Eruption of cannon fire rang out onboard the Shadow as men—Pirates—scurried about on deck. They shouted at each other, attempting to give orders. With a missing Captain and Quartermaster, it made the men unsure of who was in command and what to do. The life of a Pirate meant never having to give orders, just take them, and most of the time those orders were to steal or kill. The evening lookout sounded the alarm of an incoming ship just off the port bow as he was supposed to, but when he shouted, he found his message was received by no one. It wasn’t until the oncoming enemy ship was close enough to fire upon The Shadow, and narrowly miss, that the men, slumbering below deck, knew something was amiss. It was the noise of her disoriented men clamoring about that Captain Silverblade heard when she awoke with a headache.

“Get up and see to the men,” she said, nudging the sleeping Quartermaster, Wendynn. Their romance started long before she became a Pirate and continued despite her new station as Captain, and her crew. She could not be rid of him when she ran away from home many moons ago and he persisted in staying by her side even after she revealed to him her plans. She would stop at nothing to become the most feared Pirate in all the six seas and if he were to remain with her they needed to set some ground rules. First, he could never leave her side. If his love for her and not the reward that came with being a Pirate were true, she would have him prove it, by never seeking to become his own Captain. And second, no one could ever know of their relationship. Loving him as she did was complicated enough without commanding respect from the men she hoped to one day be Captain over. She needed to be tougher, smarter, and be accepted as another Pirate, not just a woman.

Her rise to Captain came quickly with Wendynn by her side, teaching her everything she needed to know of sword fighting. And one of the oldest Pirates in all the six seas, Captain Bear, taking a chance on her and teaching her what it took to be a Pirate. A female Pirate wasn’t unheard of, but it was uncommon. Captain Bear left her his ship and his respect, and she’s made sure to uphold his legacy of looking out for the poorest, against the Royal Bloodline. It was their mutual hatred of the nobility that made Captain Bear take to Silverblade so quickly. But her fighting spirit and determination, he believed, was why he had to help her succeed against the rich. His time as a Pirate Captain came to an end and he saw in her a drive he had not ever seen in any member of his crew.

She wished to rid the world of Gaspar and Pradore even more than he did. Early on in their friendship he would sit and listen to her list off the many grievances she had against them and how they treated the people who lived in and around those Kingdom’s. He admitted he’d not known how truly evil the nobility was until he met Silverblade and he wondered to himself how she knew they were responsible for such atrocities. He died before he could ever get a truthful answer from her.

Not soon after Captain Bear passed on did she make it her mission to tear down both Kingdom’s of Gaspar and Pradore. She hated how they monopolized trade so that only they could make money off a certain body of water; the safest in all the six seas to travel back and forth. Now Captain, Silverblade set out to control the passage that the two most prosperous Kingdom’s used exclusively. In the cover of darkness, her crew, along with another Pirate ship, anchored themselves right in the center of what used to be called, Miner’s Channel, and waited. At first light, much like this morning, a commotion was heard as a ship belonging to King Rowan of Gaspar, attempted to pass through. Captain Silverblade wished to send a message, and she did, by ordering her men to slaughter all the Royal Army on board, steal whatever they wanted off the ship, and then burn it to the ground. In no time at all she made it so no ship, big or small, could pass through this narrow, yet significant, body of water without first paying her a fee. Her rates were never reasonable, designed almost exclusively to start an all-out fight, where her Pirates would ultimately end up victorious. She’d demand at least half of the goods they carried and most of the money they had onboard as well. The goods were to sell and the money to buy but with Captain Silverblade in their way both Kingdoms suffered. They were forced to do their buying and selling with smaller towns and villages they could reach by land. This made life difficult for the most prosperous Kingdoms because they were surrounded by mountainous regions too dangerous to climb. This made their Kingdom’s harder to overthrow, but left them vulnerable to only one means of travel and trade.

Both Kings hated what Captain Silverblade did to them, but no one more than Rowan, the King of Gaspar. He wasn’t about to be bullied by a Pirate, let alone a woman. It was his ships that always chose to fight first and lose men every time, rather than pay their due and be done. It was his ship now, under the command of Captain Hinde, that fired the first shot, but it would be Captain Silverblade and her crew who would surely bring an end to their voyage.

“What’s going on?” Wendynn spoke groggily, reaching for his shirt at the foot of the bed. Captain Silverblade had already dressed, strapping her sword around her waist.

“Do you not hear that Wen? I think it’s another of Gaspar’s ships. Will he never learn?” she asked rhetorically. “Get up! We have work to do and men who need us.” She did not wait for him to make haste. Instead, she grabbed her Pirate’s hat, black as the night, with a matching black feather sticking off the side, and placed it atop her head. A tall mirror in the far corner of the room showed her reflection and for a moment she stopped to look at herself. She marveled at her appearance. Her hair was always kept in a high bun, easily hidden under her hat, and her skin, though dark from her time spent out in the open waters, was smooth and clear. A hint of green flecks in her brown eyes caught the sunlight coming in through a porthole in her room.

“Well, I’ll be…” Wendynn replied. He sat on the edge of the bed, fully dressed except for his boots, which he stopped in the middle of putting on, as he noticed the way she stared at herself.

“What?”

“I do believe the lady is smitten with herself.” She grabbed a pillow from her bed and threw it at him, a smirk appearing on her face. The sound of another cannon fired, this time it did not miss. She left him to finish dressing, and took two steps at a time up to the deck where mayhem appeared to have taken over her ship. It was not like her men to seem untrained and unnerved in this way. She knew something wasn’t right and grabbed the first Pirate who crossed her path to determine what was wrong.

“What is the meaning of this? Why are you men scampering about like you’ve not one head between you?” she asked a Pirate who had never been spoken to nor had ever been noticed by the Captain before. He was unsure how to answer her. She shouted over the noise of her own men. “Speak, you fool, before I have you put in the brig for refusing to answer a direct question from your Captain!” After too much time had passed she realized this Pirate was not going to have an answer for you. What she needed to do was get to the helm of the ship where everyone could see her and hopefully regain their composure.

She swayed with the movement of the ship as it rocked slightly from the cannons her ship fired and walked hastily to the steps leading the wheel. She looked up to see no one stood there and it spun wildly from left to right, directionless, just like her men.

“Alright you scalawags, listen up…” The sound of her Quartermaster finally emerging from below decks to take command of the men put a smile on her face and gave her the energy she needed to bolt up to the wheel. She grabbed onto it tightly as it spun counterclockwise. The way the wood felt on her calloused hands, formed from years of holding onto it in countless battles, felt right and good. The men saw her immediately and all manner of confusion stopped. It was a fleeting moment of silence where even the opposing ship, who thought for a while the battle could be won, stopped to watch her as she readied her orders.

“Men, do not be discouraged. We have never lost to nobility before and we are not about to today. Whatever troubled you, let it be a distant memory. For this morning we kill the dogs,” she shouted, staring directly into the eyes of Captain Hinde on the opposing ship, whose watchful gaze never left her once she appeared on deck. “And tonight, we’ll feast on their graves.” The men cheered and like a miracle they moved about the ship as if the fight were truly beginning now. They knew their duty, but the added security of her leadership was what made their tasks that much easier to perform. She always demanded perfection on her ship. The Shadow brought her through countless battles and never steered her wrong. It deserved appreciation through protection and a crew of level-headed Pirates.

In her childhood, she heard tales of Pirates exhibiting the mental capacity and temperament of fools, only interested in the treasures they hunted and the lives they ended. She hated those tales and strived to change the narrative. Her men were known for being cunning and manipulative. They had no need for treasure and they only took lives in defense of their own. Captain Silverblade would not tolerate an ignorant Pirate on her own ship, though she could not speak for the intelligence carried upon the others in her fleet.

The Miner’s Channel was the only safe passage ships could take if distant Kingdom’s wished to trade with each other. The two Kingdom’s of Gaspar and Pradore prospered the most from this Channel and worked hard to keep this fertile strip of water to themselves. Then Captain Silverblade sprouted, as if from a nightmare, set on destroying what they’ve built. However, she knew to properly control the Miner’s Channel required more than the might of her most coveted ship, The Shadow. She also needed the support and loyalty of other Pirates, ready to risk their lives, not just for her, but for her cause as well.

Her upbringing was of affluent means, but she felt her Royal bloodline wasn’t where she belonged. She longed to escape the shackles of her Royal destiny, and ran away from home one night, with Wendynn in tow. They did not get very far before their feeble attempt at peasant clothing was easily detected by those who lived in the outskirts of town. They both were quickly returned where they belonged, escorted back by a husband and wife who were both starved. Even in their state of hopelessness, they took pity upon the naïve adventurers. And once returned, they would accept no food, clothing or money for their trouble. Captain Silverblade never forgot that husband and wife, both too proud to take from such simpleminded children.

Now, many years later, she fought for those few who struggled to keep food on the table and remain safe in their homes. Those from the Kingdom’s of Gaspar and Pradore felt it necessary to only provide protection for those nearest their Castle, leaving the outer farmlands and forests beyond to fend for themselves.

It is these people who serve as the reason for all she’s managed to accomplish in such a short amount of time. Their strife became her banner and through piracy she discovered a way to bring honor and dignity to those who needed it most. When the lower classes first heard of her they did not believe a woman, let alone a Pirate, could restore their hopes and give them something to live for again. But when she infiltrated the Miner’s Channel and made it her permanent residence, she proved to them all that justice would finally be served. And they repaid her by sending their strongest sons to fight and become a Pirate alongside her. In small villages and towns across the eight kingdoms, to be a Pirate was a badge of honor, and to be a part of her fleet was the highest of all.

As she steered the ship away from the enemy who tried to crash into The Shadow, she looked down at her men, some as young as herself when she first decided to become a Pirate, and others far older. They depended on her for more than leadership, but guidance and friendship, and she looked upon them as her children. She put her hand on her stomach suddenly, without provocation, and a sense of dread washed over her entire body as she had a sinking feeling a child was growing within. She shook the crazy thought from her head and carried on with her duties, steering the ship.

“Hoist the colors!” she shouted to one of her men, who stood near the ships flagstaff. When he heard her command, he stopped moving debris, clearing the way for Pirates who moved quickly about the ship, and gave her a nod before he pulled on the nearby rope with vigor. The flag, which laid limp against the pole, now climbed higher and higher. With each pull he gave the higher it rose, catching the wind in its ascent. It fluttered open and flapped in the wind; a black flag with the mark of skull and crossbones behind its head. A long stemmed bright red rose dangled from the skulls mouth. It was an added touch of Captain Silverblade’s, to make a once hated and despised symbol more her own.

When the flag on her ship rose, the others in her fleet, who remained a safe but not very far distance away, would know its meaning. Their assistance was urgently needed. She didn’t often call upon them, instead letting the other ships under her command roam the outskirts of the channel. In case an enemy ship ever decided to attempt a foolish ambush, they’d be ready to come to her aid. But this enemy ship had already made it far too close for her liking and because of their insolence she wished to make them pay.

Before the sun would reach its peak in the sky, their blood seeped into the waters around her ship, as an example, to others who may think to do the same. Instead of sinking their ship, as was her custom, she decided to keep it. Many moons had passed since she last added a ship to her fleet.

“Captain, why have you called the others? Do you not trust I have the matter well at hand?” Wendynn asked. She did not notice he had climbed the stairs and now stood before her. She was focused on keeping her ship steady and giving her men a fighting chance.

“It is not you I don’t trust. The mistrust is in myself. This day has long awaited us. We’ve been complacent in our charge of these waters and the enemy has caught us at rest. For many moons, Gaspar and their mighty King Rowan has been silent on these waters. I should’ve foreseen an attack. I need the others. Tell them to… take the ship.”

Wendynn’s eyes widened at her command. It had been a long time since she’d last gave an order to, ‘take the ship’ and he knew what it meant. “Did you not hear me?”

“Yes, Captain.” He ran down the steps and towards the front of the ship as the first of her fleet came into view from a distance away. Wendynn unbuttoned the first button of his dress shirt and withdrew a mirror he kept hanging from a gold chain around his neck. He then held it up so that it caught the morning sunlight and used it to flash a coded message to the approaching ships. Once he finished sending the message he waited a few seconds for a similar set of flashing lights to be sent back. Soon this same message was relayed to the other ships under her command and they all charted a course towards the enemy vessel. All with the same intent, to take the ship.

