“Cahokiantep is no more. The city, the surrounding farms, the very bedrock itself… all of this is gone. There are no ruins; the city wasn’t destroyed. It has simply vanished.
“What remains is indescribable. It is a hole—a crater—more massive than mere words can convey. Malthanisys calculated its depth at a distance of some five miles at least. It reaches across the breadth of the city and beyond, into the sea. We could scarce see the far side of the thing, even whilst standing at the edge on the clearest day.
“We found an outland shepherd yesterday. He spoke of a flash of blue lightning and a tremor to shake the worlds. In his ravings, he whispered a name—Belarisarius, a being he calls ‘the Astral Dragon’. None know this name, not even Malthanisys.
“We will continue searching, but I fear that there are few answers to be found.”
-- Sir Gustav Plantagaryean, from his report on the “Cahokiantep Incident” to the Royal Court of Wanderhaven, Kingdom of the Western Isles
|Sketch In My Notebook|
The Rusted Pony is a shithole.
It’s the kind of place you can only find out in the empty black along the edges of the Astral Realm. I know, I know. They say that the Realm is infinite, that if you have the right ship and a strong enough lift device, you can sail until you hit the edge of tomorrow.
What, am I some kind of scientist now? Tell it to the philosophers. I only know what I’ve seen, and that’s a damn sight more than I ever expected.
I’d come to the Pony looking for a fink bastard named Galen Maddox, a former member of the Banking Guild who’d tried to steal the Guild’s combination codex from the Counting Room down in the main guild house in Cahokiantep. Dude got all the way to the basement and then tried to use the codex to rob the Primary Safe when no one was looking. Idiot. Turns out that the codex is rune-sequenced. Only a member of the Guild Patriarchy can activate it, and even then, he has to be accompanied by two other Guild members in good standing. Because, as it happens, the Banking Guild is not stupid.
I like The Pony, shithole that it is. It sits on a rock a little less than a half-parsec outside the Maavern system, drifting in a pocket of air that some mage must’ve set in place a thousand years ago. I’ve heard tell that it was once a way station back before the Illenium Empire fell, but I’m hardly a historian, and anyway, who gives a shit? Now the place is just some ramshackle tavern carved into the side of a rock, though somebody at least spent enough coin to haul real wood out to it for the tables and the bar. Makes the place a little homier, anyway. You’re still apt to see blood on the floor at least one night in three, but hey, that just makes my job easier.
I’m a War Master.
I know, I know. Collecting bounties is a little beneath my nominal pay grade. What can you do? A man’s got to eat, and it’s not like there are orc tribes living out here in the blackness of space.
Eh. There probably are some orc tribes living out here somewhere. Who the Hel knows?
Sages, probably. Natural philosophers. Those bastards aren’t a lot of help, exactly. And anyway, it’s not like the orcs are trying to scale the city walls or anything. Those days are dead and gone. Nowadays, the damned orcs are probably just trying to survive, same as the rest of us. That’s all anybody can do now that we’re all stranded in the Astral Realm.
The Rusted Pony came to a screeching halt when I pushed through its saloon-style doors. There are a lot of weird-looking dudes out in the deep black of space, but even so, a guy in full banded-steel armor with a pair of swords strapped across his hips and a crossbow holstered on one thigh is liable to make even the most callous space pirate sit up and take notice. Pirates aren’t stupid. They go looking for prey that they can takeeasily. There’s no profit in a gut-wound. This is doubly true of merchant sailors, many of whom are legitimately tough in a bare-knuckled brawl. But while those guys generally fight well when pressed, they don’t walk around strapped for war as a matter of course.
War Masters do.
I scanned the place, let all the toughs get a good look at me. It was plenty crowded. I’d noticed three large merchant ships docked outside next to a pair of astral skiffs and a salvaged two-masted cruiser that looked like it might once have belonged to the Tianese Navy. That’d be a pirate vessel now, maybe taken during a boarding action gone wrong, maybe sailing out of a trading coster on a letter of marque. There’s no telling, really, and it hardly mattered so long as I could avoid pissing off the captain or his mate.
Fortunately, the cruiser men were easy to spot. They all wore uniforms of a sort—mostly ragged, but still—and they were mostly human. One guy was a little taller and thicker than the others, and he had green-tinted skin and a tusk-filled underbite, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. I’d have called him a half-orc back on terra firma, but out in the black, he could’ve been anything. Their captain sat at a table on the other side of the bar with a working girl squeezed into the booth next to him. He glanced at me a moment and then turned back around. No trouble there, thank the gods.
The rest of the patrons were a motley crew. I saw a group of blue-skinned astral elves sitting with a gelatinous creature the size of an ogre, a small bevy of rock dwarves pounding tankards of that heavy black ale they all drink, and a whole shitload of merchant sailors wearing every combination of tunic and pantaloons that you can possibly imagine. My sole concern came from a trio of voltans in the back corner sitting with their war pikes stacked neatly against the far wall. All three gave me such long, mean looks that I couldn’t help wondering if maybe old Maddox hadn’t hired them as some kind of temporary security while he stopped to get a decent night’s sleep and maybe drink away his sorrows a bit.
We’d know in a minute, I supposed.
For those not in the know, voltans are a little like the legartos back home. They’re both lizardmen, anyway, but voltans tend to be a little taller and slimmer, with longer arms and shorter, stumpier tails. Also, your average voltan carries a forked seven-foot war pike instead of the heavy-bladed falchion most legartos prefer. They’re both dangerous, though, not the least because they both grow up in this twisted caste system that prizes warrior-prowess above all. It’s not that different from the War Masters, really. Voltans don’t wear armor on account of their skin being so damned thick with scales, but other than that, we’re pretty similar. Voltans are also warm-blooded, so you can’t typically outrun ‘em just ‘cause it’s cold.
War Masters have advantages, too, of course, but three is still a lot of voltans. I’d only ever taken on two, and that hadn’t exactly been easy. It’s how I got the scar over my right eye if you want to know the truth.
The rest of the Pony’s patrons turned back around after half a minute, but the voltans kept eyeing me. Only one thing to do. I let my left hand drift down to the hilt of my companion sword and started over towards them at a steady stalk. We’d get this sorted right off, and if Maddox was here somewhere, those voltans would either let me have him or die trying to get in my way. My commission from the Banking Guild left me no other choice.
For a War Master, the commission is all.