Three years ago…

Three years before our tale…

 

Nerova clutched the rail tightly, his tense frame barely leaning on the rail despite that grip. He muttered a curse under his breath, and glanced over his shoulder to his first mate. The man, a hearty northerner known as Geld, nodded. Everything was still in place, ready. Yet, Nerova, Captain of the Astrologer’s Albatross for over a decade now, veteran of the Gyleaon Desert Trading Company’s 33rd Skirmisher’s Company, and survivor of twelve major engagements in the Great Desert still felt the twisting anxious fear winding up his innards. This was worse than those other fights. The foe was more powerful, and less predictable. She was cunning too. And all he could do was wait and watch as his crewmate walked in alone to face this monster.

He could see both of them on the shore. His crewwoman, Morgaine Nereidies, had just stepped from the rowboat onto the smooth pebble beach. The sea hag that was Morgaine’s mad malicious mother stood about twenty yards away, near a tidal pool in the solid stone the beach soon became. The cove was mostly stone at its center, with sheer yet shallow cliffs on either side of the bay. The back of the channel was the maw of a sizable cave, with the beach taking up the right side, and running three quarters of the way across the caves opening. The remaining part of the entrance was submerged, suggesting the cave took on an aquatic nature within.

The geography was only of concern to the Captain because of the number of threats it posed, and the many more it likely hid. The cave could hold a host of unseen foes, as could the water. The cliff walls and stone shallows made maneuvering his ship not just difficult, but damn dangerous as well. The pebble beach would give Morgaine poor footing should she need to fight or flee, and the hag had water all about her. Morgaine’s mother was in her element. Nerova wished they did not have to fight the witch on her own ground, or water, but a hag never went to her daughter.

For a changeling, a hag’s daughter before the child had accepted or rejected her hag heritage; going to face their mothers was a necessity. When Morgaine had begun the journey to adulthood, she had heard her mother’s call. When she could fend for herself, she had bartered passage on his crew, telling Nerova she would serve on his ship, but was seeking her mother first and foremost. When she had come to him a month ago with several substantiated sightings of a sea hag in the Eastward Isles, Nerova had agreed to take her there. She was a loyal crewmate, and Nerova felt for her. He knew an absent parent was a scar on a child, and he could not imagine what Morgaine felt knowing her mother was such a monster. Maybe that was why he had given in when she said she needed to face the maternal hag alone at first. He clenched the rail tighter, cursing that moment of idiocy.

Morgaine had reached her mother now. They stood by the pool, both still it seemed. Nerova pulled forth his spyglass from his coat, and fixed the lens upon the two. They were speaking it seemed. At least the hag’s lips were moving. Morgaine had her back to him. He could not see her face. He hoped she could handle this. A sea hag was a foe to fear in normal circumstances. Far stronger than even an orc, the evil aquatic creatures possessed cunning and magic that would lay an enemy low long before they were forced to used their sinew to subdue.

The Captain scanned the cove quickly with his spyglass. He saw no ally of the hag. That made him nervous. Morgaine had learned long ago that the call could not be performed by a single hag. That magic required a coven of at least three of the creatures. But he saw no coven on the shore. He just had to hope they saw the other hags before it was too late. He took the spyglass from his eye and scanned the water. A glance to shore told him little had changed. He kept his focus on the waves, looking for any sign of impending violence.

Nerova caught the glimmer of the sun on an errant wave at the same moment the ship’s medic, his old friend and fellow 33rd Skirmisher man, Polrund hissed to him from the quarter deck. “Captain, there, on the right, a slight wake. It’ll be one of them, swimming close to the surface and headed straight for us!”

“I see the same on the left, Polrund. Geld! Start the count for the ballistae crew at twenty five. Remind them not to hit our own.” With the order given, Nerova reached into his pocket and withdrew a sunrod. He struck the golden tip of the otherwise iron rod against a piece of flint, and held it back. His hold body was posed ready to fling the rod, and he listened to the count.

“Eighteen,” came Geld’s voice. He could hear the ballistae creaking as the crews drew the bolts back just that minuscule amount more. Nerova took a breath, and gave a brief thought to prayer. He was not a faithful man, for the wind and sea were not bent to the will of any man. Their god, Gozreh, was one to be in awe of, but not one to trust in. Still, Nerova prayed.

“Ten.” Nerova saw Morgaine’s mother draw nearer to her. Morgaine held her ground. The sunrod’s light dulled his vision, but the Captain knew Morgaine had several blades and her whip near at hand.

“Six,” came Geld’s voice. Nerova launched himself into action. His arm whipped forward, casting the sunrod in a high arc. As the last seconds were counted away it spun across the space, slowly falling as it sped forth until it stuck the surf with a small splash between the oncoming hags.

“FIRE!” bellowed Geld, and with great twangs the ballistae released their bolts. The mighty spears crossed the sea to reach the stony shore in moments. They were well aimed. Four bolts stuck the beach not far behind the changeling and the hag, with two bolts falling a bit to the right while the others fell to the left. Smooth stones exploded up from the impacts, cast out in fountaining form. From the surf near the shore, a figure burst from the water. The man was known simply as Joe, a warlock skilled in aquatic arcana. His arms moved and he cried forth his spell, driving his powers forth. A jet of water emerged from his outstretched hands, water accelerated into a stream with sufficient speed and substance to turn those stones cast up by the ballista bolts into its path into punishing projectiles. Morgaine’s mother was cast away from her daughter in a spray of water and a hail of stones. She screamed out in pain and fury.

