Kalmar Travels the Solar Sea

Brother Kalmar was in the somewhat bizarre situation of trying to nurse his fear and unease. He found this very difficult because the truth was that the journey had been exceedingly relaxing since he’d left Eloytia, and if truth be told for some time before. Once or twice, strolling from one village to another, eating in local taverns and making idle chatter with other travellers, he’d found himself wondering whether his nebulous mission had been brought on by Eald Halomar’s imagination and not the all-consuming terror that he had felt in that terrible march back through the orchard. It had seemed much more like a pleasant rambling holiday among the shires of rural Eloytia. When he had reached the port city of Maradoya, nothing had seemed even remotely odd. He’d seen Lyda-worthy boats floating sedately up and down from the city’s port quarter, carrying travellers and commodities up to the shores of the Solar Sea far above Eloytia, where the great passenger ships and merchantmen waited at anchor. Kalmar had noted that the traffic seemed busy, but that wasn’t that surprising in a relatively thriving port town.
He’d wandered into a large, noisy tavern called the Bell and Bumpkin and ordered some mineral rock beverage whose name he couldn’t recall, and set to attempting to find passage to Eadenn. He didn’t ask anyone for that: it would have turned far too many heads. Instead he asked for passage to the bustling Realm of Camadile, which was a breadbasket Realm which had regular ships sailing all over the Solar Sea, including to Eadenn. After a few false starts he’d met a merchant captain named Namagar, who’d cheerfully agreed to add Kalmar to his passenger manifest for a fee which Kalmar was gratified was not too extortionate.
“Just glad to get some trade, son,” chuckled Namagar, who was a fairly hideous middle-aged Eloytian whose skin-crystals were rough and chipped from too many voyages through rough and dangerous Lyda currents.
“Business slow?” asked Kalmar, sipping his drink.
Namagar chuckled wearily, and then seemed to realise that Kalmar was serious.
“You really have been living in an isolated village, haven’t you? No ship’s managed to get further that the nearest outpost Realms for near six months. Lyda’s as choppy as winter. Everything’s been grounded for half a year. Parliament of Eltor keep claiming that’s not true but I know my business. They say the seers haven’t been able to contact anywhere outside our territories either. Aethyr’s all shaken up, they reckon.”
Kalmar felt the first claws of apprehension sink sinuously into him.
“Why’s that, then? Never heard of that.” He was playing the part of an innocent farmer going to visit Camadile where his cousin had a small business.
“Well,” said Namagar with a devilish grin, “they say that way back in antiquity, there were a bunch of Arakul shamans out of the darkest heart of the wildlands as could churn up the Solar Sea with their minds. Strike at helpless Realms afore they could cry out for help.”
For a moment he let the implication hang, and then roared out with laughter.
“Don’t worry son, I’m just trying to scare you. Them’s are just the stories of old sailors who’ve sailed a little close to the wildlands and claim as they’ve seen things. Besides, no sorcerer I ever heard of in real life had that power. Storm of some sort, I guess. Anyway, it’s abating now. This past week it’s been dying down. Don’t know if the seers can reach the outside yet – not as the bloody Parliament would tell us. But ships can sail again. So I’m just glad to have folks aboard.”
Kalmar had drank to that and carried on as though nothing bothered him, but he was deeply unsettled by this news. It worried him that no-one had been able to contact the outside world in so long, not just because it meant that the Arakul might very really be able to affect their abilities to communicate and defend themselves, but because it meant that he had no idea what might have happened in the last half year beyond Eloytia.
He’d spent a restless morning about the town after that, but eventually in mid-afternoon he’d made his way to Namagar’s vessel, Hayena. It wasn’t a large ship, maybe a hundred and fifty feet front bow to stern, and was small enough to ease up on the ground as opposed to being anchored on the shores of the Solar Sea above. There were a half dozen other passenger, and a company of twenty cadet soldiers. Not trained in the Eloytian way: they were recruited as professional soldiers by the Parliament of Eltor, who were tiresomely anxious about leaving the defence of the Realm to the monasteries of the way, in spite of the many centuries that that protection had proved adequate for.
