… is not necessarily gold
by Jean Rabe
The dwarf was tied to an anchor resting at the bottom of the Sea of Wyrms, two dozen or so cable lengths northeast of Askalon. A red crab scuttled up and down his legs, settling finally on an ankle, pincers worrying at frayed threads at the cuffs of his canvas pants.
The dwarf had been there for quite some time, seven fathoms below the surface, the sea gradually darkening around him until night leached all the light out of the world and turned the water blackest black. The dwarf’s fingers and toes had the consistency of boot treads, wrinkled like a prune. The lids over his closed eyes were puffy, and the mouth on his clean-shaven face gaped open.
He snored soundlessly, releasing bubbles that drifted upward.
In his dream, the dwarf was with his twin brother in Dracos, their father instructing them in the art of making fine furniture from the hardest woods. Arkanoclians, so-called crafter dwarves, are expert builders, and the elder Whitehammer was among the best…and intent on passing those skills along to his sons.
Young Dalmog was destined to travel another path, however, one not requiring a reclusive lifestyle or particular skill with tools, and one that would take him around the world … and presently to the bottom of the Sea of Wyrms.
He continued to enjoy the dream, a slice of childhood that felt comfortable, as he pulled the water in and out of his lungs, tasting the salty sweetness and relishing the quiet the seabed offered. There were predators in these waters—tritons and voesti, sahuagin, dire-sharks, dragon turtles, and even dragons. The dwarf did not consider himself large or tasty-seeming enough to attract their attention.
The dream shifted to a rare scene in which his father was not trying to teach woodworking. They were at the edge of a narrow river, fishing. Dalmog had felt an affinity to water even before he could walk, and on this particular day he pulled in trout after trout, their rosy bellies gleaming in the afternoon soon. Pity his family didn’t understand his calling—or his magical inclination.
Nor did they understand when only a handful of years past he communed with something unknown and undefinable, a force that teased him with the promise of mystical power and which he eagerly made a pact with. His father argued that he was too young to be toying with things dark and dangerous.
Dalmog was young still. At thirty years he was not yet considered an adult by dwarven standards; most Arkanoclians did not embark on their own until they were at least ten years older. But he’d left anyway, in search of that mysterious something that he’d bargained with—never finding its source, sometimes half in fear of it, but always accepting the magic it fed him and that continued to pull him.
The crab clambered up Dalmog’s chest and pinched his chin. The dwarf reluctantly retreated from the dream and his eyes fluttered open. Though Dalmog’s vision was oddly keen, he saw only shades of dark and the vaguest shadows that suggested coral formations around him. He sensed the crab’s presence and reached out to it with his mind.
Shedd, is it time? Have I slept so many hours? Shedd was a shortened version of the crab’s name—Ya’idsheddim Reddshell. The crab clacked its claws and Dalmog took stock of his own essence, finding he had indeed slept enough to restore his arcane battery.
The crab, the size of an ogre’s fist, pinched his chin again, more gently this time.
Aye, you are right. I have rested long enough. Though we could linger a while longer and—
One more pinch.
Impatient, aren’t you? No, it was something different. He sensed worry in the crab’s complicated and childlike mind. Trouble? Is that what you’re telling me, Shedd? Aye, you’re warning me of something. What?
The dwarf reached to his waist and untied the rope that held him to the anchor keeping him from floating away. The crab crawled under the flap in his jacket and nestled close. Dalmog went hand over hand up the anchor chain—slowly, as he was both loathe to leave the water and at the same time was sending his senses spiraling outward trying to determine the cause for Shedd’s concern. Perhaps there were predators posing a threat despite his small size and unsavory nature. A hungry dire-shark? Dalmog wondered. A school of them? Something larger?
At the height of summer, even fathoms down the sea was pleasantly warm and so very relaxing, and in it he detected no fish of an intimidating size. The trouble was not here.
But on the surface…that’s where the danger was. He felt the water overhead displaced by the hull of two ships—the one he ascended towards, Seekers, which he called home, and another. When Dalmog had been musing about the predators in the Sea of Wyrms, he’d forgotten to include pirates.
Abandoning the hex that allowed him to breathe water, Dalmog shot to the surface, cradling Shedd against his chest and searching inside the crab’s mind, tugging out another enchantment, this one letting him climb up the hull of Seekers like a spider might. The dwarf stored all his spells inside Shedd, his familiar. It was something witches did.
Above, the night was held at bay by myriad stars and large lanterns that glowed from the decks of both ships. The ship lashed to Seekers’ side was a third larger and flying no colors—impressive and deadly and wholly unfamiliar.
Dalmog grabbed Seekers’ railing and pulled himself on deck, delving into the crab’s mind for an enchantment that might aid his fellow sailors.
Controlled chaos was spread out before him. Dalmog recognized the Seekers’ crewmen. They were outnumbered, yet appeared to be holding their own against a band of pirates who were flashing sabers. Steel hissed and clanged against steel as the men parried each other’s blows. Shouts of anger and challenge rang out, cries of pain cut through them.
“Sleep, ye scoundrel!” Dalmog shouted at a pirate who’d come within an arm’s length of him. The dwarf’s magic took hold of the man and dropped him. Without pause, Dalmog whipped his dagger free from its scabbard and fell on the man, stabbing him three times—just to be certain.
Near the capstan one of Dalmog’s crew landed on the deck, hands grasping his head and legs kicking wildly as if to keep an unseen something at bay. Dalmog squinted as he got to his feet, dipping into Shedd’s mind for another spell, this one let him see unseen things. For a heartbeat he wished he hadn’t cast the enchantment.
Horrors! Tentacles that were invisible to the other sailors writhed across the deck, some twisting around ankles, some with beaklike ends stabbing at legs and chests. The downed sailor had a thick tentacle wrapped around his waist.
