SCV Tales

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ASTRAL SAILS, by s.c.virtes
To the people of Phandar it was just another day, filled with the same daily routines. Being a major port, this implied that half the population was out on the docks loading and unloading wares from ships, while the other half was somewhere along the Market Path, buying or selling what had been unloaded the day before. There were some exceptions, of course, like the children and bards and politicians of the town. Some of the children were dancing or playing in the woods along the streets, others stood and watched their elders toil, and yet others performed various mischiefs along the Market Path. The bards could be found in nearby, serene places, each with his or her own ever-changing audience. The lords and politicians were all tucked away, keeping a watchful eye on the rest.

This was an ordinary day for the Phandarese, until a certain ship arrived.

So remarkable was the appearance of this vessel that word of its coming had spread to the furthest reaches of town long before it reached the pier. It was a beautiful, golden thing whose decks caught the sunlight and rainbowed it at the world. It had two shining masts and sails so fine they seemed to be exquisite silk one moment and mere mist the next. Those paradoxical sails were taut with the breeze of the day and the ship drifted steadily toward the dock. At close range, another level of beauty showed itself, for the hull of the ship was heavily engraved with heroic and abstract scenes in high relief. From battle scenes along the bow to mythological visions toward the stern, the complete history of some unknown culture was shown in the intricate sculpt-work.

When the ship finally came alongside the dock, it came to an incredibly smooth stop and bobbed quietly, a spectacle of unrivalled craftsmanship. Though no ropes had been tossed to the eager dock-hands, it seemed firmly moored and in was in danger of drifting. There was no movement aboard, nor any indication of the origin of the ship or why it had come to Phandar.

Soon the cheerful welcome of the people died out, to be replaced with mild worry, then fear, as night settled in without any word from aboard the strange ship. The lords were summoned, and the men went back to work unloading important wares, though now there were many wary glances at the newcomer. A crowd of people milling around the golden ship formed a obstacle for the workers, who had to push through the gathering with each crate they moved.

One minstrel's tunes turned to portents of doom, and his audienee dispersed in disgust. As the tension in the air mounted, other bards followed suit. Nobody wanted to hear them, so nobody did.

By the time the lord came to the pier with his two courtsmen, some of the crowd had wandered away in disappointment, and most of the day's regular work had been done. Dusk was fading toward deep night as the nobles examined the mysterious galley. Lit by lantern light, the side of the ship seemed to be acrawl with tiny golden animals.

A bold piersman interrupted his master's deep thoughts. "M'lord, what are we to do?"

The lord seemed not to hear, as he was so dutifully observing the menace. One of the courtsmen had to repeat the inquiry before Lord Aris replied, "This is truly a mystery."

"But m'lord, the people are frightened by this unnatural thing. The minstrels sing of fate, and children cower against their elders. Certainly something can be done?"

"Alas," said the lord, "although this thing is not inherently frightening, I see why it frightens. As we all know ships so well, it ails us to see a ship that does not act like one. If this is a ship then its pilot and crew are testing us. If it is not a ship, then we are being tested as well. I see no simple course of action."

The courtsmen agreed with their lord's assessment.

The speaker for the piersmen did not. Kayne was the speaker's name, and he bent to hear the whispers of several of his compatriots before asking simply, "If you cannot help us, then who can?"

The lord answered, "At the first sign of change, we will know what action to take. Right now, there aren't even any questions to examine. Fetch me the bards, though! They must be humming misery for a reason!"

While the bards were being sought out, Kayne announced, "I will see for myself then, and for all of you as well!" He grabbed one of the rungs of the silver ladder etched into the hull of the ship, and pulled himself up a step.

Lord Aris grabbed the man's belt and said, "Wait a moment. In dealing with the unknown, be sure of your motive."

The man replied, "I do not wish to see what happens next, I wish to Cause it to happen. This is a gift from someone. We can't afford to turn it down. You must have some idea of the value of the hull alone! And what of the value of knowing its creator? Can you picture that?"

The lord released Kayne, who promptly scrambled up the ladder. Aris shook his head, and muttered a quick affront to the Gods of Greed.

For a few long moments, and ominous silence wandered through the crowd. Half-whispered images lanced the air, visions of horrible fates and glorious bounties. Lord Aris wondered how much longer the crowd could stand the unknowing. As he was just about to act, Kayne waved and called down from above. "I was right! The holds are filled with jewels! An incalculable treasure! Come up, you must see it!"

At this announcement, a mob of townsfolk headed for the ladder. Lord Aris called out, pleading to their reason. "Be wary! Nothing like this comes without a price!"

His people drowned out his voice with their avaricious cries.

But a louder cry came from elsewhere, a strong harmonizing of voices. The bards were leading their own crowd out onto the docks, calling out to the men on the golden ship. "Get down, get back! Don't you know a trap when you see one?"

Some of the men looked down, and some jumped off the ladder. Most of them ignored even this warning, and when the ship vanished they were gone along with it. A wet, warped laugh filled the air, while the water slurped sluggishly to fill in the empty space the hull had carved.

Lord Aris wanted so much to say something against the forces which had taken the people, but the bards sensed his intent and calmed him. "M'lord," they said, "Your people have been cleansed. You could not have wanted such intentions among them."

At first the lord was angry, but then he saw the truth.

* * * * * * *

When the men on the ladder had all climbed aboard, they looked back and saw no sign of land. The world was a pallid gray, like a summer fog shrouding heaven and sea, yet a great distance could be seen. After a very brief discusion, they decided to look at their loot before steering toward Phandar. When they climbed belowdecks, Kayne was standing there, aghast. One by one, they saw their booty, and each man's hopes fell dead. Together, they all shared a look of crushed soullessness.

There was no gold below decks, nor jewelry. The hold was packed solidly with bones, growing fresher as they neared the stairs. Right up in front were some terribly mangled corpses, just beginning to move. A cracked welcome greeted their ears.

Up above them, the wind lashed at the riggings, and sails tried to deny their involvement in the ordeal.

=== end ===