Their first objective was to surround the enemy. As the men on board the Kings ship saw they were surrounded and outnumbered, many leapt into the water. They thought it presented a greater chance of survival than remaining on the ship and facing certain death. Little did they know in these waters, beholden to no one, were flesh eating sharks. They didn’t start out this way. In fact, these sharks became seekers of flesh and hungered for it because of Captain Silverblade and the many men’s lives who were taken along this very body of water. Food was never plentiful for them until blood soaked bodies rained down upon them. They’ve been loyal to her cause, in their own flesh eating ways, ever since. This morning was no exception. As able-bodied men hit the water sharks circling just below the water’s surface swam up with lightning speeds and grabbed them by their kicking legs. Their screams became nothing more than muffled gurgles as they were dragged deep into the water to be ripped apart.

The Captain of the King’s ship looked overboard in disgust as he watched blood and spare body parts of his men rise to the surface, staining the water a crimson red. He slammed his hands into the railing and gripped it tightly in anger. He looked across his ship to the Shadow and found the true object of his hatred. He fixed her with a cold stare, right into the eyes of Captain Silverblade who stared back. She then pursed her lips at him in a mock kiss. This kiss was something she gave all the Captains who came before him. It meant soon they would meet their end and usually by her hand.

He unsheathed his sword and pointed it directly at her. She knew his plan even before he gave the order to what little men he had left. They grabbed onto ropes hanging off their ships mast and swung over onto her ship, forever abandoning their own.

Captain Silverblade called for Wendynn to return and take the wheel. He wanted to be the one to fight, his sword halfway out before she gave her order. He shoved it back and doing as she commanded, took the wheel from her. She unsheathed her sword and held it out before her as she walked slowly down onto the deck. By now it was teeming with men from both sides deep in sword fights. Her men were the best swordsmen in the six seas, even more skilled than the King’s men. Captain Silverblade marveled at their agility as they easily bested the enemy, piercing them to the quick and sending their dead bodies overboard. More food for the sharks.

As she slowly made her way past the carnage, her eyes found the Captain’s again. He side-stepped the fighting happening around him, shoving some of his own men away, into the waiting sword of a Pirate.

“So, you’re what all the fuss is about? You don’t look so tough.”

“Says the man who’s about to die by my hand,” she retorted. She swung her sword first and he returned thrusting his at her, but she expected it and side-stepped as it nearly sliced into her arm.

The sound of their swords clanging as they attempted to best each other caught the attention of those men left alive on the ship; all of them hers. Captain Hinde realized he was alone now and surrounded, but he showed no fear.

“I’m afraid you have no other means of escape than by my hand, Captain,” she responded, spinning low to the ground, kicking her foot out to drop him backwards onto the deck. He fell hard, his sword coming loose as it clanged and slid across the ship, stopping short against her boot. She stepped over it and stood over him, the edge of her blade dancing rather closely to his throat. “Any last words?”

He smiled at her, a grin unlike any she’d ever seen from a man who knew he was about to die by her hand. “You think you’ve won? You think because you are standing over me and I lie here beneath you that you’ve won? This is not over. Even now, the King plots to put an end to you and all your so-called good works.” His words spew forth from him like venom and she found herself, for the first time, caught off guard by his assertiveness. Her momentary lapse gave him just what he needed to escape from under her blade and rise to his feet. Her men all stood ready to attack, their hands on the hilt of their swords, but she regained focus and held her hand up to stop them.

“You speak like a desperate man. I do not believe the word of a man who will say anything to live.”

“Then believe this, Pirate, before the end of the next moon cycle the Paragon will come. And when it does you’ll wish you had never been born,” he said. As his words sank in he turned his back to her and ran towards the other end of her ship. Without stopping he leapt up onto the railing.

Forgetting who or where she was for a moment, and letting a hint of fear show upon her voice, she shouted, “Wait.”

“Are you scared, female pirate? Good, you should be.” And before he could be stopped, he dove into the water. She ran to where he vanished and looked overboard, watching as he tried to swim past the floating bodies of his men and the sharks still feeding on them. But his splashing soon caught the attention of a nearby shark and it left its current meal to get what it knew would be a meatier one. Captain Hinde did not make it very far before being devoured. Once the sound of his screams subsided all Captain Silverblade could hear was her own quick breathing and her heart beating loudly in her ears.

Wendynn stood behind her and cleared his throat, unsure of what to do as he’d never seen her like this before. “Captain? Shall I tell the men to bring what they find on board The Shadow?

“What? Of course! Do you need me to constantly tell you what needs be done? Damn it Wendynn, can’t you think for yourself for once?” She shoved past him and stomped towards her cabin. She stopped at the landing and turned back, “Oh, and Wendynn, have Spire come to my cabin immediately.” Before he could protest she was gone.

 

Traix climbed down a nearby ladder on the opposite side of the ship where no one would see him. When he entered the choppy waters, he felt a body, mangled beyond recognition, floating near the surface. He gave himself a few moments for his gag reflexes to temper themselves before he grabbed ahold of the body and kicked his feet slowly, trying not to catch the attention of the sharks nearby. The two of them showed the appearance of floating down the channel. Salt water mixed with the blood of his fallen brothers, including that of the man whose torso he grabbed, seeped in and out of his mouth. He tried fruitlessly to keep as much of the rancid water away from his mouth but he valued breathing more than the taste, and suffered through it. The body he gripped tightly grew cold beneath his fingers and slippery, but he would not let go.

His muscles nearly gave out on him twice as he swam for his life against the choppy waters of Miner’s Channel. Using the body of a fallen crew member he managed to grab as it floated past one of Captain Silverblade’s ships, he frantically kicked his feet. The Pirates could see body parts on the surface of the water, but the carnage of sharks searching for fresher meat was too much even for them. They avoided looking too closely at the water as much as possible as the men boarded the enemy ship. None of them found it odd, or worth investigating, the two bodies remarkably intact bobbing in the water, moving against the current. And Traix, member of the Royal Army, was glad of that.

“Where are we, brother?” he asked no one, as he could only see the stomach and one of the legs. The other leg was completely ripped away and he did not dare check, but he wagered the arms were missing as well. As he pondered why the sharks would leave what he perceived to be the meatiest part of the human body, the torso, his eyes affixed onto land dead ahead. However, out the corner of his eye he saw a ship waving a Pirate flag. They were not headed for him, but their heading would take them dangerously close enough to notice whether what was in the water was dead or alive. He took a deep breath and changed his hold on the floating body from his side to just below, then plunged his head underwater and let his body hang limply. As luck would have it the ship passed him at a rather quick pace, making it difficult for them to take notice of him or his mangled companion. Not willing to risk getting caught, he let a few moments pass before he opened his eyes underwater and came face to eyeball with the body he continued to grip tightly. He screamed, letting in a rush of water to his mouth. He erupted from to the surface, coughing and gagging, as he frantically looked to around him and nothing but the open water. With newfound vigor, his feet began to paddle even harder, especially when he looked back to find he was fully out of sight of any ships or sharks.

Traix joined King Rowan’s Royal Army to provide a steady wage for his family. He did not do it out of any sense of loyalty or even out of honor, so when he witnessed fellow brothers jumping overboard he saw no good reason not to follow. True, there were deadly sharks below, but to stay on the ship would mean certain death as well. By the time the sharks started devouring those who jumped before him he had made up his mind and instead of jumping in as they did, he climbed down. His decision afforded him the best chance of survival. While the sharks busied themselves eating the noisemakers, Traix entered the water calmly and quietly, then waited for the perfect moment to move through the water undetected. This accounted for why he was miles from shore and safety, while every last one of the men he traveled with that morning would all but perished.

Back on King Rowan’s ship, its Captain, a man by the name of Hinde, was busy devising a scheme to apprehend the illusive Captain Silverblade. He had delusions of being the first man to capture her and could not be bothered with those men who had decided to abandon ship. Traix knew this mission was insurmountable when he joined. Like all the other men, he’d heard of the many failed attempts King Rowan had made in the past to force Captain Silverblade’s surrender. And like all those men, Traix wanted to believe the King would give in to her demands instead, and save the lives of the men who fought in his army. He knew he was wrong on all counts when he heard a familiar battle cry, that of Captain Hinde, just before he hit the water. The sound of his faint screams as sharks consumed him told Traix he made the right decision, and regretted nothing as he continued to swim to shore.

Like a mirage, the shoreline remained just out of his reach for what seemed like forever. It was only mid-day when he finally saw in the distance the landmark that would prove to him he wasn’t imagining things; the Serpents Head. It was a tavern situated near the docks where all seafaring men could find drink and fellow fishermen whenever they came to port there. The sign was a translucent green that any ship at sea or man on foot could see. When he feasted his eyes upon the wooden sign swinging against the wind, shimmering in the distance, he knew he was not only free from danger but also free from those flesh-eating sharks. The closer he got to shore the more torturous it became on his arms to push the body out in front of him any longer, and his legs began to give out. He gave up and let the body go. As it drifted away he wished he knew who had just saved his life so he could at least pay his respects to the family. But the water around him began to get colder the closer he got to shore and all his mind told him to do was get to shore immediately.

He felt the sand beneath his feet as he planted them as he took slow and deliberate steps towards dry land. His clothes clung to his body and his breathing came fast and hard as he dropped to his knees, crawling the rest of the way. The docks just above his head, held up by spokes sticking out of the sand, teemed with people milling about. There were a few boats docked further down the coastline, but where he emerged there was just an empty dock, which he used for cover as he walked under it. He did not wish to be seen by anyone just yet and collapsed, unable to take any more steps. The waves came up grazed the edge of his boots every few seconds but he didn’t budge.

He needed to catch his breath before deciding what he should do next. Traix held no real duty to the crown or the army but he felt he should report to a commanding officer and tell them what happened. They’d be expecting to hear word soon and would consider him a traitor if they discovered he was the sole survivor and said nothing. But, who could he tell and what would be in it for him and his family once he reported what happened?

His breathing finally calmed, he lifted himself up by his elbows and looked out at the water before him, glad to finally be out of it. The body he released to swim to shore had slowly made its way to dry land as well. Would he never be rid of the thing?

“Man overboard!” he heard someone on the dock just above his head scream just before the sound of someone hitting the water. A man dove in to try and save what he thought was a man in distress. Traix was going to say something but thought it pointless and stopped himself, resuming his position of resting on the sand, as he watched. The Good Samaritan screamed when he reached the floating dead body and realized his mistake. Traix chuckled quietly to himself as he imagined the dangling eyeball must’ve been a sight to behold!

A voice from behind him, further under the dock, hidden in darkness said, “Who are you?” It startled him and he sat up quickly, backing away in defense. When he saw the voice belonged to a young girl he stopped and slapped his hands together to rid them of sand. His attempts were less pointless than when he started to remove sand from his clothing. They were too sopping wet to really make any difference. He stopped once his arms gave out and he noticed she would continue to stare at him till she received an answer to her question.

“I’m no one.” He could tell by her large, curious eyes, she was not going to leave. “What is a little one like you doing out here by yourself?”

“I’m waiting for poppa. He went out on that big boat today and he promised he’d come back.” Traix looked down at the sand, not wishing to look into those big eyes of hers any longer. He knew the boat she spoke of was probably the ship he was on, and if it was then her father was dead and not coming back. What if her father was the man he used just now for his own safety? He remembered wanting to thank this dead man’s parents for the service of their son, but never once did he consider the man could’ve left behind a child? A daughter?

No! He shook the thought from his head. It was lunacy to assume this girl sought a father who left on the ship headed for death. Or that she might belong to the man currently being dragged in out of the water and hoisted onto the dock. Wasn’t it? He couldn’t take any chances. He needed to know.

“Tell me little one, do you remember what your father wore before he got on the big boat?”

She nodded vigorously, impressed with herself for having an answer to his question. “Yup, he wore his lucky black boots, and his uniform. That ugly green, with his sword.” She wrinkled her nose when she spoke of his uniform, but giggled at the mention of his sword. “He named his sword after me; Adelaide.” His shoulders slumped at her apt description of their uniform. “You’re wearing the same colors as poppa. Is that Adelaide?” she asked, stepping closer towards him. She pointed to the sword he forgot he still had resting at his side. She must’ve assumed it was her father’s sword as all the men in the Kings army carried identical weapons as well as identical uniforms. Whether she belonged to the body he used to bring him to safety or not, she would forever be fatherless. But perhaps she had a mother who cared for her as well? He needed to know to at least alleviate his unexplained concerns for her once and for all.

