The ship sailed into the harbour after fifteen months at sea.
I looked out over the side as we passed into the port city of Luskan. It had been some time since the Ocean’s Bounty had docked here. The filth and smog were highly visible in the dawn light, and the stench was overpowering. I turned to look at our captain. Captain Abel Goldburn of the Ocean’s Bounty was a portly man, well into his six or seventh decade. From what I had been able to gather, he had been a trader all his life, sailing the straits between the Sword Coast, the Moonshae Isles, the Northlander Isles and more, selling cloth, herbs, trinkets, anything that he could reasonably make money from.
And, truth be told, it wasn’t a bad life. When I joined the ship over a year ago, Captain Goldburn hadn’t asked many questions. All he had asked me was if I was capable of hard work. Nothing about my background, my past, where I was coming from, and for that I was grateful. The memories of Sundabar… of Zhayne and Astrid… were still too raw to talk about.
The work was hard, no doubt about that. Climbing the rigging, hoisting and trimming the sails, ferrying cargo of various shapes and sizes to and from the single longboat, it took all my strength and all my concentration. And that was good. I was almost able to forget what I was running from.
There were times, out in the middle of the ocean when the ship was moving slowly when the memories came back. Fortunately, there was nearly always some distraction – either a physical competition, various games of chance and gambling, or just exhaustion – and when they came I welcomed them gratefully.
The captain and crew were slow to accept me at first until I led a defence against some Northland barbarians trying to take our cargo for themselves. On seeing how I handled myself against seemingly stronger foes Captain Goldburn and the rest of the crew gained a new respect for me, and I quickly became the one person they could rely upon in a fight.
And now our voyage was coming to its end. The captain planned to stay in port for a few days while we sold the goods we had obtained from the island kingdoms and bought new wares. After that, the ship would sail, and anyone who wanted to go with her could. The crew had stayed more or less the same for the past few years, with only the odd one or two deciding to take their fortunes elsewhere.
For myself, I couldn’t wait until the time came for the Ocean’s Bounty to depart. A feeling had been growing in my stomach that something wasn’t quite right. I hadn’t been able to put my finger on what though, so I was just left with a general sense of unease.
For the first couple of days, nothing happened, and I started to believe that I was just paranoid. Then, the night of the third day, I realised my paranoia was justified.
A dozen of us had descended on one of the seedier taverns in Luskan. The crew knew that I didn’t drink and, after a few early attempts to get me to down a few mugs of ale, they respected it. I made it a point of principle to keep my senses sharp at all times, and I knew alcohol would dull that edge. And so, while the others were downing mead and ale by the tankard, I was nursing a glass of surprisingly clean and drinkable water. As I sipped it, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I turned around slowly. There, at the back of the tavern, almost entirely cloaked in shadow, sat a man. He didn’t look at me directly, but he kept on occasionally glancing out of the corner of his eye. As I tried to decide on a course of action, I heard the sound of glass smashing next to me.
It looked like my companions had managed to start a tavern brawl.
As the rest of the people in the bar – humans, dwarves, elves, whatever – began to rise from their seats and attack each other, my shipmates included, I saw the mysterious man stand and quietly make his way to the exit. After looking to make sure the others had the current situation well in hand, I followed, ducking and dodging the occasional clumsy punch and kick.
The smog outside had grown thicker in the night time, but I was able to see my quarry as he quickly walked away along one of the many alleys. I found a crumbling wall that could bear my weight and managed to climb up onto the rooftops. I had to take a moment to compose myself as being up so high in a city in the night reminded me of similar occurrences in Sundabar. I shook off the memories and started to run, keeping pace with the man from the bar.
He turned left and right down seemingly random alleys, making me lose sight of him a couple of times, but I managed to catch up with him and eventually overtake him. I dropped down to the street and hid in an alcove waiting for him to pass. When he did so, I reached out and grabbed him around the mouth, pulling him close as I drew a dagger and rested the edge against his throat.
“Who sent you?” I growled, lowering my hand from his mouth but keeping a firm hold on him.
Despite the knife at his throat, he managed a curt laugh. “Many people are looking for you, Talon Shadowkin. Someone with power has put out a considerable reward for information about you. There’s an even higher reward for your head.”
I snorted. “Too bad you won’t be collecting it then,” I whispered into his ear. I drew my knife across his throat and held him upright as the blood gushed from the wound. When he was dead, I gently lowered him to the floor. It would be some time until he was found, just another victim of a mugging gone wrong. Nothing of any consequence. I searched his body and found, amongst the few coins he had, a small piece of parchment. Unfolding it, I saw the winged serpent symbol of the Zhentarim and my name and picture with a reward. Just what I didn’t need. I tore it up, scattered the pieces over the street and quickly made my way back to the tavern.