Dalmog’s expression went from shock to rage as he dove toward the nearest tentacle, pulling back on the dagger, clenched so tightly against his palm it was painful. He plunged it down into the fleshy thing again and again until it melted away like ice exposed to a torch. He spun toward another tentacle, but found a pirate blocking his way.
The man said something, but in a language Dalmog couldn’t understand. Behind him, the dwarf caught a glimpse of the Seekers’ captain.
“Cap’n,” he hollered. “Captain Atterton! Ghost tentacles! All over the deck!”
Then he turned his efforts to avoiding the pirate’s cutlass, and retaliating in the same measure. The pirate had to crouch to fight the dwarf, and Dalmog used this to advantage. He drove the dagger up into the man’s face, cutting through his cheek. The dwarf stabbed again, this time at the pirate’s chest, catching his blade in the heavy leather shirt, and tugging hard to free it. The pirate dropped to his knees, eyes out of focus, one hand rising to his chest, the other somehow managing to keep a firm grip on the cutlass.
The captain was squaring off against two pirates, swinging her long sword in a wide arc to keep them at bay, while she gestured with her free hand. Dalmog didn’t have time to register what spell she called forth—his own foe wasn’t ready to die. The pirate slashed at the dwarf, cursing and spitting broken teeth, a string of blood hanging to the deck. The blade cut into the dwarf’s canvas pants, but Dalmog was quick and pivoted to the side, avoiding any real injury.
“No more time to waste on you,” Dalmog said as he slid around to the wounded pirate’s side and plunged his dagger into the man’s neck. Then he leaped toward a tentacle mere inches away, which no longer appeared ghostlike. The tentacles were all black like coal now, his sailors able to see them, and he suspected the captain’s spell had defeated whatever enchantment had rendered the tentacles invisible.
The tentacles weren’t from some sea beast, as Dalmog had expected. They were magical fabrications that stuck out of the deck and sprouted from the mast. And they were selective in who they targeted, avoiding the pirates and going straight for the Seekers’ crewmen. Outnumbered and outmagicked, Dalmog knew they were going to lose.
An image flashed in the back of his mind of his father. “You’re making a grave mistake, Dalmog Whitehammer, leaving home for the sea.”
It was going to be a watery one.
Fear clawed at Dalmog’s belly, stealing his concentration and preventing him from retrieving any more magi that he’d stored in Shedd. The fear stole his self-respect and threatened to turn his bones to jelly and eviscerate his soul. He barely registered that his knees were shaking.
Something pinched him, then pinched him harder—Shedd forcing him to react. The fear continued to tamp down the magic, but the crab’s painful prodding got the dwarf’s arm to move, swinging the dagger at an offending tentacle, stabbing at it over and over mindlessly until it dissolved.
The sound of combat grew, the swords clanging louder, the shouts fiercer, and the screams of the dying tightening Dalmog’s jaw. Somehow, the dwarf gained some resolve and put his back to the capstan, caught his breath, and fought against the terror that rooted him to the spot.
Once more Shedd pinched him, this time so hard he cried out. Do something? You want me to do something? It was as if in that instant the crab shoved a spell at Dalmog, the dwarf’s most powerful and risky enchantment. He concentrated, and lightning speared outward from a spot in front of his face, arcing and skittering, striking a half-dozen pirates, and inadvertently one of his own men, before flashing into nothingness.
The captain was casting too, and Dalmog realized how far above him in resourcefulness she was. The captain aimed her magic at the enemy ship, rather than at the men. A ball of flame burst on the enemy ship’s deck and flared out from the mainmast, roiling red and yellow, billowing black smoke following it. That one spell changed the course of the battle.
“Retreat!” The word was repeated. The voice boomed like thunder, coming from a giant of a man the dwarf hadn’t seen until the fire lit up the night. He was more than seven feet tall, with broad shoulders that threatened the seams of his shirt. Dark skin and spiky black hair, tall smooth forehead, and eyes deep set in their sockets. An ogre or some kin to it, Dalmog guessed. Ugly and strong looking, and apparently able to command magic.
The ogre swung about. He was backlit by the fire, looking as solid as a chunk of granite. The giant gestured and the sea swirled up to form a spout that twirled without a wind to give it substance. Crystalline in the glow of the flames, it looked like blown glass, and it dashed itself against the fiery deck, cutting the size of the blaze in half.
“Retreat!” the giant hollered again. “Belva, I’ll see you yet to the Abyss!”
That seemed to galvanize the Seekers’ crew, and they carved up the last of the tentacles and the pirates that had stayed a moment too long.
The giant called up another waterspout, this one smaller, but it whipped faster and worked against the rest of the blaze. Pirates scurried across the deck, cutting the ropes that had tied the vessels together. Just as the big man vaulted over the side to return to his own ship, Captain Atterton loosed another ball of fire, this one aimed at the enemy ship’s bow.
The giant shook his fist in an exaggerated gesture and shouted something that was lost in the crackle of flames, the snap of sails, and the shouts of men.
After Seekers sailed away from the smoking, listing ship, Dalmog slumped against a coil of rope within spitting distance of the main mast. Shedd edged out cautiously, and then scuttled down to perch on his right knee. Captain Atterton joined them a few moments later, letting out a deep hissing breath as she sat cross-legged, elbows on her knees, chin in her cupped hands. Around them the crew searched the bodies of the dead pirates for anything of value, tugging off boots and belts and tossing the gains in a pile. The bodies were dropped over the rails.
“Didn’t see them coming, I take it,” Dalmog said.
“Half-ogre was a warlock, cloaked the ship with night. Didn’t see anything until we scraped sides with that monster.”Atterton scowled. “Midwyn raiders, most of them…at least the dead ones were all Midwyn.”
She patted him on the shoulder. “We lost some good men.” She paused. “But not all that many. We can make do.”