“What of your mother? Why does she allow a little one such as yourself to be out here alone?” He held his breath as he waited for her answer, and for the first time took notice of her attire. She was in what looked like a nightgown, wearing nothing on her feet. Her toes curled in the sand and she twirled her long black curls, that fell around her face, around her fingers as tears welled up in her large eyes.

“I have no mother. It’s just me and my poppa. He promised he’d be back. Have you seen him? Do you know where he is?” Her bottom lip began to quiver as her big eyes seemed to get larger with every passing second waiting for his reply.

“Your father isn’t coming back, Adelaide.” Her lip stopped and she blinked, letting one tear roll down her cheek. She quickly swatted it away and straightened her back as if standing at attention.

“I’ll take Adelaide then.” She thrust her tiny hand forwards expecting Traix to hand over the sword that stood about as tall as she. He hesitated but could tell she needed it right now more than he did. It did not matter that it wasn’t the sword she spoke of, the one her father named after her and carried into battle with him. Her poppa needed it as a reminder of who he needed to get home to. She needed it now as a reminder of the father who loved her.

He loosened the belt from around his waist and leaned forwards on his knees to her, holding it out. She hesitated, not sure if he was really going to hand it over. He could sense her apprehension and decided to lay the blade down on the sand before her.

She moved so quickly he almost didn’t notice when she snatched it up off the ground and clutched it tightly to her chest. He was correct, the blade was as long as she was and a bit too heavy for her to carry. She fumbled many times to steady the blade but it kept slipping and he feared she might hurt herself. He smiled and crawled slowly towards her, hoping not to scare her but to help get a better hold of it. He took the belt from her hands and looped it across her chest as if she were carrying a bow on her back. She looked over her shoulder at the hilt, and turning back to smile at Traix she took his hand in hers.

They heard more men run along the dock overhead as she led him up the sand dune to the dirt path. No one noticed them as they walked down the road and into the Serpent’s Head.

The Serpent’s Head was one of the oldest standing taverns in the Kingdom of Gaspar. It was also the only tavern near the coastline where a man knew he was sure to find some liquid refreshment. As Traix gripped Adelaide’s small hand in his tighter, he pushed through the front door. It was almost empty, save for a few patrons sitting at the bar and a table in the far corner where four men sat with their backs to the door, hunched over something on the table. No one seemed to be bothered by the odd appearance of the little girl or her friend, Traix. He didn’t want to be noticed just yet and the moment he spotted an out of the way table he made right for it.

The stench of sweaty men and beer wafted up to his nostrils and his stomach suddenly made an all too familiar sound. “Wait here, I need a drink.” He took two steps from the table, then stopped when he saw the look on her face. What made his stomach ache for the drink was making her wince in disgust. “Do you want something?” he asked, hoping there might be some sort of drink or food this place would have that could stop her face from its discomfort.

She looked around the room and had the same thought he must’ve, that this place probably wouldn’t have something a girl could drink besides water. She shook her head at him and pulled the swords belt over her head so she could hold it in her lap instead. The men continued to pay them no mind but she still feared they might try and take it. Traix was more concerned someone might take her. He eyed the men seated at their own table cautiously, but they remained huddled in whispered conversation.

He approached the bar and slammed his hand down on the table to get the attention of the barman at the other end. He was in the middle of pouring a pint of beer for a gentleman who could barely hold his head in an upright position. The barman stared Traix down with anger in his eyes, until he saw the Royal Green of his vest, and suddenly a smile appeared on his face. He snatched away the pint of beer he had finished pouring for the inebriated patron and walked it over to Traix, slamming it down in front of him.

“Welcome, good sir. What brings you to the Serpent’s Head? Is the Kings ship back already? What news do you bring of the great Captain Hinde and his quest to defeat Captain Silverblade, the female pirate?” He raised his voice so the few who were there could hear him, and made sure to spit just as loudly on the ground next to him. It was a sign of loyalty to the King for anyone who ever mentioned the name of Captain Silverblade to spit out their disgust for having said something so foul.

Traix wished the barman hadn’t said anything or made such spectacle and realized his attire was what gave him away. For the first time since he entered, all eyes were on him and he didn’t like the feeling nor was he ready to be grilled with questions. Before he dared to answer, he lifted the mug of ale and downed it in several gulps, for courage and for time.

“They’re all gone.” One of the men huddled at the table took notice of what Traix just said and stood fast. The sound of his chair as it scraped against the floor then toppled over made Traix reach for the hilt of his sword but it wasn’t there. Adelaide had it. He put the mug he held down and stepped away from the bar slowly. The large man matched his movements as Traix side-stepped his way to Adelaide and reached out his hand to her. “Give me my sword.”

“No, it’s mine. Get your own,” she answered. She clutched it tighter to her chest and turned her body away from him.

“Did you say they’re all gone?” The man who stood from the table was now close enough for Traix to smell what manner of man he was; a drunk one. Traix also noticed he wore a similar Royal Green vest, except his was much more faded and tattered.

“Yes, I did.” Traix felt the man was harmless by the way he held himself. His gait was slightly hunched and his gut hung out so far, the bottom two buttons of his Royal Green vest could not be fastened. Traix could tell a gut like that could only be acquired from many years of heavy drinking. He was confident if a fight should ensue he could take him. So, what harm would it do to tell him what happened? “We got up close to her. The Shadow. But that pirate was ready for us. At first it looked like we were going to win. Her men seemed unsure of what to do or how to fight. We even fired a cannon into her side!”

One of the men seated at the table spoke up loudly, “I don’t believe it.”

“That’s an impossibility.” The nearly drunk man at the bar stammered as he allowed his body to fall forwards off the bar stool to his feet and swayed in their direction. Traix instinctively reached out his arms and caught him before he hit the floor. He recognized the signs of a man on the verge of collapse having lived with an Uncle who drank the same way for as long as he had to live with him. “I’ve heard rumors that no one has ever been able to fire upon The Shadow. That’s how it got its name, you know? You think it’s there, when really, it’s over there.” His hands moved about wildly as he told his story to the men, all of whom listened to him like he spoke from experience.

“Yes, Kreiger, we know. Why don’t you go back and sit down? Barman, get my friend Kreiger, here, another!” The man in the Royal Green vest pointed Kreiger back towards the bar and waited till he knew he would make it without falling to the ground before turning his attention back to Traix and Adelaide. “That is a mighty pretty sword you got there. Not thinking of joining up to fight in the King’s Army, are you?” He winked at her as he sat in a chair opposite hers. He hardly moved a few feet from his own table to theirs but he was already out of breath. He huffed and puffed, the smell of alcohol carrying over to her so strong her eyes began to water.

“This sword belonged to my father, the greatest fighter—.”

“I’m the only survivor,” Traix interrupted. He wasn’t exactly sure who this man was, why he approached them, or what he wanted, but he knew Adelaide bringing up her dead father now was not the right time. “I swam back and by some miracle I made it to shore before the Fleshers got me.”

“You saw them? The Fleshers?” the man asked, leaning forward, excitement and joy dancing in his eyes. “What happened? How did you get away from them? I hear no man’s ever been able to escape them once they come up to the surface.”

“I used a decoy. It was nothing really. I’m just on my way to see the King and tell him what happened.”

“The King? Are you sure that’s wise? What would he think of a man who deserted his fellow men to safety leaving them all behind to die? I’m not sure I have your courage… I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?” he asked. Traix’s hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, something they only did when he sensed danger. And this man wreaked of more than just alcohol.

“I didn’t. Why wouldn’t you go to the King? I would think he’d be grateful to know his ship wasn’t destroyed this time like all the others have before it, but was instead taken by Captain Silverblade. And there’s something else besides.” He regretted saying those words even before they left his lips, but he downed that drink at the bar too fast and it was beginning to make his empty stomach and head swim.

“What else? What happened?”

“You first. Who are you? Why do you wear the Royal colors but look like you haven’t fought under the King’s flag a day in your life?” This was true. He was rather unkempt from his hair to the holes in his shoes. He was a disgrace to the Royal Green and if a General or a Captain were to see the state of him they would have his uniform stripped immediately. No one could wear the Royal Green in any state but clean, unless they were just returning from battle.

“I am Corwinn. Reginar Corwinn.” He thrust his arm out to Traix who took it begrudgingly, finally deciding to take the only other chair left at the table, nearest Adelaide. For a man who looked like he had never picked up a sword in battle, his grip was surprisingly strong and his hands rough, most likely from fighting a long time ago. “I used to be a well-respected man within the King’s Army. He used to confide in me. That is, until that pirate ruined my life.”

“Wait, you’re Corwinn? As in Corwinn the Coward?”

Upon being called this Corwinn stood from the table and Traix did the same in defense. There was fire in his eyes as that name was one he hadn’t heard in a long time and one he didn’t fancy hearing cross the lips of an obvious coward himself. Traix knew he made a mistake when he said that name once the first fist landed on his jaw. The second blow came just as fast and just as hard, only this time to Traix’s stomach, making him double over in pain. He used the table as a means of support to hold himself up.

“Hey, no fighting in here. Corwinn, either sit and be civil or take it outside. I mean it.” The barman lifted a large club from under the bar and smacked one end of it into his hand several times to prove he meant business. Corwinn huffed at the Barman as he grabbed Traix, out cold, from the table, and lifted him off the ground with one hand. His feet barely grazed the dirt floor as Corwin carried him with one hand to the bar where a tall glass of water was placed for him. He took it and tossed it into Traix’s face to wake him.

“Welcome back,” the Barman said as Traix realized his feet were still dangling. “Put him down now. I think he learned his lesson, didn’t you, young man?” Traix attempted a nod as best he could and was promptly placed back on solid ground.

“Sorry,” he said, his throat scratchy after being held the way he was. He brushed himself off and went back to the table to find Adelaide and his sword were gone. “Where is she?”

“Who?” Corwinn asked.

“The girl. The one holding a sword, sitting right here. Where did she go?” He searched frantically around the bar, under every table. He even tried to jump up on the bar itself to look behind it but no use, she wasn’t there either. This meant she must’ve left when Corwinn punched him unconscious. “See what you’ve done. You scared her.”

“Wait, don’t go, tell me what else happened on that ship?”

“Why? What do you care? You’re not even—,” he stopped himself when Corwinn took a step towards him, his fists balled up. “I heard the name, Paragon.” The glass Kreiger drank from slipped his hand and fell to the floor, shattering to pieces.

“What did you just say?”

“I said Para—.”

“Shh! don’t say it again, are you mad.” Both Kreiger and Corwinn looked around the tavern as if expecting lightning or some other phenomenon. Traix couldn’t be bothered with these two completely drunk men and wanted desperately to leave. “Corwinn, you know what this means, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.” He smiled at Traix menacingly. “Run along now and find your little friend.” Traix wanted to say something but felt he had meddled with these two gentlemen long enough. He couldn’t even remember why he entered the tavern to begin with. But, none of that mattered now. Adelaide and his only line of defense between here and the Kings castle, his sword, were gone, and he needed to find them fast. In this village, a small child like her, with a sword that could make any one person or even family rich for a long time, was not safe. Without a word in reply he took his leave of the tavern hoping he’d never lay eyes on the likes of Kreiger or Corwinn.

“Till we meet again,” Corwinn muttered under her breath as he watched Traix leave the Serpent’s Head in a hurry.

Upon hearing the name, Paragon, both Corwinn and Kreiger knew what needed to be done. For some the Paragon was a tale used to scare the young into behaving. But there were few who believed in the legend of the Paragon and revered what it stood for. Kreiger was a believer, while the only thing Corwinn believed in was the drink. Yet, the name was not foreign to him. He remembered a day, many moons ago, when King Rowan told him all he knew of the Paragon.

At the time he was told, Corwinn thought it was complete lunacy and ravings of an eccentric King, willing to say anything to command fear. Little did he realize the tale he was told might be true.

A young, precocious, boy by the name of Woodvale was destined to become King of Diamore, a small Kingdom surrounded by mountains. The people of Diamore were overly kind and not as ruthless as other neighboring Kingdoms. Because of their willingness to be liked by others they gave and gave until they had practically nothing left. Then, as luck would have it, a group of travelers, led by Tobias, found themselves passing through Diamore and in need of accommodations.

Woodvale’s parents took one look at the attire of the travelers, adorned in fine clothes and jewels, and decided to let them stay in the castle. On the first night of their stay the travelers decided to show gratitude for the hospitality and meal by putting on some entertainment, in the form of magic. Woodvale was instantly mesmerized and Tobias saw something in the boy’s eyes unlike anything he’d ever seen before. Without consulting his traveling companions, he decided to take the boy under his wing and sneak him away with them when they left.