The fight was starting to wind down. As I entered, I saw an empty bottle lying on a table, so I casually picked it up and smashed it against the skull of a half-orc who was struggling with two of the crew. The brute went down like a sack of bricks. The crew members glared at me.
“We had him, Talon!” one of them said indignantly.
“Of course you did,” I said with more than a hint of sarcasm. “We’re leaving. Back to the ship, now. We’ve caused enough damage for one night.”
With some reluctance and more than a few cries of protest, we all managed to extricate ourselves from the wreckage of the tavern and headed back to the Ocean’s Bounty.
The ship was due to sail in three days’ time. I couldn’t wait.
Fortunately, or through divine intervention, no further incidents occurred, and at the appointed date and time the Ocean’s Bounty pulled up its anchor. Captain Goldburn had taken a shipment of flour and cloth bound for the island kingdom of Mintarn. Most of us had heard of Mintarn – a place with well-established harbours, markets, merchants, but also, according to rumours, a place under the power of a dragon, to whom the island’s inhabitants gave tribute. We didn’t care about that. For all we were concerned, the Mintarn people could have been worshipping a hedgehog as long as they paid on time and in full.
With little ceremony, we set sail. It would take about two months to reach our destination – less if the winds were favourable. I didn’t mind as long as I was far away from the Sword Coast and my Zhentarim hunters.
A couple of days into the voyage, Captain Goldburn summoned me to his cabin. His first mate – a dwarf by the name of Ulfric Ungart who hailed from the Dwarven city of Felbarr – was also there. Like me, like all of us, Ulfric was running from something in his past. No one ever asked questions or pried into the reasons why we were here. It was an unspoken rule as sacred as divine law.
The captain never wasted time with pleasantries. “Talon,” he said in his gruff voice, “I was just talking with Ulfric. I’m considering retiring from the Ocean’s Bounty within the next year.”
This was news to me, but really it was hardly surprising. Although Captain Goldburn was an experienced sailor, captain and trader, he wasn’t a young man anymore.
The captain spoke again, interrupting my thoughts. “I’m naming Ulfric as my successor as captain of this ship.” Again, not a surprise – Ulfric had been a part of the ship almost as long as the captain. “And I want you to be his first mate.”
This was a surprise.
My mouth opened as I tried to form a reply. Captain Goldburn laughed at my discomfort. “Yes, I know you’ve only been with us a short time, but you’ve proven yourself a valuable and reliable member of this crew – certainly more reliable than some of that scurvy rabble. You will do a grand job as first mate. What say you?”
I found myself nodding. “Yes, I accept,” I said. The captain’s face cracked open in a huge smile – the first I had seen from him – and he took my hand in a crushing grip. “Good show my boy, good show. Not a word to the crew yet. Let’s get this current job finished before we make any announcements hmm?”
I left his cabin, my head spinning. It seemed too good to be true, but I found that I was excited. Maybe I could finally put the past – put Danyel – to rest. I returned to my duties with a new spring in my step.
The voyage passed uneventfully for a few tendays. We fell into the usual routine of working on the ship, eating, resting, gambling, a few boxing competitions to pass the time. During that time the only real incident was a raiding party of pirates.
They brought their ship alongside ours, firing their ballistae across our bow as a warning shot, then they threw ropes with grappling hooks to draw the two ships together. I barely had to break a sweat as I made short work of them. These weren’t professionally trained assassins, they were undisciplined men who thought waving a scimitar around made them something to be feared. In short order, they ran scurrying back to their ship and fled. We let them go – we had no cannons of our own, and it was more trouble than it was worth to chase them down.
I began to believe the rest of the journey would be just as easy. How wrong I was.
It was about four tendays into our trip, with just under two left before we reached Mintarn. We were passing a small group of uninhabited islands when the lookout called down from the crow’s nest.
“Black smoke! From the island to starboard!”
I was standing with the captain and Ulfric. The captain took out his spyglass and pointed it in the direction the lookout had indicated.
“He’s right. There’s smoke coming from that island.”
Ulfric coughed. “We should investigate sir. It could be someone stranded or in need of aid.”
I was reluctant to agree. The familiar feeling had started again in the pit of my stomach. “Sir, with all due respect, we should carry on. Whoever set that signal could be long dead.”
Ulfric shook his head. “Rules of the sea. It may be one of us in that situation one day. Besides,” his eyes took on a somewhat crafty glint, “Whoever it is may have some treasure lying around or some sort of reward.”
I watched as greed and reluctance battled across Captain Goldburn’s face. Greed won.
“Talon, I hear what you’re saying, but First Mate Ulfric is right. Take two men and investigate. If it’s nothing come straight back and we’ll carry on. If there is something there send a message back and we’ll decide on a course of action.”