Belva Rough-Dog Atterton was of hardy Faedian stock. Well into middle age, the Wild flowed through her. She had honey-brown skin and hair the shade of drying wheat. Dalmog guessed she must have been pretty in her youth, before the sea and the wind and the years got a firm hold on her, toughening and wrinkling her hide and washing some of the blue out of her eyes. She wasn’t exactly unattractive now, but she had a hardness to her, and her face never wore a soft expression. Like the dwarf, she was a self-imposed outcast from her people, and her witchly calling was wrapped in the sea—though in the moon, tides, and wind. She could not breathe water like Dalmog, and her familiar was not fond of the waves, staying in the crow’s nest unless bidden down by his mistress; he was a northern saw-whet owl, with a small gray body and a seemingly too-large head. He was in the nest now, head swiveling and feathers ruffling in the wind.
Dalmog had found Captain Atterton by accident—or perhaps destiny—two years ago when he was searching for passage to…somewhere.
“Somewhere else,” he’d told her at the time. “Anywhere else. Anywhere on the water.”
She took him on, and soon he graduated from scrubbing the deck to being bosun’s mate when she realized his witching ways, then to second mate. She’d spent very little time around dwarves, and so did not know Dalmog was only at the far edge of childhood. He suspected all she really knew was that he had an affinity for the sea, had a reasonable command of the arcane, and she could trust him. Three months past she promoted him to first mate when his predecessor and four other crewmen fell to a particularly vile bout of scurvy. In port to take on new men—and as many oranges as they could purchase—Atterton had come by a map.
Dalmog had known better than to ask how she’d gotten it. Or, rather, he hadn’t wanted to know.
“Think they were after the map?” Dalmog risked.
“Aye, though I’m perplexed as to how they knew I had it.”
“Maybe the one you got it from told—”
“She could tell nothing to anyone, that soul.”
Dalmog shivered. “The warlock, that half-ogre, do you—”
“Know him? Because you heard him shout my name?” She shook her head. “No. Know of him? Aye. By the Blind God’s milky eyes, I know of him. Ain’t no captain plying the waters for as long as I have that doesn’t know of him. But he’d not been heard of anywhere along this coast in the past ten or twelve years.”
Dalmog opened his mouth, but she answered his question before he had a chance to voice it.
“Scarn Groguno,” Atterton said. “The warlock’s name is Scarn Groguno, or The Scarn, as some call him. Don’t know where he’s been. Thought maybe he was dead, victim to some dragon or something. Hoped he was dead. Scourge he was and apparently is again. And after my map.”
Our map, Dalmog thought. “Is he powerful enough—”
She laughed, akin to the magical cackle she was capable of voicing that could bring men to their knees writhing in pain. “Oh, you could tell he was quite powerful, but there was only one warlock on that ship, no witches or other casters. I would’ve sensed that. And if he’d had them, more spells would have been flying and ours would have been the ship heading toward the bottom of the Sea of Wyrms. Thank the Blind God my fire took him out. No, it was just himself, and powerful as he is, he’d need three to get the treasure at the end of my map.”
Our map, Dalmog thought again. “We don’t have three either, Belva. Just the two of us.”
The cackle was softer this time.
“At first light we’ll be sailing to the chain of islands off the Roaming Plains.”
“But I thought we were following the map, going to—”
“The island is on the way, and it’s where we’ll get our third.”
“Why didn’t you say something—”
“—earlier? Dalmog, our third won’t be sitting well with the crew. Best they don’t know about it until the last moment. I’m good at keeping the necessary things from them, you know. I searched for this map nigh unto a half-dozen years before I could make it mine. Not one of them knew what I was really after in the ports.”
“But why didn’t you tell—”
“I couldn’t tell them, Dalmog. I couldn’t risk word of my search spreading along the wharves. I couldn’t risk telling you about the map either until a few days past.” She smiled. “Now, let’s go take another look at my map. By the eyes of the Blind God, I feel old, my friend. So old. The years are like a pirate, you know, slipping up behind you, quiet with high tide, worming their way under your skin and into your bones, capturing your youth and discarding it like a broken rudder.” She laughed. “But I’m not so old as to give up this quest, and not as old as the one who’ll help us get the treasure at the end of it. But first, a study of my map, eh?”
Our map, Dalmog almost said aloud.
Dalmog lowered a wooden bucket over the side, let it fill with seawater and then tugged it back up. Shedd plopped into the bucket.
“All right, Cap’n, now I’ll join you for another look at the map.” Dalmog carried the bucket with him.
# # #
Something about Atterton bothered Dalmog, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. In the light of the lantern on the table in her cabin, her eyes looked bright like sunlight streaming down on a cloudless morning—an odd look given the battle they’d been through and the men she’d lost. Maybe he was just reading excitement in them, adrenalin that hadn’t worn off, but he knew that Atterton was as close to being a pirate as one could drift without crossing that line of going after another captain’s ship. He’d seen her lie to merchants and buyers on the docks, her gaze never wavering to reveal her deceit, and rarely did she blink; the woman might as well have been born with lidless eyes.
She called herself an opportunist, not a pirate or privateer, and Dalmog continued to follow her unflinchingly. But the attack on the ship tonight…that was unsettling. They’d run into sea beasts before, had scuffles in taverns with local toughs, brawls among the crew. But in the two years he’d sailed with her, no other ship had come after them…and certainly not one with a warlock.
Atterton had been talking to him, but he’d been lost in thought and missed some of what she’d said. She stabbed her finger at a spot on the map. It looked like an ink smudge, and could well have been that. The parchment seemed ancient, resembling the thin skin of some old pale soul.
“Ain’t you listening? I asked you, Dalmog, if you know much about the invasion of the Witch Lords.”
“No. Sorry.” History had never been a strong suit, and Dalmog had never attended a school.
Her diminutive owl was perched on a high shelf, head swiveling and beak grinding. Dalmog couldn’t discern its pupils, its eyes pools of gloss black. Atterton gestured toward it, tugging a spell from its mind. The owl quieted and closed its eyes.