These cadets weren’t much to look at, though: they were little more than boys and girls in pretty blue uniforms, unused sabres in polished scabbards, their skin crystals still burning with the flickering intensity of youth. They were assigned here for a tour of duty, presumably to toughen them to the world. Kalmar had little faith it would do much good, but didn’t say so. In fact, he tried to keep to himself, standing near the siderail of the ship and making only polite conversation with his fellow passengers.
After a few minutes of preparation the ship had cast off. Kalmar found the experience energising, as ever. The ship was a bland and undistinguished merchantman, a long oval with a slightly tapered prow. But even such a boring vessel became majestic as its Lyda sails extended, two rising above the deck on jointed masts and another two spreading like great wings on either side. Each sail was a beautifully constructed leafshape of long kamanine planks jointed together, tilting in and out with ease slight gust of Lyda. Kamanine was a mystery: hard as metal, but with the feel of crystal, and a strange way of growing like coral. Nobody knew exactly where on the Solar Sea it had originated or which race had discovered that it could channel and catch Lyda the way that canvas caught the wind on a Realm bound waterboat. Its properties made Natural philosophers and astronomers alike fly into great debate. The only universal agreement was that it was the best way to travel between the Realms of the Solar Sea. The sails of Hayena were a dark bronze colour, dyed from the natural pale jade green colour of the material, and they swept out fifty feet on either side, and those above the deck rose fifty above Kalmar’s head. He had smiled to himself as Hayena began to rise slowly, the ground gently dropping away. The sails sighed and clacked as the kamanine sought out the Lyda to give them buoyancy. Within the carpets of normal air that coated the Realms of the Solar Sea, the Lyda was more sparse.
Kalmar had watched Eloytia gently float away, and after almost an hour, he felt the strange change in the air around him which heralded the ebbing shoreline of the Solar Sea itself.
As a boy, before he had travelled between Realms, Kalmar had been told of the strange sensation of breathing Lyda. Even then, his tutors had warned him that breathing was only an approximation. The sensation of Lyda passing through the body was neither quite like breathing air or drinking water, but somewhere between these sensations. It felt very little thicker than air to the touch, but the first time of travel was a strange sensation and could even take the unwary frightfully. Kalmar always remembered with a smile his fears at his first trip away from Eloytia. He had heard of certain primitive races who were totally unable to breath Lyda, indeed totally unable to perceive its existence. When such unfortunates made it beyond their Realms they found themselves as if in an empty void. They saw only an endless blackness dotted with stars, without the gentle iridescent blue rolling of the Lyda. Worse, they would die in sudden, choking, bloody agony as all normal air was swept away by the currents of Lyda. Such races held the Solar Sea with great fear and called it awful names like ‘the space’ and ‘the void’.
As Hayena slowly pushed out into the currents of the Solar Sea, Kalmar had remembered his boyhood fears that he would somehow succumb to such a fate. And again, as the air of Eloytia fell away and he looked upon the majesty blue expanse of the Greatest Ocean he felt awe, and a pang of sympathy for those poor races cursed only to see a lethal black void.
He had relaxed and indulged a few of his shipmates with conversation as Namagar ordered the ship up into the faster currents, the fast-moving rip-currents that pull a ship along faster than could be easily understood, certainly far faster than the movement appeared in the eternal rolling of the Solar Sea. They had reached a fast current without incident, and Eloytia had instantly disappeared far behind, whipped away by the speed of the tide upon which they rode.
The journey had continued much the same way for nine days now. Every two days, Namagar would drop the ship out of the fast current and let her wander for a few hours, to ease and rest the kamanine sails. The current they travelled in was of such speed that they were halfway to Camadile already. Kalmar had expected some attack on the ship or himself, either by direct means or by something altogether more sinister. but there’d been no sign of pursuit or attack, and Kalmar had begun to believe that he had slipped through the net of whatever he had left Halomar battling, if indeed it prized his interception as a goal. If indeed it was real. He wondered if Halomar had been feverish. He had certainly not looked well.
Which was why, on the tenth day of the journey, as Hayena drifted sedately through one of the slower currents, Kalmar was actively attempting to make himself feel uneasy. he was looking down at a tiny Realm, maybe fifty miles across, covered in unsullied forests. It was a beautiful scene. His thoughts perpetually drifted towards how he was going to explain his absence upon his return, and how he should advise Halomar not to endanger his health.