In very little time, Woodvale had surpassed his teacher and in their continued travels he began to see something in many they met. He wanted to pass on his knowledge of magic just like Tobias had done with him but he was constantly cautioned against it.

Finally, Woodvale had enough of being told what to do and in a fit of rage he destroyed Tobias along with his abilities, turning them into an evil of his own design. Woodvale created a being he called the Paragon. But like all magic, it came at a steep price, one that only he and those who attended the school he created soon after, await.

There were many other stories told amongst the nobility of the Paragon, each with their own unique embellishments. Peasants were the only class unaware such a being existed. They had their own tales they told each other. Their lack of knowledge about the Paragon was evidenced by the Barman who wore a look of confusion on his face. But his relationship with Corwinn, his best customer besides Kreiger, was a tepid one. There were some battles he knew he could not win with those two so he pretended not to hear and went about his business.

Not wishing to be heard by nosey patrons, Kreiger staggered from the bar and with the aid of his friend Corwinn, sat at the table previously occupied by Traix and Adelaide. In hushed whispers, they discussed what to do with the news of the Paragon’s presence.

“You must take this to the King. He will reward you handsomely for it,” Kreiger slurred.

“I couldn’t take this opportunity from you, Kreiger. You’ve been a loyal friend to me, even when I was run out from the castle after—.”

“Don’t say it. We swore to each other we’d never speak of that time. It wasn’t your fault. I tried to tell King Rowan but you know what a hard-headed man he can be. He wasn’t interested in reason, then. He was still young and full of himself. I’d like to think the years have changed him and now he’d accept you in his court, even if just to lend you his council.”

“I still think it should be you who goes. He’s likely to bestow upon the bearer of this news some Station, that would be unworthy of Corwinn the Coward. I’d be proud to fight under your command,” Corwinn argued, trying to reason with his friend, but it was no use.

“Look at me Corwinn. I’m not fit to see the King, let alone receive a title that would require my swordsmanship. I cannot even hold a pint of ale steady in my hands.” He demonstrated by holding them both up in front him. They shook uncontrollably. He clasped them together and laid them on the table. “I can’t fight anymore. And if I’m honest with myself, I never could. You were always better than I. It’s time the King was reminded of that. But you must go with haste. That boy will soon find his missing friend and be on his way to the King with the news himself. I shudder to think what someone like him would do if he were given men to command.”

Corwinn knew his longtime friend was right. He also had his pregnant wife to consider. Ever since he was dishonorably stripped of his title as General of the Kings Army he busied himself taking odd jobs wherever he could. When she told him the news that she would be providing him with an heir he felt besot with guilt that he had nothing of value or self-worth to give. And he buried his shame in ale, with his friend Kreiger, every night at the Serpent’s Head.

Now he was given a second chance. Fortune has fallen in his lap when news of the Paragon crossed Traix’s lips. But he furrowed his eyebrows with worry as another more sinister and dangerous thought crossed his mind. “What of the Paragon, though? Why would the King be foolish enough to summon him? If what I was told by the King was true, even partly so, then to summon the likes of him is to call forth Death upon any in its path. I would not wish that upon my worst enemy.”

“There must’ve been a reason, and it is up to you to find out what that reason was at all costs. You mustn’t lose focus. I know you expect a child soon and with each glass you drink you’ve made feeble attempts to drown your worry. The future of your unborn child is at stake as well as the Kingdom I know you still have a great affection for. While you defend her, you must never drink.” Kreiger placed his hand on Corwinn’s forearm and looked him in the eye, holding his gaze for a long time. “I only hope you are blessed with a son and not cursed with a daughter. Just look at Leo.” Both men laughed at his jest as the barman brought them a round of ale. They lifted their mugs and clinked them in unity.

Not too far from the Serpents Head, Traix looked everywhere for the girl. He decided to look for her in the first place they met; the docks. The body which he used to make it to safety was long gone, as were the men gathered around it wondering who it was and where it came from. No doubt the Royal Green uniform eventually told them where the body must’ve come from and someone was dispatched, with haste, to tell the King. Traix knew he needed to get there first and report on all that happened, but he could not yet leave until he found Adelaide. As he searched he wondered to himself what he would do once he found her? She had no mother to speak of and her father perished at the hands of Captain Silverblade. Did he really intend to keep the girl and look after her himself? A job like that was not one to be taken lightly. What would people think, seeing him with a child who was not his own?

Once he finds her they would have to leave this place for another. Someplace far away where she could soon forget the painful memories of the sea, and her father who left one day upon it but never returned. Traix knew Adelaide was a smart girl and would not soon forget, but over time what one can’t see could often help.

After much internal debate and continued searching, he decided to take Adelaide with him. The sun began to set and what little hope he had of finding her was disappearing. Then he saw her, hiding alongside an empty path he knew would lead him directly to the Kings castle.

“Why did you run away? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Adelaide tried to hide her face from him as he got closer. When he heard her sniffles he assumed she was embarrassed to have him see her crying. “I’m sorry. Are you missing your father?”

“No, you fool. I’m crying because that man hurt you and I couldn’t sit there any longer watching him beat you.” She wiped her nose along the sleeve of her nightgown and with her dirt covered hands she smudged away her tears. “My father is gone and he isn’t coming back. I do wish you’d stop bringing it up. I’m not a child.”

“You’re not a child? You do look like one. Why, I bet you’re probably… seven?” She shook her head. “Nine?” Her eyes grew wide with excitement that he’d think she was as old as nine!

“No silly, I’m only six. You were closer the first time.” Her tears now gone, and dirt stains left in their place, she smiled at him and he smiled back. She took his hand again and he led her out onto the dirt path. “What did that man want from you anyway?”

Traix looked down at her big brown eyes. He knew he would have a hard time resisting her questions or demands from now on. “He wanted to know what happened on the ship. I made the mistake of calling him a name he was given by the female pirate. I shouldn’t have.”

“Oh her.” Traix saw an anger in her eyes unlike any he’d ever seen in a child as young as she and it sent a chill down his spine. “My father told me all about her. He said she’s mean and ugly and she has no respect for the King or those of us who give our allegiance to him.”

“You know, for a six-year-old you are smart and quick with your tongue. You must get that from your father.”

“I suppose.” She shrugged her shoulders and looked down at the ground, kicking a rock along the path as they started to walk. “He used to say I got those things from my mother.”

“Didn’t you ever know your mother?” he asked her and by the look on her face he knew he shouldn’t have. Her eyes welled up with tears. He couldn’t stand to see them again and he stopped their walking to drop to one knee and give her a hug.

As he wrapped his arms around her small frame it reminded him of the way his mother embraced him the last time he saw her. It was long and hard, which surprised him because he always imagined his mother to be a rather frail woman, barely able to do much labor work around the house. And yet, he could still feel the lasting strength of his mother’s hug even now. He wanted to do the same for Adelaide. He wanted to hug her so tightly she would remember his embrace long after she aged into adulthood, and he was long gone from her life. But he knew that kind of hug could only come with time, for now she was stiff to his embrace. He let her go almost immediately. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked about your mother. You don’t ever have to talk about her or anything else you don’t want to. Deal?”

He held his hand out to her and she took it firmly. He could feel her squeeze him tightly, attempting to give the kind of shake her father would. He matched her tight squeeze and the smile returned to her lips.

Traix had enough coin to secure them a ride in a horse and buggy if he wanted, but insisted they travel on foot, out of eyeshot of others. He still wore the Royal Green and did not wish to be seen until he was ready. Instead, they stuck to the dirt road and stayed off the main one. This decision lengthened their trip considerably as it made their path much more treacherous. Every hour he insisted they stop, for the girl’s sake, to which she tried to tell him they were unnecessary. He could see the weariness in her eyes, especially once darkness finally fell, and though she fought the urge, each time they stopped she slept.

By the next morning, both had become the closest of friends and for that alone Traix was glad he decided they took the longer route. She told him stories about her father. In her eyes, he was the best swordsman, the best fighter, and the best father in all of ShadowRealm.

For Traix, their relationship was vastly different from what he had with his mother. Adelaide was too young for school or work and she had no mother to raise her as she died during childbirth. Instead, it was Adelaide who learned how to cook and clean for her father while he went off to work as a fisherman. Working on a fishing boat was just about the only profession left in Gaspar, unless you belonged to the King’s Army. Her father refused to pick up a sword until there was no more work to be found for him on the docks. He missed the sea and knew the only way he’d get it back would be to fight for the King.

In the beginning, it was a fun time for her father and for little Adelaide. He was just in training and she would visit him down by the training grounds with the castle walls. The Generals wouldn’t scold her because, to hear her tell it, she was young and cute. She would watch her father train all day and at night they would walk home together as he’d tell her tall tales. He was going to kill that awful female pirate and the King would pay him handsomely and they’d buy a large home with horses that she could have of her very own.

Hearing her talk of days there were not so long ago made him both happy and sad. Her youth was full of hopes and dreams that were all taken from her in an instant. How many other little girls lost their dreams yesterday Traix thought as they both stopped walking along an incline in the road that gave them a perfect view of the castle in the distance. From where they stood it did not look so intimidating but as they got closer it grew taller and wider, making them both fell small.

At the gate stood two men in full Royal Green. When they saw Traix approach they eyed each other cautiously and stood to attention, each reaching their rather long spears out till they formed a cross.

“You do realize there’s a gate, right? We couldn’t pass even if we wanted to. Those spears are unnecessary,” Adelaide said. Both men looked down at her with contempt. How dare she speak to men of the King’s Army that way?

“Who goes there?”

“I am Traix of the Kings Army.” He spread his arms to show he wore a uniform like theirs. “I was on the King’s Ship that set sail a forte night ago for the Shadow, in hopes of taking down the female pirate. I’ve come with an urgent message for the King.” Both men eyed each other suspiciously this time, but continued to ignore Traix. “Did you not hear what I just said? I demand to be taken to the King, immediately.”

“We were told of your arrival and you shall not seek the King’s council. He has enough trouble without hearing the ravings of a local town drunkard. Leave and take this waif with you before we hang you both from the gallows.”

Traix could tell by the dark look in their eyes they meant what they said. If he and Adelaide did not vacate immediately they would both surely find themselves at the end of a rope. He could not risk her life and was not yet ready to lose his own. He gently placed his hands on her shoulders and started to back away from them, pulling her with him.

She shrugged him off and replied, “But who could’ve told you of his coming? No one knew. He does not lie to you. And if the King hears you are responsible for keeping this man from telling him something rather important, it will be you two who hang from the gallows.”

“You’ve been warned once. Do not make me do it again.” The guards uncrossed their spears and readied them to attack. She realized standing her ground against these men was pointless and allowed him to turn her around as they walked quickly back from whence they came.

“What are we to do now?”

“I do not know. But who it is who has come here in my stead is quite clear to me. I will get my revenge upon Corwinn the Coward someday. You mark my words little one.”

“The man arrived just as he said my Lord, and he had a child with him.” One of the guards from the front gate stood before King Rowan, giving his detailed report.

Corwinn was nearby listening intently, ready to interrupt if he felt his lie unravel. “And where are they now? Have you taken them to the dungeon?” He stormed towards the guard who did not so much as flinch, even as Corwinn walked right up to his face.

The guard was not accustomed to answering anyone who wasn’t a ranking officer or the King, but in this case, he made an exception. “We were not instructed to apprehend him, sir. And he did not give us cause to seize him.”

“Why did you not order that madman be put in irons? He willingly left his post to save his own life. He’s a traitor,” Corwinn said, turning his anger towards King Rowan who sat in his chair, admiring his nails.

“Some say Corwinn the Coward is a traitor who should be put in irons,” the guard said under his breath, but well within earshot of Corwinn. He did not appreciate the way his King was being addressed.

“What did you say?” Corwinn readied to teach this guard a lesson and the guard gripped his spear so tightly his knuckles began to turn a pale white.

“Enough, both of you,” King Rowan shouted. Both men stood at attention and faced the King. “Go back to your duties,” he said, not looking at his guard at all. He only ever bothered to learn the names of the highest-ranking men in his army, but they all respected him and would give their life for him. All except the man who now stood before him. King Rowan made a point to study those around him closely, especially those he ever suspected of betraying him. He has a record of catching them all before they had the opportunity to dethrone him. He accomplished this by keeping his enemies closer to him. When Corwinn was his best General, before he was discovered to be a ‘coward,’ King Rowan never worried, but now that he’s a man with desperation wreaking from his pores, he needed to be kept close.