Above the map an image appeared, looking like smoke curling up from the bowl of an invisible pipe, darkening and taking on the form of something like a man. Details came into focus and smaller men morphed from the smoke, these looking like the trunks of trees blackened by a fire. If there was a scale to the vision, the large form of something like a man would have been the equivalent of a dozen feet tall. The creature had a human-like visage, but the eyes appeared over-large, reminding Dalmog of Atterton’s owl. There were no eyebrows or facial hair, though the figure had a lion’s man sprouting from the top of his head and cascading down to his hips. The shoulders were broad, the arms muscular, the waist and hips disproportionately narrow, the legs seeming too long. In place of feet were talons. The man smiled, revealing fangs.
Shivers raced down Dalmog’s frame.
“Sallous Yar,” Atterton said, “a fallen god who commanded a band of necromancers calling themselves Witch Lords. They slaughtered men and kav and marched beyond the Wild Vode in search of the great treasures of the mystic colony of Monvas.”
Dalmog was riveted by the image. An army spiraled up around the fallen god, and Atterton’s cabin disappeared and the dwarf and captain stood on a hillock overlooking the grim tableau. The Witch Lords fell on town after town, beheading helpless men and women, slaying children, picking through homes and taking only a few things…as if the people died for nothing.
“Legend says Monvas’ refugees escaped to a fishing town, where they hid their treasures in a warehouse, taking pieces of it out from time to time—always in the dark when the town slept—and carrying it across land to some unknown destination.”
The battle scenes changed, as did some of the combatants. An orc necromancer followed what Atterton called the Path of Faith and assaulted SpirosBlaak. Centuries passed in mere moments wherein forces of pirates, orcs, and renegade kav scrabbled for land and wealth amid a prolonged siege.
Blood flowed in streams across the ground and fallen men withered to husks, their bones carried away by scavenging animals. Dalmog felt sick to his stomach as the images continued to fight and die in an illusion so real he could smell the rotting bodies and the sweaty stench of the living who’d gone a long while without washing, the dirt so thick on their skin they looked black.
The Witch Lords and necromancers put on an amazing display of magic that brought bright colors to the grim setting. Gouts of fire and lightning rained down at the flick of an orc’s wrist. The one Atterton had called Sallous Yar caused a mountain to turn into a volcano and explode.
Dalmog’s throat was desert dry and his tongue was swollen. The acrid, sulfurous air burned its way into his lungs. He gasped and clawed at his chest…and then the image was gone and his vision was filled with the map, and across from him Captain Atterton. Her eyes still held the excitement that rattled him.
“Why did you show me that?” Dalmog’s voice cracked as he asked it. “That was horrid.”
“That was history,” she countered.
“And what does it have to do with your map?” Dalmog’s fingers twirled on the surface of the water in the bucket, his mind touching Shedd’s and pulling out the simplest of spells, one that filled his mouth with cool, sweet water. He swallowed quickly. “What does any of that…awfulness…have to do with that map?”
“That unknown destination, that place where the treasure of the Monvas was hauled overland—” Dalmog saw himself mirrored in her eyes.
He blinked and Atterton’s gaze had returned to normal, the excitement subdued and the lines around her eyes and at the corners of her lips more pronounced. She pointed to a spot on the map high in the Crypt Hills overlooking the Lake of Dreams near where the Fire River branched. “The map shows us where at least some of that treasure was taken, the most important bits. And I aim to get it. That Monvas wealth? There were said to be witching things in it, objects of great power to make hexes effortless, to let witches pull spells from the very air, from their own thoughts, no longer requiring the use of a familiar. It’s what the Witch Lords wanted, those relics. Pity for them the treasures remained undiscovered. Fortunate for us.”
She steepled her fingers under her chin. “That certainly has to appeal to you, Dalmog. You’d no longer have to lug a bucket of water around when you went into town. You’d not be shackled to a crab.”
Dalmog felt a prickling on the back of his neck. Shedd didn’t like what he was hearing. “I am happy with my familiar, Captain Atterton. Shedd is like a—” There was only the slightest of pauses. “—brother.” He missed his twin brother, wondered if he was crafting some fine piece of furniture without worry of nightmares filled with orc necromancers and fallen gods and burning cities. “But I have to admit that treasure in general is appealing, and if there’s something magical that I could—”
“Of course I will share the gains with you, and if there’s gold to be had, that will be spread among the crew. Gold and gems will buy an even greater sense of loyalty. And some will go to Lilamanti, something magical but not too powerful, something dark perhaps, too dark for me and you.”
“I told you we would need three witches, a coven. Our magic magnified we can breach the barrier that has hidden the Monvas’ riches for long centuries.”
“Is someone I’ve worked with a dozen years before, and—”
“A dozen years is quite a while. Are you sure Lilamanti is still alive? What if he’s moved.”
“She,” Atterton said. “I’m sure she’s still alive, and I know right where to find her. We’ll reach Lilamanti’s cave by sundown on the morrow.” She stood and curled the map, gingerly easing it into a long leather tube. “It is only a matter of my being persuasive enough to coax her along.”
Dalmog retreated to his bunk, carrying the bucket with him. He slept with his hand dangling over the side, fingers brushing Shedd’s shell. His dreams were filled with rivulets of blood and a fallen god with talons who was wearing the face of the half-ogre warlock who’d tried to take Seekers.
# # #
Lilamanti was the most beautiful woman Dalmog had ever seen. She was young, her skin flawless and the color of sweet cream, her hair so pale that at first glance it appeared white. As he stared longer, he realized it was instead a fair blonde so smooth and silky looking that he wanted to touch it. Still, he minded his manners and stayed at Captain Atterton’s side. The cook’s assistant, Reynard, was behind them holding a basket of oranges and smoked fish. Dalmog wondered if that was to be the enticement to get the maid Lilamanti to come along.