If he was feverish from overwork and hallucinating, Kalmar reasoned, it would be astonishingly embarrassing for him. And he’s done too much good to be laughed at for simply being ill. Perhaps if I suggest a sabbatical for him. He can travel again. That would help him to –
“Arakul strike frigate off starboard stern!”
The words hammered into Kalmar’s hindbrain and ripped all thoughts of Halomar from his mind with only the most fleeting guilt at having doubted the Eald, for in the moment of that shouted warning – Kalmar never found out who shouted – the whole thing became irreversibly real. His gaze shot astern, where the tiny Realm was gently fading away behind, and saw the slicing dart of a vessel that was tearing away from the shadow of the Realm, which it had evidently been using as shelter. Several passengers screamed in fear, and the cadet soldiers fumbled for their weapons. Namagar snarled and wrenched a notched and battered cudgel from his belt.
“Crew to arms!” he bellowed, and glanced at his helmsman.
“You know what to do, Ganmar!” he barked.
Kalmar pulled the axe he had been carrying, feeling its reassuring weight even as his hearts began to pump faster. He forced his breathing to slow and felt a sense of tranquillity pass through him. He knew that the rush of adrenaline he felt would harden the crystals of his skin as well as any of the others around, but knew that the panic and lack of focus that restraining it would more than compensate for that paltry protection.
He closed his rear eyes, those that gave him peripheral vision, better to gauge the distance between themselves and the approaching Arakul ship. The distance was closing rapidly as the sleek enemy ship sliced through the Lyda. They had twenty seconds at most.
Kalmar studied the Arakul vessel with admiration. It was some eighty feet long, thin and sharply tapered at both ends. There were no deck-mounted sails, only great outstretched sails on either side, giving the ship the appearance of a giant black crow. All along its hull, overlaid armour plates with razor-sharp edges protected the hull whilst meaning that with the slightest collision would snag the Arakul ship onto their enemy and allow the Arakul themselves to pour across onto the deck.
There was a sudden whump and Kalmar staggered as Ganmar wrenched Hayena up into a faster current. The Arakul ship began to vanish quickly.
“They won’t catch us now. Surely!” called one of the cadets, relief evident in his voice. Namagar scowled and glared astern.
“Don’t you know anything, boy? The Arakul are wise to simple tricks like that. They make their living by knowing how to get around them, which is why they have giant burners on the stern of their ships!”
He shot out a finger as he spoke, and Kalmar saw a flash of orange flame in the distance. A moment later the Arakul ship appeared again, tearing after them barely three lengths astern, great columns of fire blasting from the innocuous looking cylinders mounted to the vehicles aft quarter. Kalmar had to admire the genius. Knowing that their enemies would attempt to jump into faster Lyda currents to escape, the Arakul had fitted the unsubtle engines to their vessels to make up distance.
“Brace!” bellowed Namagar, and Kalmar took his advice. The Arakul lanced at them with terrible speed and –
The world tilted crazily as Ganmar yanked the helm about, hurling Hayena hard to port. Kalmar lost his footing and tumbled across the deck, smashing hard against the far rail. He ignored the warring pain as he scrambled up. The Arakul ship roared past barely a foot from the port rail, the underside of its hull almost scraping the port side of the merchantman. Ganmar corrected furiously as the crew rushed back and forth, distending the Lyda sails to their full. Kalmar looked port to the Arakul frigate as it ploughed on. The burners cut out and the great crow-wings snapped about sharply, arresting the progress of the ship. With unbelievable speed the Arakul ship rolled about, coming one-hundred eighty degrees almost within a single length. Kalmar could dimly see Arakul figures moving about with calm discipline on the deck. He thought he could see an officer yelling orders. Then the ship was diving for them again.