The hag slid across the stone, and as the steam of water stopped, she struggled to stand. But Morgaine was ready. “I will never join you mother,” she cried out. Her promise was punctuated with the crack of her whip, as it snagged her mother’s forearm and yanked it sharply. The hag was forced to fall face first into the stone as her arm failed to support her.  A second spray of watter then took the miserable mother, and Morgaine spun way to sprint for the waves.

Overlooking the water, Nerova watched the plan play out and smiled. Back in the Great Desert, he and Polrund had seen many a skirmish. Such was their assignment after all. In the desert, one tactic had become favoured by the mercenary forces that opposed the Company in the later year of Nerova’s deployment. The cunning lizardfolk leader of these soldier’s for hired was known as Avariss. Being reptilian, he saw how other races withered without water so swiftly. So, in fights where he found victory unlikely, he send forces to circle behind and strike the water wagons of the foe. Without water, the enemy was trapped in the desert, sure to die or surrender as they had no way to make the return journey across the wastes.

In the Southern Seas, water was plentiful, but Nerova still saw the tactic used. It was rare, but cunning creatures of the sea like the hags often preferred it. A ship was any sailor’s way home. Without it, a sailor was trapped, forced to give in to the foe. Nerova had expected the maternal hag to try this. Morgaine would stay with her mother until she joined her or died if her only means of escape was to outswim a sea hag. Without a ship, her fate was sealed. Morgaine had never been in real danger. That role had always fallen to the Astrologer’s Albatross.

But the ship had a loyal crew ready to defend it. Of course, that was the second line of defence. The first was the crew’s good luck charm and the results of intoxication. The hag sweeping towards the ship on the right only glanced back for an instant to see the sunrod as it illuminated the water behind her, but it was enough. From directly below the distracted water woman a figure shot up from the darkened depths. Natava, the merfolk scout of the Astrologer’s Albatross and the ship’s charm against ill fate, was not a woman to challenge in her liquid element. She slammed into the hag’s midsection, stunning her. The hag clawed at the merfolk woman, leaving rends in her flesh. Natava twisted away, and as the hag regained her composure, the merfolk chanted a short prayer while slowly drawing her arms from waist level to over her head. The hag uttered a curse, and dove towards Natava, but she never made it to the merfolk druid. Natava’s affinity for nature was not expected by the hag, and the druid has wisely focused the monstrous woman’s ire on herself. Tendrils of seaweed rose swiftly from the depths, curling about the sea hag’s limbs before extending their grip to her entire form. As she struggled, a slight smirk stole onto Natava’s features.

At the same time, the other hag found itself beset by an unlikely pair. Darvic Saltbeard, dwarven monk and liquorist, held his breath as he clutched the rim of Archie’s shell. The dwarf had consumed enough of the potent alcohol with his flasks not to have reservations about riding the great sea turtle that had allied itself with Natava into underwater combat against a sea hag. He had also had enough liquor to enter his heightened combat state. Alcohol, ki, and sinew came together to create a dwarven warrior worthy of his foe’s fear. The hag shared her sister’s distraction when she saw the eerie light of the sunrod beneath the waves. She was unaware of the danger until she felt Archie’s beak clamp down upon her wrist. Her head spun back in time to see the great turtle, and the dwarf that now stood upon the shell of the beast, a temple sword in his hands. The blade swung, and the flat of the blade crashed into the side of the hag’s head. She slumped down, stunned. Darvic meant to finish his attack with a witty comment along the lines of “now that’s where to hit with a temple sword,” but his wordplay about his weapon and the blow it delivered emerged as only a burble of bubbles. Darvic cursed, loosing that much more precious air, before he pushed off Archie’s shell, swimming for the surface.

Morgaine and Joe flew from the beach in the rowboat. Morgaine manned the rudder while Joe developed a current in the water to carry them swiftly along. Morgaine was shaking slightly, the adrenaline from striking her mother down still filling her. She forced her hand to steady as she steered. The boat swept near Darvic where he treaded water and Morgaine helped him aboard. Natava and Archie emerged on either side of the boat, escorting it home. With a minute they were hooking on the ropes and the crew was heaving to raise the boat from the water, even as the Astrologer’s Albatross turned away from the cove. The wind filled it’s sailed, and Nerova cried out jovially as the ship began to pick up speed. He was at the rail with Polrund to help the crewmembers back aboard. They were unscathed it seemed. Navata’s wounds were already healing beneath the druid’s healing magic. Joe had suffered a single stone to fall upon his shoulder, but the bruise seemed to be the worst of it. They had been lucky, Nerova knew. Surprise had given them the day, but chance had not given the hags any warning, which was often not the case in such ambushes.

As the crew saw the ship out of the Eastwatrd Isles, Captain Nerova found himself at the rear rail, beside Morgaine, looking back at the cove as it faded away.

“Are you still sure that hag is best left alive?” he asked her, “She’s been determined to turn you before now. Will she follow the custom and leave you be now that you have defied her.”

There was a silence for some time, before Morgaine replied. “Maybe. She’s out of my head it seems. That’s a first. Haven’t felt that since I was a girl.” Nerova said nothing. He waited. “I could not kill my mother, Captain, even if she is an evil bitch. Besides, if she comes after me again, I’ll have the crew with me again and I know where she lives. She knows that now.” Morgaine gave him a slight smile. Nerova nodded. “Well, let us hope she stays away then. Even now, I can’t help but feel she’s not one you want to face many times. Luck can only hold out so long.”

Three years later, the Captain would recall these words, and recognize their wisdom.

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