The three of them—plus Shedd in a bucket, and the owl flying overhead—had taken a longboat to the shore, beaching it on the rocks and traveling overland for half a mile before coming to a stone cottage set into the side of a cliff. Lilamanti was sitting out front on a raised slab of slate like she’d been expecting them, long pink dress swirling around her ankles, bare feet as perfect as the rest of her.
Dalmog had never wished to be anything other than a dwarf…save for this moment. If he were a human lad, or even an elf, he’d bend a knee, kiss her hand, and do whatever was in the realm of possibility or impossibility to charm her. He took his eyes off her only for a moment, and this to regard a gray cat the shade of early morning fog that sat in the cottage’s doorway.
The cat must be her familiar, he thought, and so Lilamanti was indeed a witch…a lovely one who smelled of hyacinths and whose eyes sparkled like silver coins floating on the sea. His breath caught in his throat and his heart pounded so loudly, he couldn’t hear the exchange going on between the beauty and Captain Atterton.
Reynard stepped around the dwarf and set the basket of fruit and fish at Lilamanti’s feet. Dalmog had to step to the side so his view of the woman wasn’t blocked. The dwarf felt a tingling at the back of his neck. Shedd, sloshing in the bucket, was trying to get his attention.
What? Dalmog thought. What do you—
Apparently Shedd wanted Dalmog to listen to the women.
“—I’ll not argue the point,” Atterton said. Her face was drawn forward in ire, looking pinched. “I know the map is authentic. Damn well know. It cost enough. I had it verified. The map had been lost amid the effects of an old librarian, recovered by his children, and sold because they had no clue what they possessed. I bought it along with a great many useless scraps of paper to cover up what I really was after. And I killed the sellers and the man who authenticated it so the trail would end there.”
Dalmog had suspected Atterton had done that, killed someone over the map, but to hear her say it aloud was unsettling. He’d never looked at his captain as a villainous sort, just an opportunistic one. And apparently a callous one as well. Perhaps he should have paid closer attention to her, and perhaps he ought to look for a new ship…after the treasure was obtained and he had his share.
“Show me this map.” Lilamanti’s words were honey, and Dalmog hung on each syllable. “I wish to see where we are going, this little coven of ours.”
“It’s in my cabin, and I will lend to you my cabin until our journey is complete.”
Dalmog had never known Atterton to surrender her cabin—or to share it—with anyone.
“And I get out of this what?” The honeyed words had an edge to them now, and the sparkling eyes seemed darker and more intense.
“An equal share.”
“Of course, the arcane relics divided between the three of us, the gold to my crew.”
“Some of the gold,” Lilamanti countered.
“Yes, some of the gold to my crew.”
Reynard stepped back so he could look at both Atterton and Lilamanti. “Captain, I don’t know about this. I thought—”
Atterton waved away his question. “This treasure we seek is beyond value, Lilamanti. The witching relics will raise the level of our power. To not need familiars, to—”
The fog-gray cat arched its back and hissed.
Dalmog felt the palms of his hands itch.
“—to cackle strong enough to sink a ship or topple a building.”
The itch grew stronger, Shedd asking him to leave.
“But what do I get out of this now? Right now?” Lilamanti asked Atterton. The woman stood; her garment so thin it revealed her curves. “I understand that you need me, that it will take a coven. Who is the third? You and I and—”
Atterton pointed to Dalmog, and Lilamanti’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “A dwarf? And so young?”
“Our maiden,” Atterton whispered. “And the witching is strong in his short frame.”
“A dwarf maiden …to your matron and my crone. You tickle me with this notion.” When Lilamanti laughed it sounded like crystal wind chimes tossed by the breeze. “Again I ask you, what do I get right now? Oranges and fish?”
Atterton gestured to Reynard. “Him,” she answered. “And two more men after we reach our goal. Well, reach as far as my ship can travel. I can spare no more than that. I lost men a night past to pirates. I need enough crew to man the Seekers. But Reynard is yours now. Two more later.”
Reynard’s mouth dropped open and he mouthed something Dalmog couldn’t catch. The dwarf heard the scream plainly enough, however, when Lilamanti let her gown fall to the ground, and the skin she’d been wearing with it.
Her silvery silken hair became a tangle of ugly steel-gray knots that spilled over her bony shoulders. Lilamanti’s face collapsed until it was gaunt, the skin looking painfully stretched over sharp-angled bones, the eyes deepening in sockets and glowing like hot coals. The milky complexion turned a sickly green, and everywhere warts and boils sprouted and oozed. The scent of hyacinths retreated, and in its place Dalmog smelled the fetidness of a swamp in high summer. He fought to keep from retching. He’d met other witches in ports along the coast; not one of them evil, more bent on nurturing nature and selling herbs and cures. But this one, this one was evil…and that Atterton had sought her out, had known her from before, dimmed his opinion of his captain.
Lilamanti’s clawed hand shot out like lightning and grabbed Reynard by the arm, tugging him close and then pulling him inside the cottage, the fog-gray cat slipping into the shadows with them. Dalmog lost his inner battle when Reynard’s scream grew thin and he heard the sound of bones snapping and something wet splattering. The dwarf turned away and emptied the contents of his stomach, all the while feeling the itching warning from Shedd and wondering if he left now would he be caught and handed over to the hag.
He straightened himself and picked up Shedd’s bucket just as Lilamanti, wearing her beautiful human guise and a commoner’s set of trousers and shirt, came back out of the cottage, the cat trailing behind her.
She wiped a trace of blood from her lips. “It has been some while since I’ve been on a treasure hunt.” Her honeyed voice had returned. “Let us be about it, Belva.”