“I do not understand you my Lord. The King I knew would never stand for a traitor.” Corwinn stood near an open window and looked out across the castle wall. There he saw a man and young child holding hands, their heads hung low, walking in the distance. He smiled to himself at his cunning and timing to have arrived at the castle before they did. But he had expected both to be locked away in the dungeon for life, not walking free. He wanted to finish them both off, yes, even the child. They were a loose end he did not wish to encounter later.

“Do you expect me to believe that woman knows I’ve summoned the Paragon? How could she? No one knows.” The King shifted slightly in his ominous chair which was too large for his small size, but he insisted on keeping it as it was installed by his predecessor. King Rowan steepled his fingers in front of his lips, his elbows on the arms of his chair, and he considered what Corwinn told him earlier. “No, I just can’t believe it.”

“I tell you your Captain knew. He told her before taking his own life. If it wasn’t true how else would I come to know you’ve summoned it? What concerns me is not that she knows, but your reasons for summoning such a thing. If what you’ve told me of it is true I cannot understand what could’ve driven you to such lengths.”

“That woman will not go away that’s why!” The King slammed his fists on the arms of his chair. He stood in annoyance and started pacing back and forth, something Corwinn remembered the King would do when he was first crowned, pretending to be deep in though on some serious matter, when really, he had no clue how to govern an entire Kingdom. Now, however, he walked with purpose and a rage unlike anything Corwinn had ever seen before. He did not realize just how much King Rowan detested and despised Captain Silverblade. So much so, he was willing to do anything to put a stop to her. Even call upon Death itself.

“Could you not call upon the other Kingdom’s as I suggested to you long ago? Together all of you could have put a stop to her then and you wouldn’t have need to unleash such an evil thing?”

“How would you know where we are today? You, who abandoned me in your cowardice. You, who chose to drink rather than fight. You know nothing of what has gone on since you’ve left. You have no right to question my commands. You gave it up long ago.” He slumped back in his chair and the rage he had all but disappeared. He held his head in his hands in defeat. “I had to do it, Corwinn. I could see no other way.”

“What of Pradore?”

“Please, that fool. He is worst of them all. I sent word to him of my plan. Your plan, admittedly. And do you know what he did? He suggested I pay the wench and be done with her! Can you believe him? I’ve since ordered our people to never accept their trade and they are not allowed to dock on our waters ever again. I will not do business with someone who rather pay a ransom to her than fight with honor, dignity and loyalty.”

“What of the others then? Surely they—.”

“Feel the same as King Tassis. None of them want to take on her or the Shadow. They feel she is untouchable and in a moment of brief despair, I believed they were right. I did what I thought I had to do. What else could I do? The people of Gaspar are losing money and patience with me. They expect a King who will do what’s best for them. I promise them safety and prosperity. You’ve seen what it’s like out there. Another year like this and we’ll be like Diamore.” Corwinn winced at the comparison. Diamore was a shell of a Kingdom now because of the Great Dragon War and would likely never recover. No Kingdom ever wanted to be compared to that of Diamore.

“Where is he?”

The King looked up at Corwinn surprised at the question. “Who? Oh him, he’s somewhere I suspect. When you summon, the Paragon,” he whispered, “you don’t really control where it goes or how it does what you ask. A rather vicious consequence to summoning it in the first place.”

“But a wise choice, my Lord.” A voice as cold as ice cracked through the room from the window where Corwinn had just stood. It was like he appeared out of nowhere and Corwinn wondered how long he’d been in the room before he decided to speak? “You must be Corwinn the Coward?”

Corwinn’s face grew beet red as his hands turned to fists, wanting to attack the thing that stood before him. This Paragon didn’t look as scary or intimidating as he’d imagined. In fact, he looked rather insignificant in size and stature. And Corwinn would have torn him limb from limb if not for the fact he found he couldn’t move. “What have you done to me?” he managed to stammer through his clenched jaw.

“What you’re experiencing right now is what I like to call Reversal. Whatever you desire to do at this very moment the opposite is occurring with just as much intensity. I am doing nothing to you. This is of your own design. If you want it to stop then you must stop wanting to harm me.” Corwinn’s eyes practically bulged out of their sockets the harder he tried to move to attack. The King looked on with excitement and fear at what was happening to Corwinn.

“Enough!” King Rowan shouted. “Release him. I did not summon you to kill him.” With a look of disgust at being given orders, the Paragon released the Reversal he placed upon Corwinn. Instantly, his body relaxed so much so he nearly fell to the floor as his knees buckled under the weight of his body. He leaned upon an arm of the King’s chair to steady himself.

“How could you release such a thing? Why did you not call on me? I could rid you of this Captain Silverblade and without the use of parlor tricks.” That last jab was aimed at the Paragon but his comment was ignored, which only made Corwinn even more angry that he could not affect this inhuman thing.

“You can kill her? Ha! I’d like to see you get near her. I bet you couldn’t. My King, you can’t tell me you are seriously considering listening to this drunk? All he does is imbibe all day. What good would he be to you?” The Paragon’s eyes glowed red as he stared into Corwinn who backed away once feeling returned to his legs.

“Could you really kill her Corwinn?” The King looked to his friend pleadingly. He could tell the King was looking for a way out of having to use the Paragon, but it was pointless, and both men knew it. Once it was let out the only way to put it back is once his purpose is complete.

“I can my Lord. Give me your Army and I promise you I will set her precious Shadow ablaze and bring you her head. I will not rest until I’ve put an end to her. I promise this on my honor.”

The Paragon snorted with laughter at Corwinn’s words. “On your honor? What honor is that? I will not have you here corrupting and twisting the mind of King Rowan.” He moved quickly towards Corwinn who matched him step for step in backing away from him.

“Enough, both of you! I fear I may need you both to defeat her. How can I count on you two to work together if you bicker over such pettiness?”

“Work together?” they both spoke simultaneously. Neither wished to work with the other. They both wanted the ear of the King for their own selfish reasons and had no intention on sharing this honor.

“That is what I want. Take it or leave it.”

“The Paragon works alone.”

“You do as I tell you. I know you are powerful. Much more powerful than I or any man. But I hold the key to your existence. You are here because of me and as quickly as I summoned you is as quickly as I can send you back!” The Paragon did not like being spoken to this way. King or not he wished to destroy this impudent man who dared talk down to him. He raised his hands to the Kings neck attempting to strangle the life out of him, but his fingers remained just inches away, unable to completely close. “What you’re experiencing now is called The Royal Hold. I thought you knew of this Paragon? Or are you getting forgetful in your old age?” Corwinn watched in shock as the Paragon continued to try and strangle the King. “Do not concern yourself with protecting me Corwinn. He cannot harm me. It is the deal, is it not, Paragon? Forged when you were joined with us against your will. In exchange for his freedom we can call on him whenever we choose to do one task for us, but he cannot harm me or anyone in my family lineage. He knows it. Though I don’t know why he still persists with this feeble attempt at strangling me?” With that last remark, the Paragon finally stopped and backed away, out of breath. To Corwinn he seemed less evil and more human.

“Fine. I will agree to work with him. But if you get in my way or do something stupid I will kill you.” Corwinn knew his words to be true and hoped he would never be accused of committing either.

“I will do as you ask, my Lord, as long as you provide what I need in return?”

“Yes, General Corwinn, you shall have your army and as many ships at your command as needed. Just see that it’s done. Now leave me. I’ve grown tired of the both of you.” He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair to rest. The sound of a slight snore could be heard under his breathing as both Corwinn and the Paragon looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

The King had fallen right to sleep.

Captain Silverblade paced inside her quarters as she continued to gently rub her stomach. Was she pregnant? How could she let this happen? What would Wendynn do if he found out? All these questions and more raced through her mind as she paced. Every few steps she’d stop to look at her door, anticipating a visitor. Her room was small and only took five steps to reach either end.

Suddenly, there came a knock on her door so lightly she hardly heard it. She yanked it open brusquely and found exactly who she was expecting on the other side, Spire, wearing a great big grin on his face. She looked over his shoulder and saw Wendynn standing just behind him, eyeing them both suspiciously. She reached out and grabbed Spire around the collar, yanking him inside before closing the door with a loud slam in Wendynn’s face.

“What took you so long?” she shouted frantically, clutching her stomach, feeling phantom pain, as the thought of something happening to her or her unborn child left her distressed.

“What is wrong, Silver? I thought you called for me on a different matter, but you behave in a way I’ve never seen before. Why do you claw at your stomach? Have you eaten something foul?”

“No, you fool, it wasn’t something I ate. I need you to get Nelle right away.”

“Nelle?” He grabbed her by the elbow to stop her continuous pacing and forced her to look him in the eye. “What on Earth would you be needing the likes of her for? She’s nothing but a common witch,” he spat out.

“Unhand me. How dare you grab me like that?” She wrenched her elbow from his grasp and moved away from him to lean against her bed. “She is not just a witch. Although, her powers are what I seek right now. She is anything but common, Spire, and you know it.” Her desperation for his help made her forget the way he grabbed her as she reached out and grabbed his arm tightly. “Please, just do as I ask, time is of the essence.”

Spire’s eyes grew wide as he’d seen this behavior before. “You are with child. How could you? With who?”

Just then her door swung open with a bang as Wendynn stood in the doorway. He barged in as if expecting to find Spire and Captain Silverblade in a precarious position, but was surprised to find them at opposite ends of the room.

“What?” she asked him, angrily. He continued to move his eyes back and forth between her and Spire who leaned against a wall covered in trinkets she’d collected over her time as a pirate. Wendynn hated Spire and wished she never let him join her crew. He was cocky and stubborn, and of all her Captain’s he was the only one who always caused trouble.

“The men are murmuring about the word that man used just before he took his own life; Paragon. They wish to know what or who it is?”

“It is none of their concern and you have no right barging into my private room without knocking. Leave me to finish what I need and do not come here until I send for you. I am the Captain of this crew and I decide what they need to know. Is that understood?” She took her hand away from her stomach and crossed her arms, hoping he hadn’t noticed. She knew why he barged in and as much as she much as she wanted to assure him there was nothing going on, she had little time for his childish games. There was a child growing inside of her that she had to put first. It’s life must be spared at all costs as it did not ask to be born to a mother whose life is at risk every day.

“I understand. And the men, what will you have me tell them?”

“I will have you tell them that for now, the Paragon is not a concern they should have. Tell them to leave it be.” He nodded and turned to leave. “Oh, and Wendynn, I suggest you do the same.” He did not bother to turn around and face her, instead he continued to make his exit, purposely leaving her door wide open. “Hurry and bring Nelle to me. Be sure you’re not followed and no one sees her enter this room, not even the men,” she whispered to Spire.

“It’s him, isn’t it? He’s the father?”

Captain Silverblade walked to her door and closed it quietly so as not to call attention to herself. “Spire, if you ever cared for me at all, if you care for me still, you will do what I ask and not question my requests. You and Wendynn are among my most trusted Pirates. My friends. I would not have you two fighting over me. You should be fighting together as brothers. Now go. Please.” She put her hand on his chest, feeling his heart beat quicken at her touch. He nodded and with his usual smirk, he marched to her door.

“I shall do as you ask, Captain. The fair Nelle shall arrive here with me on the morrow. Farewell.” And with a flair for dramatic he left both her room and ship with great haste.

Anyone looking for Nelle the Witch knew where to find her. She enjoyed helping others and did it from a tent she kept in the marketplace. Not too far from the Serpent’s Head was located a narrow road used by merchants to sell their wares. Almost every Kingdom has a marketplace, where those looking to sell something, anything, must go. Under Nelle’s tent she sold the future.

Whoever entered her tent would have their future foretold in a most theatrical way. As a former student of Woodvale Academy, the last thing all graduates are taught is how to hide their talents amongst society. Nelle chose to be a Future Teller. She wanted a setting where she could have one-on-one interactions with people and be of most help to them. She learned how to see anyone’s future although they weren’t always happy ones. Whenever she saw a bad future, she’d mix a magic potion that would alter the course of events. Because she was helping peasants there was no real harm done when changing their destiny.

Spire hated all the good deeds she did, especially because the one thing he asked of her she refused to do. He wanted Captain Silverblade for his very own but knew someone stood between them. He asked Nelle to rid them of this person. She claimed forcing love was not something anyone, not even the most powerful of witches could do.

After he returned to his own ship, he took a small fishing boat and rowed towards the Gaspar shores. The sun had already begun to set which meant the merchants would be putting away their unsold items and headed home. Spire was glad to see the setting sun because it meant he would only have to go as far as the Serpent’s Head to find her. For all the good she does, the one thing about her Spire enjoyed seeing was when she let her hair down at night with the men at the bar. She may be a witch who does good deeds but was still a woman with needs.

