into the hull of the ship with an immense force. Cracks ran through the wood, sending splinters flying and water spouting into the ship. The captain yanked it free, and a great stream of water flowed through.
“Fool!” the prisoner shouted, but the captain did not listen. He stood back then swung the axe a second time, his chant slicing through the night like some greater thing than the weapon he wielded. The hull creaked and groaned as more splits ran through the wood. Water was gushing into the ship now. The captain was up to his knees.
As he pulled the axe free once more, the prisoner’s glare intensified. Through the smoky illusion that hid his face, the prisoner’s eyes were like chasms. Their lunar hue deepened, and the captain felt that he was not looking into the eyes of a man, but through a window into nothingness.
Then, raising the glowing axe high above his head, the captain chanted a final time. The axe in his hand and the sword in the prisoner’s chest glowed white-hot, filling the ship with an impossible light, and when the captain swung it was with a speed and strength that none had ever seen.
The axe struck like lightning, square in the prisoner’s chest – the force was so great that the hull behind him gave way to a yawning blackness. The water came rushing in.
In the early morning darkness, the first mate dragged himself onto the Hreynish shore and coughed up the briny water that had nearly drowned him. He looked out to the sea, and saw the Byrgena shudder with a sound like thunder. There was a flash. A scream. And then the lamps went out.