“Brace!” bawled Namagar, and this time most of the passengers had the sense to hang on, having been rudely tossed about before. Kalmar grabbed a mast and hung on. The Arakul frigate thundered at them hard. Once again Ganmar jinked, but even as he did he rolled into a different feint, dropping the ship downwards with a sharp horizontal spin of the rudder. The Arakul wouldn’t fall for the same ploy twice. Unfortunately, they had also taken the new manoeuvre into account. There was an ear-splitting crack as the enemy vessel ploughed into the side of Hayena and Kalmar felt the ship shiver under him. He looked to the enemy ship, its port prow hooked to the starboard side of Namagar’s ship. There was a blur of movement beyond, and with a speed which almost threatened to shatter Kalmar’s inner calm, seven Arakul warriors had spilled across onto the deck of Hayena. Suddenly the ship crashed violently to the side, spilling most of the passengers from their feet. Kalmar kept his feet, as did most of the crew and all of the Arakul. However, the move had saved their lives – Ganmar had viciously wrenched the ship about, tearing it clear of the Arakul raider. Kalmar was sure that even now he was labouring to pull the embattled merchantman into a faster Lyda current and towards escape.
But he didn’t have time to look. His attention was rooted on the seven Arakul on the deck. By sheer good fortune they had landed far to the bow end, and apart from two sailors high in the sails – who had no intention of descending – they were separated from the rest of the ship’s complement by around twenty-five feet. Kalmar, Namagar and some of his crew were closest to them.
Kalmar examined the Arakul in a split second. There was something about them that was far more chilling than almost anything else he had encountered. Kalmar had fought against ranks of massed Mark-Narr before, and yet the Arakul were undeniably the more terrible. Six feet tall, with sinuous, lean bodies of pure muscle, they walked on strong legs that jointed both ways, allowing them to roll fluidly on their feet and rarely lose balance. Their hands were dextrous, with five clawed fingers in which they clutched their long, straight bladed sabres. Their heads were long and jackal like, with tall, pointed ears and long tapering snouts filled with fangs. Intelligent yellow eyes with elliptical pupils flicked and flashed about, registering and analysing everything around for tactical advance. They were covered in short fur of such dark blue as to seem black which completely covered their dark grey flesh. They wore dark brown combat fatigues, with heavy black boots and great-coats. Kalmar noted that six of them looked like line troops, whilst a seventh who seemed markedly different loitered at the back. Kalmar would think about him after the first six had been despatched. Assuming he lived that long. The six warriors had fanned out to cover the entire deck, and were advancing slowly in long, rolling bounds.
“Soldiers of Eloytia, attack!” screamed a voice behind Kalmar.
Kalmar opened his mouth to yell a denial, but it was too late. The twenty cadets flooded past him before he could grab any. The Arakul hardly seemed fazed as the twenty youths charged for them, and Kalmar knew with dread the outcome before it had even begun. The soldiers were sure that the suddenness of their attack and their superior numbers would win out. Kalmar jumped forward, thinking to at least try to save a few, but the cadets had clumsily piled in during the first moment, meaning that Kalmar couldn’t swing his axe without hitting them.
It lasted less than ten seconds. It wasn’t battle, it was butchery.
Kalmar took a step back as the nearest Arakul tossed the corpse of the last cadet aside.
“Is that it?” he snapped in a challenging, guttural voice. Kalmar didn’t rise to bate. The Arakul was looking to identify the braver elements and thus the greatest threat that remained. He stood silent, and took several deep breath as the menacing advance commenced again. Most of the passengers were crowding at the back of the ship, whimpering. Namagar and half a dozen of his crew were standing with Kalmar now, their weapons drawn, grim looks upon their faces.
Kalmar cleared his mind of all but consciousness of his own body. He flexed his muscles and shrugged his shoulders to loosen them. There were six of them. There was only one Kalmar. He prepared to fight all of them. He would not rely on Namagar and his men to fight. He studied the oncoming Arakul with a calm, detached eye, looking for weaknesses or inconsistencies. He found none of any great note. He took another deep breath.