Defeated, I left the pair of them and walked down the side of the ship to the longboat. As I walked I called out for Salazar and Diero, two sailors I had worked with a lot previously and knew I could trust and rely on – to a certain extent anyway. The three of us boarded the longboat and, with the help of some of the other crew, let it down into the water.
The sea was surprisingly calm as we rowed over to the island. It took us about an hour to cover the distance. The black smoke continued to pour into the sky and my feeling of dread intensified. A couple of times I almost turned the boat around but my sense of duty – and my desire to not lose face in front of Salazar and Diero – kept us on our course. As we drew nearer, I was able to make out a few more details of the island. It had sandy shores over which the sea lapped. Further inland was dense foliage. It was nowhere near as large as some of the smaller inhabited islands of the Moonshae, but it was still a fair size.
The sun had reached its peak when we finally arrived. Diero pushed the boat onto the beach from the back while Salazar and I pulled from the front. Once we were satisfied that the boat was secure and wouldn’t wash away, we left it and surveyed the land in front of us.
“What do you think boss?” Salazar asked in his deep voice. Both he and Diero were Turami, their dark skin showing that they originated from the Inner Sea in Faerun.
I shook my head. “We need to go further inland.” Diero nodded in agreement, and we started walking towards the trees and hopefully the source of the smoke.
It took us another couple of hours to fight our way through the undergrowth, with Diero suffering a slight scratch along the way, but we eventually managed to reach a clearing. The sight that met us left us speechless.
Someone had lashed a few tree trunks together to form what looked like a pyre, with enough wood and stubble to keep a fire burning for a long time, possibly days or tendays. A couple of feet in front of the structure was a skeleton. Motioning the other two to stay back and keep watch I moved forward carefully. The skeleton looked like it had been dead for years. I could see it was holding something in its hand. I knelt down and carefully opened the fingers.
The fingers broke off in my hand.
Throwing the brittle remains aside I managed to take the object they had enclosed. It was a folded piece of parchment. Opening it up I saw what looked like a map with some strange language written on it. It wasn’t of a place I knew of, that was for sure. I turned, intending to ask Salazar and Diero if they recognised it when we heard a sound that chilled our blood.
A dragon’s screech, from overhead.
I quickly stuffed the map into my pocket, stood up and ran towards the others. “Back to the ship! Move! Move!” I cried at them. Their eyes were fixed to the sky. I risked a glance upwards and saw great wings and a tail. I tore my gaze away and pulled at the other two. As if waking from a trance, they looked at me, at each other, and as one we all turned and ran back the way we had come.
It felt like we were running forever. At any moment I was expecting to feel the intense heat of dragon fire as flames engulfed me. My only consolation would be that it wouldn’t hurt for long. Step by step we drew closer to the beach and to salvation. Salazar tripped on a tree root and Diero, and I helped him up as quickly as we could. It was as if the jungle itself was trying to trap us, to prevent us from getting to safety.
After what seemed like an eternity we finally reached the beach where we had left our boat. As we ran to the boat, I stopped and looked up. The dragon was circling overhead as if looking for something.
“What is it waiting for?” Diero hissed. “It can take us down right here!”
The feeling in my stomach suddenly exploded into fearful certainty. “It isn’t here for us,” I said.
Diero opened his mouth, presumably to ask what I meant when the dragon screeched again. It stopped circling around and flew straight out over the water.
Straight towards the Ocean’s Bounty.
I could see the ship clearly. They could not fail to have noticed the great dragon flying towards them. I could see a flurry of activity as the sails turned, men like tiny dots running to and fro across the deck. They were trying to get away.
They didn’t have time.
With a further screech, the dragon let loose a stream of fire directly at the ship. It had no chance to get out of the way. The flames engulfed the bow, setting it ablaze. I saw men like fireflies jumping into the water. The dragon banked and went around for another pass, this time setting the sail on fire. The mast shattered and fell into the water, taking more crew with it as they were entangled in the ropes. The dragon’s final attack hit the rear of the ship square on. There was an almighty explosion as the flour ignited. The few remaining embers of the ship sank into the water.
The Ocean’s Bounty was gone.
Captain Goldburn, First Mate Ulfric, everyone was gone.
I fell to my knees, stunned, in shock. Diero started weeping, his cries almost deafening. Salazar waved his fist, cursing in his native tongue.
The dragon flew off into the distance. I didn’t see where it went to. All I knew was the people who had been my crew, my friends and family for the past year and a half, were all dead.
Salazar slowly lowered his fist and went to Diero, putting his hand on his shoulder. As he did so, Diero slowly quietened down. Salazar looked at me desperately.
“What do we do now boss?”
I had no answer for him. We were stranded, marooned on an uninhabited desert island in the middle of the Sea of Swords. On one side of us was hostile jungle, on the other side was empty ocean.
What do we do now?