# # #
Dalmog felt his arcane energies grow when he stood near the hag and Atterton. It was as if little bolts of lightning danced within his muscles. He was certain that if he dipped inside Shedd’s childlike mind, whatever spell he tugged out to release would be three times its normal efficacy. He’d heard whispers of the power of covens, and in a quiet moment after they’d left the hag’s island, Atterton had told him it was not necessary to have one of Lilamanti’s ilk in such a triad. But Atterton said she knew Lilamanti’s strengths and capabilities, and for that she could endure the stench.
Dalmog busied himself with every task on the ship that would keep him away from Atterton and Lilamanti. But he watched them, and when he dared, he left Shedd and his bucket in the hold or the galley to spy on them. He learned only a little about the hag, but that knowledge sat heavily in his stomach. On deck she wore the guise of a beautiful woman, and she fluttered between the crewmen, touching their hands and faces; he wondered if she was selecting the two she would feast on later.
He shivered at that notion, and wondered if she would feast on him when this was all over, and the treasure—if it indeed existed—was recovered.
Her familiar never left her side, save to rub itself against the ankles of some of the men.
When she was alone, she let the pretty skin drop in favor of her green warty hide.
Dalmog’s neck constantly itched, and no amount of scratching alleviated it. Shedd was voicing his displeasure over the situation in the only way the crab could.
It could be worth it, Dalmog told his familiar. If the relics of Monvas are true and not the insubstantial stuff of misty legends, we will be more potent, the magic will come easier and stronger. Life will be better.
The itching only intensified.
# # #
They sailed Seekers into the far western tail of the Fire River. An ancient water with switchbacks and a strong but slow current, the river was warm enough to boil fish at its northern reaches, but cooled where it passed by the Crypt Hills and divided into three branches that on a map looked like bird talons.
The crew collectively held its breath as they entered a branch. Seekers had a shallow draft and a flat bottom, and so Atterton displayed no worry. The crew was concerned nonetheless, and Dalmog suspected it had something to do with a destination she’d only spoke in generalities of—and because Reynard hadn’t returned from Lilamanti’s island, with no explanation offered for his absence.
“Six of you,” she told the men as she stood on a crate by the capstan, owl perched on her shoulder. “I need six of you to accompany the fair lady Lilamanti, my first mate, Dalmog Whitehammer, and me. We’re heading into the Crypt Hills, and we’re coming back with gold.”
Dalmog picked through the murmurs. Some of them men were excited. Others were skeptical; they’d thought the captain had been acting odd the past few days. A few voiced their fears of undead—it was called the Crypt Hills, after all. One, however, jumped at the chance, the bosun’s mate, Hinri, who had ogled Lilamanti at every opportunity. Four more eventually raised their hands, and the sixth was selected by Atterton. That left five to man Seekers, which was not enough of a crew to sail her. Crafty, Dalmog thought. She’d be returning with two less men when Lilamanti had her fill. There would be just enough remaining to handle the three-master when it again pulled out to sea.
Dalmog suspected Hinri would not be returning to the ship.
But what of himself? He gripped the handle of the bucket tightly and ignored Shedd’s nervous warning. Captain Atterton likes us, he told the crab. She’ll give us a fair share of the witching treasure. This could all be worth it. Life will be better.
# # #
Hinri walked at Lilamanti’s shoulder and carried her cat. The rest of the men had the presence of mind to be wary, one hand on their cutlass, the other usually shielding their eyes from the sun. Sunlight reflecting on water did not seem as intense as this. It bounced off the barren hills and made crystals in the rock gleam like fiery embers.
Be glad you’re in the bucket, Dalmog told Shedd. You wouldn’t like the light or the heat. The dwarf didn’t think it should be so warm here, quite a ways inland. But there was no breeze, and so the sun baked his skin and made his clothes wet with sweat. Several times he called an effortless spell from Shedd’s mind, causing water to gush down on his head and into his open mouth. He did the same for the others, save Hinri, who declined because he didn’t think Lilamanti’s cat would like it.
Judging by how Lilamanti smiled at Hinri, Dalmog was doubly certain that the crewman would not be among those returning to the ship.
Lilamanti had cast some enchantment that caused a game trail to form in front of them.
“This will lead us to the spot on the map,” she said in her honeyed voice. So softly Dalmog had to strain to hear her, she said to Atterton, “And if this map and rumored treasure are false, I will eat all of them.”
“Why’n’t we travel after the sun goes down?” one of the crew asked.
Lilamanti’s smile was chilling. “You won’t like what comes up when the sun goes down. But you’ll find that out. We’ll not reach our destination in one day.”
Hours later, as the sun dropped, Dalmog was thankful Atterton and Lilamanti decided to rest. His blistered feet ached. He missed the scent of the sea air and the cries of gulls, the sloshing of water against the hull.
Things will be better, he reminded Shedd. We’ll be back to the sea soon. He doubted the crab had faith in his words.
Atterton selected the flattest patch of ground available and with her heel dug a circle and bade her men sit within it. “Come, Dalmog, sit with me and Lilamanti outside. Bring Ya’idsheddim Reddshell with you.”
The dwarf realized that while he’d shared the name of his familiar with her the very first day in her company, she’d never shared the name of the owl. The bird perched on her shoulder, eyes wide and head swiveling so far around he imagined it must hurt.
Dalmog shuddered when Lilamanti sat between himself and Atterton, the gray cat peering intently at the surface of water in the bucket. The hag put her hand on the dwarf’s knee, and he clamped his teeth together. Her touch was warm, and he suddenly felt boneless and unable to move. At the same time, he also felt giddy and alert, like every nerve in his body was on edge, waiting. He swore he could hear his heart, and then he could hear the hag’s, and Atterton’s. After a moment, each beat in the same rhythm.
“Feel the power of a coven, young dwarf?” Lilamanti hissed. “It is like nothing else, and like everything all at once. Like liquor to a soul enraptured by alcohol, warming your throat and belly and making you invincible.” She said other things, but Dalmog let them flow to the background, concentrating instead on the pulsing surge of arcane energy. Her analogy was appropriate; he was getting drunk on it.