Spire made it to shore as the sun set completely. The last of its rays descending behind the Arctic Slope mountains in the distance. The yellow moon crept out from behind some clouds and caught the fading green of the serpent above the tavern door. He avoided the docks and any prying eyes that may be spying for the King and trudged up the sand hill to the tavern. At the door, he heard the chatter of voices loudly shouting to each other within. He pushed against the door just as a drunk man did the same on the opposite side. They both came at the door with the same intensity, causing it not to budge from its resting place. Spire shrugged at the mystery of why the door wouldn’t open and ceased pushing against it. The man on the other hand decided to take two steps back and charge at it, in his drunken state. He flew right through it and past Spire, tripping into a large barrel of water nearby. Spire chuckled to himself as he walked inside and found the place filled with men and a handful of women. These were the kind of women, men would never make their wife and the women preferred it that way.

As Spire walked passed the bar he winked at the barman who was well acquainted with him and who he works for. In a town like Gaspar, full of enemies, the barman thought it better to be on at least friendly relations with all sides. It’s the reason his tavern has been able to stay standing for so long.

He approached the bar and shouted over the men who were there talking about fish they caught earlier in the day. “Where’s Nelle?”

The barman cocked his head to the other end of the tavern at a table in the corner of the room. He pushed his way through several men till he found her seated at a table, as beautiful as he remembered her, listening intently to a man waving his hands about as he told her some animated story.

Spire had a job to do and unlike the many men surrounding her, he wasn’t going to let her charm and beauty be a distraction. He straightened himself to stand tall, puffed out his chest, and marched right up to the table where a seat had just become available. He grabbed the back of the chair, spun it around and spreading his legs wide, sat and leaned on the back of the chair. Nelle pretended not to notice him.

Spire knew she was pretending to be interested in the story and decided to interrupt by winking at her. “Hey, there toots. Miss me?”

She faced him coyly and smiled. She knew how he felt about her and wasn’t too fond of him either. Ever since she refused his demand he’s been rude to her. Captain Silverblade was a longtime friend of hers and she wasn’t about to put a spell on her. Especially not one that meant she would forever be entangled with this loathsome and annoying creature. “And to what do I owe this visit?” she asked.

“Scram buddy, I need to talk to the lady,” Spire said to the gentleman who seemed unfazed by Spire’s interruption. What bothered him most was when Nelle signaled for him to leave her table. He walked away sulking. Once the other men got the hint and left her table as well, Spire continued, “She needs you.”

“What’s happened? You must tell me everything.” Nelle leaned close to Spire to hear his whispered answer.

“We were attacked this morning by a crazed Captain who spoke of some Paragon coming—.” Nelle stopped breathing and gripped Spire’s forearm tightly.

“Did you say the Paragon is here?” He nodded and she closed her eyes tightly, whispering words to herself he could not hear over the noise which grew louder around them. “What else has happened? How is she?”

“She’s pregnant.” Nelle release his arm and stood from the table. On instinct he stood as well, unsure of what she was about to do.

“Follow me.” She moved so quickly he hardly had time to react to her request beyond putting one foot in front of the other till they were both out of the Serpent’s Head. “If what you’ve told me is true and she’s asked for me, it can only be for one reason. I hoped this day would never come, but some things I see cannot be tampered with.”

Spire did not understand what she was saying. Whenever Nelle spoke like this no one understood her. He became concerned with the change in her countenance and her jumbled words. He had no clue what was going on and knew Nelle wasn’t going to tell him. His best way to uncover the mystery was to bring her to the Captain and demand answers from her.

“We must hurry back to the ship. The men will be asleep now and the best time for us to sneak on board. We won’t be seen.” He started walking backwards towards his boat rocking and bumping into the dock from the waves but she did not move to follow him. “What stops you? We must make haste. The Captain seemed intent on my bringing you back as quickly as possible.”

“You do not understand. If I am to do what she wants we must first pick up a few things.”

“Pick up a few things? No. My orders are to bring you to her and that is all I intend to do. I’ve never seen her like this, Nelle.”

The yellow moon in the sky was now out and full, it’s color caught his eyes and Nelle swore she could see tears in them.

“I know you love her, Spire. I promise you, what I need will not take long to get. We must find a man and a child journeying along a dirt road and bring them with us to meet the Compass Maker who lives in a small village in Ebonthorn.”

“Are you mad? We can’t go there now. That is a full day’s journey and she doesn’t have that kind of time. I must bring you to the Captain—.”

“Do what you must, but if you bring me to her and I do not have what I need, you will suffer the brunt of her wrath when she discovers we wasted time arguing.”

He hated to admit it but she was right. He also hated having to do what she wanted but he had no choice. He needed her to come with him but she wouldn’t without the things she needed. And a witch as powerful as her wouldn’t be easily forced against her will.

“Fine. Lead the way.”

“Excellent. You’ve made the right decision, Spire. You just might make a decent Pirate someday. Now, first we must locate the dirt road and if I’m not mistaken we will find the man and child well before the moon sets and the sun rises on the morrow.” She nudged him in the shoulder and winked at him, much the same way he winked whenever he thought he was being clever. He rolled his eyes at her back as she walked on ahead of him, past the Serpent’s Head, and into the night with the yellow moon lighting their way.

Further down the dirt path, trees around them became denser. They could barely see in front of them and Spire kept walking into low hanging branches, which he found annoying and Nelle found humorous. This went on for several minutes before Nelle picked up a thick branch from the ground and with her fingers splayed out, palm up, she called forth a ball of orange fire which hovered in the air above her hand. She touched it to the tip of the branch and it caught fire instantly.

“Perhaps this will help?” She shoved the branch into Spire’s hand and continued walking. She had walked this path plenty of times as she used to be a regular visitor at the Kings Castle. Her frequent visits and the reasons for them were to remain a secret, which is why she took this path that was hardly used, and how she knew it so well.

In the distance, Spire heard rustling in the trees just off the path. He grabbed Nelle and put a finger to his lips to silence her. They stayed perfectly still, long enough for her to hear the same rustling sound. She grabbed the torch from his hand and before he could stop her she marched in the direction of the sound. Spire worried the sound could be a wild animal out for a late-night feeding, but she knew exactly what she’d find when she pointed the torch towards the source of the sound.

A man with his arms wrapped around what appeared to be a young girl, was knelt beside her, as they both tried to hide within some bushes.

“It’s quite alright, you don’t need to be afraid. We won’t harm you. In fact, we’ve been looking for you. I’m Nelle the—.”

“…one who has come to help you,” Spire interrupted, stopping her before she could reveal she was a witch. He saw the Royal Green vest the man wore and knew it meant he was a member of the Kings Army. He did not wish to find out what would happen should they be discovered to be a witch and a pirate.

She eyed Spire suspiciously, a frown on her face as she hated being cut off, especially by a man. But perhaps keeping the fact that she’s a witch a secret wasn’t such a terrible idea. “We were wondering if we could be of some assistance to you.”

“I’m Adelaide. You’re pretty.” The little girl pried herself away from Traix who remained guarded as he watched both Spire and Nelle closely.

“What brings you two out here so late at night?” Traix asked, holding fast to Adelaide’s shoulders so she would not stray too far from him.

“What brings us out here? Why, we’re out here…” Spire started but could think of a good reason for their presence beyond stating the truth.

“We are lovers just out here trying to find a good place to lay upon the grass when we heard a sound. And now that we’ve found you and your daughter I’m sure my companion will agree with me that we much rather be of service to you than to each other.” She smiled innocently at Traix, while Adelaide looked up at her confused by what she heard. Spire just turned his face away and tried to suppress laughter.

“There is a child present, what is wrong with you? Are you one of those ladies who spends her evenings in that Serpent’s Head? If so, there is absolutely nothing you can do for us, thank you. We’ll just be on our way and leave you two—.”

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.” Spire unsheathed his sword and stepped in their way. “See, she needs something you have and I aim to get it for her.” He turned to Nelle. “Tell him what you want so we can leave this place. We are far too close to the Kings Castle for my liking.”

“Steady on, Pirate. It appears what I need is not in his possession but in hers.” She looked down at Adelaide and the sword she had hanging across her back. Adelaide stepped back and bumped into Traix who was still behind her gripping her shoulders tighter now.

“You can’t have it. This is my father’s sword.” Spire stepped forwards with his sword in front of him, ready to attack with just the slightest provocation.

“Stop, Spire, can’t you see you’re scaring her. Little Adelaide, I promise you I will not take the sword from you by force. I cannot. I need you to give it to me by choice. But I promise you, if you give me the sword I will not only return it to you but I will also find a place for you and your father to live out your days.” She looked up at Traix and winked at him. “You wear the Royal Green but something tells me you want to get as far away from Gaspar as possible. Am I correct, Traix?”

Traix couldn’t believe how much she knew of them and wondered if she might be a witch like he’d heard so much about?

“How do you know who we are? Are you some sort of witch? Fancy running into a Witch and a Pirate. I’m afraid you’re wasting your time, the girl will not part with this sword. She wouldn’t even give it to me when I needed it to defend my own life earlier today.” No sooner was his sentence finished did he feel Adelaide pull away from his grasp and lift the sword over her shoulder.

“If you say you will return her to me, I will entrust my father’s sword to you.” Adelaide gave the blade one final squeeze, a tear rolled down her cheek as she kissed the hilt and with one powerful thrust she pushed it into Nelle’s hands.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Traix said, kneeling in front of Adelaide as she wiped the tear from her cheek.

“She says she can take us far away from here. It is what you want and what I need.”

“You are far wiser than I will ever be, Adelaide. I’m sure your father is proud of you.”

“Yeah, yeah, can we dispense with the meaningful words and leave. We’ve got what we came for, now where do we go?” Spire became nervous the longer they remained rooted to the one spot. He walked circles around them as he spoke and checked every so often in the distance for the slightest signs of movement.

“There is a steamship which will set sail the second I arrive. We must go there quickly.”

“Wait a minute, a steamship? Those things are the most dangerous vessels to ever float on water. You expect me, a Pirate Captain, to board a steamship? It will never make it around the bend, let alone through the Sea of Swirling Stones.”

Traix was in a hurry and did not wish to remain arguing with them as he felt the way Spire did, they were standing there for much too long. “I hate to interrupt, but I’ve been across the Sea of Swirling Stones, and it is no place to take a child.”

“He’s right, Nelle. Ships in better condition than a steamship have found it difficult to navigate those waters. I think it’s time to abandon—.”

“We have no choice, Pirate. Stop questioning my every move and just do as I tell you. I would not keep Captain Silverblade waiting.”

Traix and Adelaide backed away from Nelle and Spire when they heard her mention Captain Silverblade. After how she’d ruined both of their lives, neither wanted anything to do with her or anyone who knew of her.

“You work for Captain Silverblade? Then you must be one of her Pirate Captains. A part of her crew. Leave now before I run back to the Castle and have the entire Royal Army after you.”

“Traix, you and I both know you won’t do that. They would sooner believe her wild tale than the ravings of a drunken fool. Do not make this journey any more unpleasant than it has be. She kept up her end of the bargain and now I think you owe her and should do the same.”

He considered her words very carefully. Adelaide had made a sacrifice for him by giving away a sword she believed to belong to her father, to a woman who might never return it. On his own he could probably get them out of Gaspar, but how far would they be journeying before he felt they were safe? He did not have an answer.

“Fine, we shall travel with you on this steamship and you will give us what you promised, a place where we may live out our days undisturbed by the Royal Army.”

“Excellent. Let us away then.”

She strapped the sword around her waist the way it was meant to be worn, then picked up two more branches off the ground and held them out in front of her. Her eyes glowed red momentarily as they stared at the tips of the branches. In an instant, they lit up in an orange glow. She handed Traix and Adelaide each their own torch and with a fling of her cape she turned back to the dirt road to resume their journey.

In no time, they found their way back to the Serpent’s Head. Both Traix and Adelaide looked around nervously. They remembered Corwinn and hoped he was not inside the tavern. Nelle led them towards the docks, passed Spire’s boat still tied and rocking in the murky waters, all the way to the furthest end. There in the moonlight, was a steamship, so black with soot it was barely visible to them. It wasn’t until they were mere feet from its location that they noticed it. A man covered in soot blended right into the steamship and they only noticed him because of his eyes blinking. He was smoking a pipe and leaning against his ship, in a deep sleep.