And then he attacked. He took a step forward and swung with his axe. It was a feint, and the Arakul didn’t fall for it but rolled back out of the reach of both the axe and the fist that Kalmar sent cannoning for his gut. It barely put his enemy out of step. The Arakul rebounded and jumped for him, smashing bodily into him and knocking Kalmar sprawling. The wicked sabre punched through the air for. Kalmar rolled hard and the sword tore through the crystals of his upper right arm. He ignored the pain and flipped to his feet, blocking a scorching second swing with his axe. He reversed and bash the Arakul in the snout with the haft. Not graceful, but effective. His enemy stepped back, surprised. Kalmar ran for him, but a second Arakul was looming sharply, sabre angled to cut off Kalmar’s attack on his fellow. Kalmar almost collided with the blade, but one of Namagar’s sailors tackled the warrior. Kalmar could vaguely hear the sound of the deckhands and the Arakul fighting, but had to focus on the one he was fighting. Having recovering from the blow, the Arakul came for him fast, sabre held between them in an aggressive two-handed guard. He darted the blade for Kalmar and lashed out with his snapping jaws as he did so. Only Kalmar’s years of training saved him from both blows. He drove forward with fierce intensity, wanting to meet his enemy’s aggression. He head-butted, ramming his tarkla into the Arakul’s snout. The pain flashed but he dismissed it, as did his opponent. The Arakul’s sabre whickered again, again aimed for his strong right arm. Kalmar flipped the axe into his left desperately as he evaded, and made a clumsy swing. It was inelegant and Halomar would have winced, but it did the job. His felt the axe tear through something resistant. The blade hacked through the Arakul’s fatigues and took a great divot of flesh out of his upper leg. The pain only stunned the Arakul momentarily, but it was enough. Kalmar hammered his fist as hard as he could into the side of his enemy’s snout, snapping his head around. In the split second it took the Arakul out of the fight Kalmar brought his axe up and around. Even then the Arakul managed a block, but Kalmar’s full strength was behind the blow. He smashed the sabre aside and the axe crashed on, smashing into the side of the Arakul’s neck. He felt the collarbone shatter and a second later there was a gout of arterial blood. The Arakul collapsed. Kalmar wrenched his axe free and more by luck than skill managed to block the attack of a second Arakul. This one was bigger than the first, and before Kalmar could properly adjust his stance, the warrior’s sabre came overhead in a scorching hammer blow which knocked Kalmar to his knees. He flipped backwards to get some space, but the Arakul was surprisingly quick. The sabre darted for Kalmar’s gut. He switched the axe quickly from one hand to the other and smacked the blade aside in the process. The Arakul, committed now, dropped his sword and hurled a bone-shattering punch at Kalmar’s face. Kalmar rolled with the blow, but the strength behind the hit was astonishing, and a knee slammed into his gut a second after. He gasped for air as the Arakul retrieved his sword and stabbed. Not a killing blow, the Arakul was too canny. He just wanted to incapacitate Kalmar with a flesh wound before finishing him. Kalmar bounded aside, still fighting for air, but the sabre still managed to slash into the side of his leg. Kalmar fouht back a cry of pain and launched himself wildly up at the Arakul. While the giant had him down he had no chance. The Arakul was obviously surprised but recovered magnificently, ramming his snout into the oncoming Kalmar’s face. Determined, Kalmar brought his axe lashing around. The flat of the blade smacked into the side of the great Arakul’s head, knocking him sideways, and Kalmar took the opening, taking the haft two-handed and ramming it head-first into the colossal warrior’s face. The head smacked into the brute’s jaw and Kalmar heard teeth crack. The blow should have knocked the Arakul out cold, but unbelievably he remained upright. Kalmar made for another swing, but the giant Arakul grabbed the haft of the axe in midair. He spat a few bloody teeth and wrenched the axe free of Kalmar’s hand and tossed it aside.
“Weakling,” he snarled through a bloodied maw, and dived at Kalmar. Kalmar attempted to jink but the Arakul was too quick. The weight was like being hit by a charging bull and Kalmar was once again slammed to the deck. The Arakul raised a fist like a siege engine. Kalmar reached right quickly, hoping his memory of the deck was correct. His hand closed upon the fallen sabre of his previous opponent. He yanked the weapon around as the Arakul’s fist descended, and felt the visceral bang as the sabre ripped through his monstrous enemy’s ribs. The fist hammered into his face, and a moment later the Arakul collapsed. Kalmar heaved the dying warrior aside and staggered to his feet, scooping up his axe. More of Namagar’s sailors had joined the fray now, and three more Arakul had fallen, although Kalmar could see that six or seven of Namagar’s men were down, and they were good fighters.