Things are getting better, he told Shedd.
The first undead came well before midnight, rising up like corn sprouting from the earth, bones with mist wrapped around them, tatters of flesh hanging here and there like sails shredded by time and wind. They had no eyes, just bright white pinpricks of light shining out of their skull sockets. Their jaws clacked as they edged forward, and the crewmen in the circle roused and chattered in fright.
Dalmog felt his heart beating faster, Lilamanti’s and Atterton’s in time with it, felt his fingers growing scalding hot, then rising as he copied the gestures of the other witches. Miniature flickers of blue lightning skittered out and struck the ground at the undeads’ feet, repelling them. Lilamanti threw back her head and cackled—the sound jarring and causing the skeletons’ bones to crack, and then crumble.
It went like that for hours, Dalmog not knowing what he was casting, only that Shedd was helping him, and that working in concert with the hag and Atterton he was able to do amazing feats of magic.
Shortly before dawn, the undead waves ceased, and he fell into a dreamless slumber, hand inside the bucket, fingers touching Shedd. The dwarf had promised the crab that the cat would not get him.
When he woke, Hinri was nowhere to be seen, and the hag—in her beautiful human guise—wiped a fleck of blood off her lips.
Again, they followed the magical game trail…which led into the side of a hill that cast a shadow on the Lake of Dreams.
# # #
“Magic sealed it up,” Atterton said.
“And centuries,” Lilamanti observed. She touched the stone and pressed her ear to it, as if she was trying to listen to the very rock.
“Your map, Cap’n,” one of the crewmen risked. He’d been the only one to question Hinri’s disappearance. “I don’t believe it to be true. I think someone took good coin from you to send us all on a wild chase across undead territory. There ain’t no cave, Cap’n. I think we ought—”
Atterton’s scowl silenced him. “What do you think?” she asked the hag. “Do you think this is a dead end?”
“No. I think your map might be true enough,” Lilamanti returned. “There is a hollowness behind this, and not something quite natural. Magic sealed it up, as you said. And time, both of which our little triad can sunder.”
“Then let’s be about it,” Dalmog suggested, surprising himself for talking to the hag. “Let’s find a way in before it gets dark. Those undead…I’d like not to—”
The hag beckoned him with a finger, and Dalmog shuffled forward, grip tight on the bucket handle, and feeling his strength grow when Atterton joined them and their hearts beat in time once more.
“Crone, matron, and maiden,” Lilamanti hushed. “An unlikely coven we are.”
The hag had earth magic about her, which the dwarf suspected was the main reason Atterton had wanted her involved. Linked to her, he sensed the hardness of the stone and marveled as his senses traveled through it, feeling its grains and imagining the forces that had pressed down upon it and caused all the interesting striations. Then he felt the energy blossom in his chest and jitter down his arms and into his fingers, which were sliding over the rock face, slick with water he hadn’t realized he’d called up.
“Get back,” Atterton said to her men. To Dalmog: “Do you see, dwarf, why a coven was needed? First against the undead, and now here? To get beyond this stone takes the power of three.” Louder: “Get back, I say!”
Dalmog heard the five men back up, their feet crunching over small rocks as they whispered their concerns and curiosities. He tried to pick out what the eldest was saying, a salt of a dog he admired. But the words were suddenly lost in a great cracking sound. The ground shook and he was pitched backward, rocks cascading in all directions, miraculously not striking himself or Shedd’s bucket. Dust filled the air, coating him, and he couldn’t help but take it into his mouth and lungs even after curling on his side and covering his face. After the temblor subsided, a simple spell gushed water into his mouth to clean it out and refresh him. Another gesture and Shedd’s water was clear.
It will be better soon, he told the crab.
The crewmen were gasping and gesturing at an opening in the rock that looked like the maw of some beast, jagged pieces of stone protruding up and hanging down to give the illusion of teeth. One tentatively stepped forward and then another—this a man who’d brought a lantern on the trip. He fumbled to light it, holding it up and seeing walls that were smooth and covered with runes etched into the rock and filled with copper and silver. He whistled lowly and reached for a dagger with his free hand.
“Leave the silver in place,” Atterton commanded. “Those are spell wards, meant to protect this place. If you take the precious metal, you’ll take down the ward, then—”
“—the undead will be able to enter,” Dalmog said. Softer: “Cap’n, are we able to enter?”
“In a moment,” she said.
Atterton knew protective magic, and had once offered to teach a spell or two to Dalmog; the dwarf wished now that he’d been interested. At sea, she used the spells to keep the hull strong and the sails intact in the fiercest of storms. Here, he could tell she was using some variation of a protection hex to nullify whatever the ancient wards did against intruders.
The five crewmen followed the witches into a tunnel. Lilamanti created a glowing orb of light that floated along the ceiling ahead of her, and the man with the now-unnecessary lantern set it down inside the entrance.
The runes continued for a quarter of a mile, the tunnel sloping down. A stream came from a crack in the rock wall and coursed along the tunnel, down into a pool in a large chamber. At a gesture the light moved to hover over the pool, reflecting on the surface, brightening the chamber. Artificially fashioned, the chamber was ovoid, the wall and ceiling smooth pink stone shot through with veins of black and scintillating crystals. Dalmog marveled at the polished granite while Atterton, Lilamanti, and the five crewmen marveled at the heap of treasure on the far side of the pool.
Stone dust covered all of it, but the hag’s light caused gems and gold to sparkle. As the crewmen started toward it, Lilamanti dropped her disguise, teeth barred and eyes wide with anger.
“Back, you toads!” she spat. “Back or I’ll gut you all before you can touch a single piece!” The cat raised its back and hissed, and seemed twice the size it had earlier. Even Dalmog stepped back, wrapping his arms protectively around the bucket held in front of him.