“Ansel, you bastard!” Nelle shouted, scaring him awake. “Asleep on the job as always.”

“Where the hell have you been?” he asked. He took her hand and helped her onto his steamship. He did the same for the others as he continued to argue with her. “You promised me we’d be long gone by now. I’ve got a woman and two small children at home, Nelle. What would she think about me ferrying you around whenever you call on me? She might get jealous and force me to do something drastic…” He leaned in to try and keep his next words secret but they all heard him shout, “Like marry her!”

“Ansel, I’d like you to meet my new friends; Little Adelaide, Traix, and Spire.”

“Lordy, any more out there you’d like me to take? A distant cousin, perhaps? Listen, Nelle, the deal was always that I take you and you alone wherever you want to go. You I can explain; how would I explain them in case we get stopped and searched?”

“You worry too much, Ansel. I promise you, no one will stop us and no one will search this vessel. In fact,” she said as she rolled up her sleeves and raised her hands to the night sky, “no one will see us at all.” She brought her arms down quickly and murmured something none of them could make out.

“What did you do?”

“She made us invisible! Look, no shadow.” Adelaide pointed to the dock right next to the steamship. She was correct. Where the yellow moon was casting long shadows of other ships docked, there was none of the steamship. Traix sat down on some crates in disbelief.

“Well, Ansel, let’s go. I want to catch the Compass Maker at first light. Can you just imagine the look on his face when he sees me?”

“Oh yeah, why? Is he some jilted lover of yours?” Spire asked.

“Bite your tongue, Pirate. I haven’t seen him in nearly two decades and he happens to be my twin brother.” Adelaide and Traix inhaled deeply as the steamship lurched forwards in the water and set sail. “But not to worry darlings. He’s not a warlock or anything. He’s just…gifted…”

Ansel let his steamship just float down the river during the remaining evening hours. There was hardly any wind to set sail against and although he knew what their heading was, the Sea of Swirling Bones was less treacherous in the day time. With every hour that passed Spire grew more and more restless. He could not imagine what Captain Silverblade would be thinking that he had not returned yet. How could he know Nelle intended to force him onto this rickety boat with a traitor from the Royal Army and a child?

“Won’t you make this infernal thing go faster?”

“Patience, Spire. If you look over yonder there’s the Sea of Swirling Bones just up ahead. For us to pass through unscathed we cannot go faster than the winds intend,” Nelle reasoned with him. Spire knew she was right, but his frustration got the better of him.

The steamship creaked loudly as waves on either side crashed into it, causing them to rock slightly. Spire spent his entire life on a ship, having been born and raised on one by his parents, so he knew when something wasn’t built for the water. This steamship stood very little chance of making it through the Sea of Swirling Bones and he had to pace to keep from sharing his thoughts with the others.

“What is the Sea of Swirling Bones?” Adelaide asked, attempting to lighten the mood and change the subject. Spire’s pacing was beginning to worry her, too. Ansel jumped at the opportunity to speak from experience.

“Little lady, I’ve traveled these waters all my life and I will tell you I have never come across a sea quite like this one. Its name tells you all you need to know, but it’s nothing like being caught in the middle of it. Soon, you’ll hear rocks hitting the underbelly of my steamship. If we’re lucky we’ll only make contact with the smaller ones. But I’ve heard tell of many ships who’ve had large holes created by rocks the size of dragons! The trick, as Nelle pointed out to me once, is not to fight it. Too many scared or impatient men always think they can best the sea, outwit and out maneuver the rocks themselves.” He looked at Spire when he spoke these words, but his glare went unnoticed. “But you cannot predict that which you cannot control. The sea is the one beast man insists on controlling no matter how many lose their lives trying.”

Spire finally took notice of Ansel’s words though he hated to admit it, Ansel was correct. It was pointless to try and avoid being struck by rocks which were set in a constant circular motion by a force known by neither man nor beast. The phenomenon was simply accepted as a force of nature.

Before Adelaide or Traix could ask follow-up questions, they heard something bump the bottom of the ship. What Ansel had just spoke about was happening right under them as a quick succession of rocks and bones began to strike the bottom of the steamship. It was still immune from being seen, but it did not stop them from making contact with the steamship. Spire and Ansel quickly yanked on the ropes to raise the sails.

“What are you doing? I though you just said it was dangerous to move any faster than the wind dictated?” Traix asked.

“The situation has changed since last I spoke. I’m afraid if we don’t move, and I mean with haste, we’ll find ourselves joining the bones which swirl beneath us now. Trust me.” He patted Traix on the shoulder reassuringly as he went to the opposite end of the steamship and sat on a box of crates. He took a pipe from his shirt pocket and began to ready it for a smoke.

“You don’t mean to tell me you just intend to sit there while all of this is going on around us?” Traix continued as he followed close behind Ansel.

“You’d do better to go sit over there with your little girl. It’s going to get far worse before it gets better.” Traix pulled his elbow out of the grip of Spire who sat himself down next to Ansel and proceeded to extract his own pipe to join him.

Traix shook his head at both of them in disbelief before heeding his suggestion and securing himself on the ground near Adelaide. Without waiting, she joined him on the ground as well. He could see her chest was heaving up and down quickly from fright but she swallowed hard and tried to look as brave as possible.

Spire knew this would be a long wait game, and though he tried, he could not sit still. Instead, he got right back up and paced the ship, back and forth, while puffs of smoke billowed above his head. As he was about to make one more pass to the other side, Adelaide stepped away from Traix and blocked his path.

“You can hold my hand if want. I promise I won’t tell anyone.” He smiled down at Adelaide, her big brown eyes shining in the light of the yellow moon.

He leaned down and whispered in her ear, “I think you should go hold your father’s hand. He looks like he needs it more than me.” Adelaide turned around to find Traix rubbing his hands together nervously the more the ship rocked. She swayed side to side back to her seat next to him and without even asking, took his hand in hers. Suddenly, they were hit even harder and the ship made a sound like it was about to tear in two, scaring Adelaide so much she wrapped her arms around Traix’s neck so tightly he could not pry her lose. He realized her embrace was a sign that she relied on him and he stopped trying to remove her from his neck, instead he held her in his lap while the steamship continued to force its way through to the other side of the Sea of Swirling Bones.

At day break, Nelle was the first one to rise by the sun’s rays beaming down on the ship. She looked around her and saw everything was destroyed. It seemed the only thing that survived the voyage was the ship itself and the people on board. She got to her feet and stretched her limbs, glad the worst of it was over. In the distance, she saw a familiar mountain clearing and knew home was near.

“Finally, let us find this brother of yours and get what you need, quickly,” Spire said, rubbing his eyes awake. At the sound of his loud voice everyone else started to wake as well.

“Not before she gives us what she promised. I have no desire to follow you two any further once we reach land.” After coming out of the Sea of Bones in one piece Traix felt rather bold and confident, he also realized traveling with them would only lead to more trouble he was not interested in finding. He had Adelaide to think about now and what she needed was a home, not more danger.

“Fine. When we get to shore I will take you the place you two will be calling home for a very long time.”

The sun had not reached its peak yet before the steamship’s invisibility was reversed and docked along the shores of Ebonthorn. Once on land she took them past a run-down tavern that looked like it hadn’t been used in ages, down a road that stretched beyond it. At the end of the road was a small cottage, just big enough for two people. “There it is, my childhood home.” Both Traix and Spire looked at her with raised eyebrows. “Yes, I had a childhood once. No one lives here now. You and your little companion may stay as long as you like. That shack at the other end is yours as well. Do with it what you will.” She turned to Adelaide who eyed the sword behind Nelle’s back longingly. She knew it was the last time she would see it for a long time and it pained her to let it go. “I promise you no harm will come of it and when you are old enough to wear it properly, it will come back to you.” Before Adelaide could say goodbye or Traix could give his thanks, Nelle tugged at Spire to follow her back the way they came.

Spire was a pirate, not used to spending so much time on land and all this time away from water and a proper ship was beginning to grate on his nerves. “We’ve done nothing but walk since I’ve met you. When all this is over I look forward to getting back to my ship.”

“Complain. That is all you do is complain. How is it you became a Captain for Silver? You don’t strike me as the type she would promote to such a position and yet, here you are. To carry such a title in her crew it is customary to behave as one. At least I thought it was. It seems a lot has changed.” Spire had enough. Since the first day they met she’s done nothing but belittle and boss him around. He did not mind taking it from Captain Silverblade but he was not about to continue taking it from her. She was right, he was a Captain, and as such he should be treated with some form of respect.

“I cannot wait to be rid of you. I still don’t understand why she needs you. Whoever this Paragon is that has her so scared I’m sure we can protect her better than you. It’s what we all pledged to do when we joined.”

“Oh, Spire, dear, sweet, naive, Spire. You utter the name Paragon and yet you have no idea the true meaning behind it. If you did, you would understand her fear. If you did, you would have brought me to her without waiting for her to ask. She is right to call on me and right to fear the name of Paragon. It is not a name heard among your kind. It is a name that means only one word; Death. If we do not retrieve what I need from my brother she will surely die at the hand of the Paragon and there is nothing any well-intentioned pirate can do about it.” Spire remained quiet, he had much more questions now but he knew it was not the time or place.

They walked on for what seemed like forever to him and he nearly collapsed from exhaustion when the sun was no longer hidden by clouds or tall trees around them.

Nelle stopped at the edge of a clearing and smiled at the sight. Spire came up behind her and looked over her shoulder, a gasp coming to his throat. “Is that a tree?”

“Not quite,” she replied. “Come along.” She led him across a large stretch of luscious green grass. There was no visible path leading up to the door of this massive tree that was in the center of this large space. As they got closer to it, Spire could tell the tree was somehow connected to a house that was built through it. He tried to find where the structure of the house began and the tree ended but could not. They were one in the same.

A man stepped from behind a door hidden in the tree holding a pistol in his hand. Spire reached for the hilt of his sword but Nelle put her hand on his, stopping him. “Who are you and what do you want?”

“Brother, it is I. Your sister, Nelle,” she said as she walked up to him, her hands outstretched.

“Nelle?” The man she called her brother holstered his gun and stretched out his arms toward her. They embraced and it did not take Spire long to realize, her brother was blind. “What brings you here? Is something wrong?”

“Yes, brother. I need those things I asked you to make for me. Do you remember?” She took his arm in hers and led him to the from door. Spire followed close behind.

“You mean those Compasses you asked me to make special? If you seek those now, then something really must be wrong. Tell me?”

“Riven, you know I cannot. But I can tell you the gentleman I’ve brought with me is a pirate.” She said the last word as if it were a fantastic secret she only wished to share with her brother. Being twins they were the same age, but that was about all they had in common, because upon hearing the word ‘pirate’ he became as giddy as a young boy.

“Is he really?”

“Yes, and if you give me the Compasses he’s promised to tell you all about his life as a Pirate,” Nelle responded. She didn’t look back at Spire but she had a feeling he was giving her a rather dirty look.

Riven brought them inside where Spire found himself surrounded by compasses. He had never seen so many in his entire life. They were of all shapes and sizes. Each as unique and eye catching as the next. They hung all along the walls. Not a centimeter could be seen behind all the compasses. In the middle of the room was a work table where more compasses were nearly spilling over onto the floor. All the ones on the table were opened, exposing their inner workings.

“How can you manage to make these if…” Spires question petered away as he realized what he was asking and felt ashamed.

“It’s quite alright Pirate to wonder how I build a compass if I cannot see. You are not the first person to ask me that and you certainly won’t be the last. I have these.” Riven picked up a pair of spectacles that had varying lenses for each eye and put them on. “When I wear them I can see the mechanisms inside a compass. But they only work on compasses. I’m afraid they don’t work on everyday life. I find the things we love most often don’t.”

Spire did not have the faintest idea what he meant by that but didn’t bother asking him to explain. Riven sat at his desk and opened a drawer on the side. There he pulled out a blue bag and turned over its contents onto the table. Out spilled five golden compasses. To the naked eye they each looked identical, yet they each had one thing that made them unique to each other. Spire wanted to reach out and take hold of one but hesitated. He remembered Nelle speaking of her brother being gifted and he was afraid he’d find out just what that meant if he tried to touch one. Instead, he hung back while Nelle took each one and placed them back in the bag.

“Brother, I’m afraid we have to go now.” She signaled Spire to make for the front door and he did so without question. Finally, she wanted to move with great urgency and he was grateful for this change of pace.

“Already? But you just got here. And you promised he would tell me a story.”