Kalmar’s axe shot up instinctively, interrupting the blade slashing for his head. The force of the blow sent shockwaves flying up his arm as he whirled to face the new aggressor. It was the last Arakul left standing with the exception of the strange one that Kalmar still hadn’t got a decent look at, and, Kalmar realised, it was the one who’d bellowed the challenge.
“You die.” He snarled simply, his blade pointed at Kalmar, “Xenegesh has commanded it!”
Kalmar fell into a fighting stance as the Arakul brought his blade into a fighting guard. He was scarred and obviously seasoned, this one, and –
His head parted company with his shoulders. The body collapsed spurting thick blood. Kalmar blinked and looked past the fallen warrior to the strange lurking Arakul, who was calmly cleaning a single-handed weapon that looked like a wickedly curved scythe with a four-foot pommel. He was not of great height or breadth, but there was something utterly menacing about him. His eyes were not yellow but shimmering green, his pupils still and calculating. His greatcoat was dark blue and instead of brown fatigues he wore a black uniform picked out in silver thread. On his snout the Arakul wore a silver faceplate made of several interwoven plates, from which his eyes watched coolly. He stood in silence, his body at ease. Kalmar risked a lightning glance at his fellows. There were still seven sailors on the deck, including Namagar, as well as Kalmar himself. All of them were bloodied and battered, but still, against one Arakul…
“I suggest you surrender yourself,” said Kalmar, “and I further suggest that you explain to me who Xenegesh is, and why you were so offended that your soldier gave away his name.”
The Arakul didn’t move. Nor did he speak. He continued to stare evenly at Kalmar.
“Come man, have sense. One Arakul warrior against seven Eloytians? I am offering you the status of a prisoner. You should know that it is rare for Eloytians to offer mercy to Arakul.”
The Arakul’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“I am not an ordinary warrior, and threats do not trouble me,” he said in a cold, emotionless voice, “I am Hasturex.”
Kalmar raised his axe.
“Then if you are greater than a normal warrior, you will understand that there is nothing to be served by throwing your life away, mister Hasturex.”
The Arakul laughed mirthlessly.
“It is not my name, Brother Kalmar. It is what I am.”
Kalmar felt ice creeping through his veins.
“How do you know my name?”
The Hasturex chuckled again, and took a sinuous step forward.
“Because I was sent to hunt you down.”
Kalmar knew that showing his fear would be a fatal error. Instead he snorted.
“Your men are dead and your ship seems to have lost us. And now you are outnumbered. I would say that whoever sent you – this Xenegesh, I assume – will be rather disappointed in your attempts to kill me.”
The Hasturex hissed in what seemed like amusement.
“And whoever said I was sent to kill you? That fool without a head thought as much. But I did not have any such orders. I was only sent to find you.”
Kalmar felt like he was losing control of the situation, and quickly put in the next question.
“For what reason, if not to kill me?”
The Hasturex shot out a hand suddenly. Kalmar flung up his axe to block, but nothing happened. A split second later, the two crewmen nearest him were smacked from their feet as if struck by heavy weights. Kalmar blinked as they went down again before realising what had occurred. The Hasturex had attack them through the Aethyr. His peculiar immunity had saved him.
“It is true,” said the Hasturex, his voice little more than a whisper, “he is the Unbreakable!”
Namagar roared and surged forward, unable to contain his rage at the assault on his crew. The Hasturex laughed and swiftly gave way. In three graceful, fluid bounds he was standing on the port siderail.
“I’ll see you again, Brother Kalmar!” he called, and dived headfirst out into the Lyda tide beyond. Kalmar dashed to the side and looked over, but the mysterious Arakul was already lost in the swirling currents beyond.
“What sort of maniac throws himself out into the Solar Sea?” asked Namagar, joining Kalmar at the rail.
Kalmar sighed, and remembered Halomar’s words.
Things have changed. Either another force is guiding them, or they have learned new ways.
He sighed, and turned to Namagar.
“We must get to Camadile as soon as possible. In the meantime, I owe you an explanation.”
Namagar grunted.
“I was getting to that.”

Published in: on January 4, 2009 at 11:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

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