“Not you, fool,” Lilamanti told the dwarf. “You, I still need.” She gestured him forward as she stepped around the pool and toward the treasure. Behind them, three of the crewmen disappeared into the darkened tunnel, their feet slapping against the stone floor, obviously more willing to face the darkness and undead than the hag. Two men remained, although they looked nervous enough that they might bolt at any moment.
“Over here,” Lilamanti ordered. “Dwarf! Here.” The hag pointed to a spot at the edge of the treasure. “Dwarf, you stand here. Belva, here.” Dalmog complied, noting that Captain Atterton was also following the other’s lead. What had started as Atterton’s venture, had turned into the hag’s. The dwarf could tell by Atterton’s expression that she knew it too and seethed at the realization.
Lilamanti stood between and slightly behind them, and the owl on Atterton’s shoulder swiveled its head to keep its eyes on the hag. “There are wards here, too. Feel them?”
Dalmog did; it was an uneasy force that radiated from the mound of riches. This close, the details came into focus—jewels and strands of pearls, ancient coins three times as thick as this day’s currency, diadems and scepters, small chests with intricate-looking locks, hammers so small they must be jeweler’s tools, a sextant made of gold, statuettes of coral and platinum, swords, daggers, urns filled with sparkling dust. The entirety was greater than any rumored dragon’s horde…and yet it was supposedly only part of the Movas treasure.
Part of the treasure, but more than enough.
The base of his scalp tingled.
Atterton said we would get a share, he reminded the crab. Even a small share would be amazing.
“Feel the warding,” the hag continued. “Together we will tamp it down, use Belva’s spell, and focus it. Concentrate. Hear me, dwarf? Concentrate.”
Dalmog directed all of his essence, channeled through Shedd, at the treasure, setting his heart in time with theirs, and feeling like he was walking at the bottom of the sea against an impossibly strong current. No doubt it had taken only minutes to knock the ward down, but it felt like days. The dwarf had never been so spent.
He sagged to his knees, careful to keep Shedd’s bucket from toppling. Sections of the treasure mound glowed faintly: the magical relics, he knew. What among them were witching things? It would take a while to examine it all. They might be here days. His stomach grumbled and a small part of him worried that the food in his pack would be gone before they were done here.
Where to begin? What should I do? Should I touch something? Could I claim something?
The crab didn’t answer. It continued to worry in its bucket and to send thoughts that made his skin prickle.
Atterton stepped forward and picked up a sword that glowed faintly with a pale orange light. The blade looked sharp and it reflected her face.
What should I do? Dalmog wondered again.
“This has been a boon partnership,” the hag said.
The itching was worse, almost painful now. Dalmog got to his feet and edged away from the treasure, darting glances back and forth between Atterton and Lilamanti. The two remaining crewmen turned and headed into the dark tunnel, feeling their way with hands outstretched to the rough walls.
That’s not a bad idea, Dalmog thought, leaving. Is that what you want, Shedd? Would that make you feel—He didn’t finish the thought. The large gray cat sprung up from the ground, claws extended, grabbing for Atterton’s owl. The cat caught the diminutive bird and pulled it down to the cavern floor before the captain could do anything.
Atterton screamed, and another scream came from the tunnel behind Dalmog—and a third—the voices of the crewmen who’d just left. Had undead managed to enter the maw? Then he heard swords clashing from that direction, heard Atterton bellow at the hag in front of him, heard the cat snarl as it shredded the owl, taking most of the captain’s magic in that instant. Above all of that was Lilamanti’s hideous cackle.
Dalmog held his bucket and dove into the pool, praying it was deep and being rewarded as he went down, down, down, at least three fathoms. He wrapped his legs around a rock at the bottom and Shedd clambered out of the bucket and perched on his knee. The hex to let him breathe water came effortlessly from the crab’s mind.
The water was pure and cool and hit the spot in Dalmog’s soul that made him feel finer than any amount of alcohol could. He inhaled it, held it, released it, and pulled it in again. Then he finally looked up and saw lights flashing across the surface of the pool…spells being cast in the chamber above him.
He prayed to the Blind God that the witches would occupy themselves with their battle and treasure and would leave him and Shedd alone.
# # #
The dwarf stayed under until he believed he might die of starvation. Days, he was certain he’d spent, three or maybe four. Shedd didn’t suffer from an empty stomach. The crab found insects and other small things in the water, but they held no real sustenance for Dalmog.
When he was so weak from hunger that it ached to move, he released his hold on the rock and pushed off the bottom, dropping the spell that let him breathe water and gulping instead the fusty air of the chamber above.
It smelled of death. He saw Atterton’s body, gutted, next to a clump of feathers that had been her owl. Her pack was intact, and he held his nose while he pulled it away from her corpse and devoured the dried fish she’d brought with her. It wasn’t enough to satisfy him, but it gave him a little strength. There was no sign of Lilamanti, and there was scant treasure left.
Nearby were the remains of the Seekers’ sailors—and two pirates and the half-ogre Scarn Groguno. Apparently the warlock had followed them somehow, but had been no match for a hag using the treasure of the Monvas. The hag was too powerful for any of them.
The dwarf stuffed strands of pearls and a handful of ancient coins into his pockets, put on two gold necklaces that must have been beneath her notice, and slipped a sapphire ring onto his little finger. He found small gems in cracks in the rocks, diamonds, rubies, all too inconsequential to the hag…though a serious fortune for one dwarf.
Dalmog knew it would take him a long while to find his way home, as he couldn’t go back through the Crypt Hills. He’d skirt the Lake of Dreams and find some riverboat to book passage on. He certainly could pay his way…probably buy the riverboat if he wanted.
But what he really wanted was to go home, if only for a brief stay. And then after a visit with the elder Whitehammer, he and Shedd would return to the blessed, glittering sea.
Things will be better, he promised the crab.