“I promise I will tell you two stories next time we visit. Isn’t that right, Nelle?” Spire knew the game she was playing with her brother and helped only so far as it would get them on their way faster. She scowled at him for knowing exactly what to say to her childlike brother, but played along just the same.

“He most definitely will, Riven. We will be back very soon. I promise. In the meantime, remind me, which is your most favorite Compass?” No sooner did she make this request did he rush towards the back of the house in search of it. As Nelle and Spire left, closing the front door silently behind them, they could hear Riven mumbling aloud to himself as he continued his search for a particular compass Spire knew couldn’t exist, because Riven loved them all.

Nelle walked from her brother’s house at a speed she had not used since Spire found her at the Serpent’s Head. He tried to keep pace with her and ask why she moved so quickly, but avoiding questions about her brother’s condition was something she’d been doing her entire life.

They rounded a corner and she stopped abruptly, causing Spire to collide into her as she quickly put a hand over his mouth and a finger to her lips to silence him.

“Royal Army.” She pointed behind her to where two men wearing the Royal Green were speaking Ansel. Undoubtedly, they were questioning the reason for his being there? Steamships were not known to visit this Kingdom as there was nothing they carried worth selling in Ebonthorn.

Neither Nelle nor Spire could make out what the men were saying to Ansel but eventually they departed, seemingly satisfied with whatever story was spun for them. Once they were far enough away they could not be seen, Nelle and Spire ran for the steamship. When Ansel saw the two of them running as if being chased he turned on his heels and loosed the rope keeping them docked. He quickly got his ship ready to set sail until he heard Nelle and Spire laughing at his speed.

“We ran not from being chased you silly oaf, but because of the men who just left you. They may not be satisfied with the story you told them. But it was a good show watching you move so quickly. I don’t recall ever seeing that before.” Nelle clutched at her stomach as her laughter grew and tears welled in her eyes. It even made Ansel laugh as well.

After all three got the laughter out of their system they set his steamship back towards the choppy waters. The Serpent’s Head wasn’t yet out of eyesight, but they could see the afternoon sun’s rays shining off its green color. While Ansel steered, Spire took this opportunity to question Nelle when she could not escape him.

“Your brother is…”

“I know what he is and I don’t need you reminding me. He wasn’t always like that,” her defenses went up, prepared for the insensitive comment she knew Spire was bound to make.

“I meant nothing by it. I was going to say he’s a rather remarkable man. All those compasses. Did he make them all himself or did he acquire some from others?”

His question brought a look of surprise and a smile to her face. No one had ever asked her a question about her brother that didn’t result in raising her anger. “Some came from our father. Before my brother took over, he was the Master Compass Maker. He taught Riven everything he knows. After the accident, making compasses is just about all that keeps Riven focused and able to live on his own.”

“Well good for him. To have a father who shared such a brilliant trade and a sister who looks after him. Here I thought you were just a witch out to help others as long as it came back twice fold for you. Turns out you do have a heart.” He nudged his shoulder against hers and her cheeks flushed.

“What about you? Did your father teach you all you know about being a Pirate?”

“Good heavens, no. In fact, I’m what you would call a runaway. He had much more ambitious plans for me and if I were half the man your brother is I would’ve stayed and made him proud. But my thick skull and stubbornness just wouldn’t allow it. I needed to be out here you see. The freedom of the open waters.”

“Ah, so he kicked you out did he?”

“On my ear!” They both laughed like young children and Ansel watched them, reminded of his youth and the girl he left behind. His distraction, though brief, led them straight towards a large boulder which appeared to have risen out of nowhere in their path. Unable to swerve in time he shouted for them to take cover as the side of his steamship crashed into it. The hull made a loud scraping sound as the front of the steamship rose up out of the water. It forced both Nelle and Spire backwards onto each other while Ansel was knocked back from the wheel onto the floor.

“Ansel…” Nelle shouted as she pulled herself up from on top of Spire who broke her fall. She ran to the wheel and found him flat on his back, laughing at himself. “Who taught you how to steer old man?”

The rest of the journey wasn’t as treacherous as that minor scraping caused no major damage. Nelle and Spire resumed talks about their families and the lives they willingly left behind. Neither had a shred of regret but longed to have that family back to the way it once was.

They reached land and as luck would have it Spire’s boat was exactly where he left it, untouched. He half expected it to have been stolen or at the very least torn apart by Raiders. They were cutthroat bandits who traveled in packs, raping and pillaging from village to village. Captain Silverblade despised them especially and blamed their very existence on the nobility who have done nothing to put a stop to them. She believes it’s because the Raiders only cause harm to the peasants and leave the wealthy alone.

“Why the long face? Are you upset the Raiders did not think your boat worthy of stealing? You needn’t feel insulted, they prefer to stay on land, knowing if Silver ever caught them in the open seas she’d string them up from her highest mast for all to see what she thinks of them.”

“Really? I would’ve thought they avoided it because it looks like a piece of junk.” They parted ways with Ansel whose laughter they could still hear as he made his way to the Serpent’s Head, likely to quench his thirst and tell all within earshot of their travel through the Sea of Swirling Bones.

Spire assisted Nelle onto his small boat and together they rowed towards The Shadow. The sun had just begun to set so the men would not yet be asleep. As they got closer to the ship, the lookout perched up on the mast was about to sound the alarm, but Spire waved a red handkerchief he kept on him at all times. The lookout recognized it right away and allowed them to approach without alerting anyone to their arrival.

They climbed on board and Spire quickly went to work putting his arm around Nelle, pretending she was a lady friend. She knew what he was doing but didn’t appreciate the placement of his hands all the same and let him know it when they were out of the lookouts view, by kneeing him in the groin.

“Ouch, what did you do that for? Do you want everyone to know you’re here and start asking questions?” he asked, cupping his bruised appendage.

“Next time ask me before you grab me like that or I’ll turn you into a creature with no hands.” He could tell from the fire in her eyes and the sternness of her voice that she was not kidding either.

They crept down to the underbelly of the ship and headed straight for Captain Silverblade’s private quarters. Spire didn’t knock, instead he walked right in and was stunned to find her so unkempt. Her hair was disheveled and her eyes bloodshot. She looked like she hadn’t slept since Spire left her more than a fortnight ago.

“My darling Silver, look at you. This state you are in is surely not good for the baby. What will the men who turn to you for leadership think if they saw you this way?” Nelle went to Captain Silverblade’s side and sat on the bed beside her. To Spire she looked like the child, Adelaide, they left back in Ebonthorn. Her knees were up to her chin and her eyes open wide, unblinking, in a way that sent a chill down his spine. “Leave me with her, Spire. You’ve done all you can, now it is up to me to do the rest. Make sure no one comes in here and you must not enter either. No matter what you hear.”

He worried for Captain Silverblade, he’d never seen her this way in all the years he was a member of her crew, but he knew his presence there would not help. He nodded and took his leave to guard the door. He stood right outside the door, his arms folded, ready to take on any man who tried to get passed him.

Back inside, Nelle fetched a bowl of water and rag from the vanity next to her bed and applied some of it to Silver’s face. The cool sensation made her resume blinking again and she turned slowly towards Nelle with tears in her eyes.

She buried her face in Nelle’s shoulder as she breathed fast, trying to speak. “He’s coming, Nelle. That bloody Paragon is coming. And here I sit, cowering in my room over a stupid legend. A thing I’ve only ever heard stories about but never seen myself. How could I let it scare me so?” She lifted her head and looked into Nelle’s eyes, searching for answers she knew would not come.

“You are not wrong to fear especially that which you’ve never seen. I fear him and I have magic to protect me. Which, I know, is why you sent for me. I knew this day would come.”

Angered by Nelle’s words, Captain Silver pushed her away and stood from the bed. “What do you mean you knew this would come? Do you mean you had a premonition of this day and chose to remain silent?”

Captain Silverblade and Nelle had been friends since childhood. Nelle’s father was commissioned to craft a compass which would later be presented as a gift to Silverblade’s mother. During his many visits to discuss its design one winter he brought Nelle with him. While she was allowed to play out in the back garden she met Silver. Although, back then she was called by another name. A name even more outlawed to utter anywhere in the Kingdom of Gaspar than that of Silverblade.

“You misunderstand me. My premonitions do not always show me a completed picture, you know that. I only knew I would be asked to do this, but I did not know why. I did not know how grave the danger would be nor that a child would be the ultimate cause for it.” She looked down at Captain Silver’s stomach who had covered it with both her hands out of habit.

“So, it is true, I am with child?”

“Yes, I knew it when I walked in the room. And I wish I could bring you congratulations instead I bring you—.”

“Do not speak of Death. I will not allow that kind of talk around my child. I will do what I can to protect it while I carry it but it’s when the child is born that I worry most of all. You know what I need for you to do. How is it to be done?”

“I’ll need a lock of your hair and your arm, please.”

Without another word, Captain Silverblade removed a dagger from underneath her pillow and grabbed a chuck of her long flowing hair in her hand. She looked in her mirror and catching a glimpse of herself as if for the first time in a long time, stopped for a moment. Just a few days ago she was happy, even when there was a battle raging on overhead. The memory came and went faster than it took for her to slice through her hair with the dagger and hand what she clutched to Nelle. Then she proceeded to roll up the sleeve of her arm and sat back on the bed, holding it out between them.

Spire heard a scream unlike anything he’d ever heard before and turned towards the door to open it when a glow appeared around the edges of the door frame. Instead of grabbing the door handle he took a step backwards. He knew witchcraft was happening inside and as much as he cared for Captain Silverblade, he wanted no part of it.

Wendynn ran down the corridor from where the other men were preparing for bed, with no shirt on, just trousers, in his bare feet, with sword in hand. When he saw Spire standing outside Captain Silverblade’s door he grabbed him by the arm and spun him around.

“What is the meaning of this? What are you doing here? I thought she sent you back to your ship?”

Thinking quickly on his feet, Spire chose to ignore the way in which he was grabbed and instead distract Wendynn was wanting to get passed him. “Temper, temper Wendynn. I was hoping to have an audience with the Captain as I’ve heard rumors that the King of Gaspar may be planning another surprise attack on us. But on second thought maybe you should tell her. I’m sure after the last time she spoke to you she’d be all too excited to see you again.” He knew the best way to get under Wendynn’s skin would be to call into question his tenuous relationship with the Captain.

Wendynn lowered his sword and released his hold on Spire. He had not seen Captain Silverblade since Spire was sent away, receiving his orders through the door for the past fortnight. He didn’t know what the meaning was behind her sheltering in her room, but the last person he wished to discuss his theories with was Spire. “Carry on,” he growled as he stomped back down the corridor.

Acting swiftly, Spire knocked lightly upon the Captain’s door, the glow completely gone. Her door swung open hastily and the Captain herself emerged looking back to her original self. Not a hair out of place and a smile upon her lips.

“Take her quickly back ashore,” she said, stepping aside so Nelle could pass. “When you are done, I will need to see you again, I have but one more important task for you to do.” Nelle and Spire made for the stairs. “And Spire.” He stopped and turned back to look Captain Silverblade in the eyes. “Thank you.”

With just those two words he puffed out his chest and moved even faster up the steps, Nelle following close behind. They climbed back down onto his boat and this time he rowed on his own faster than he had before. He looked at Nelle and saw a smile on her face.

“What?”

“Men, you are all so easy.”

Nelle was returned to shore in silence. Spire did not ask what happened in the Captain’s room and she offered on explanation.

“When next you visit with your brother send him my warmest greetings. That is, if he should remember we were ever there?”

“I’m afraid he will not remember you. But I will never forget the kind words you spoke of him. And if your father were a smart man he’d be proud of the Pirate you’ve become. Till we meet again, Captain Spire.” As he rowed back to his ship he found himself smiling, an expression he often showed, but not because of something Nelle had said and if felt good to him. He did not hear nor take notice of the two men who snuck up behind her. She watched him as he drifted further and further away from shore and glanced down to see the shadow of two figures cast by the yellow moon.

Before she could react the two men seized her. One grabbed her around the mouth and throat while the other took hold of her arms behind her back. He tied them with thick rope, placed a gag around her mouth, and a bag over her head. Then the stronger and taller of the two hoisted her onto his shoulder and carried her to an awaiting carriage.

He dropped her awkwardly to the floor and climbed inside, the carriage swaying to one side from his weight. The other pulled himself up to the driver’s seat and grabbed the reigns. She heard the crack of a whip on the horses as the carriage lurched forwards onto the rocky terrain. When the road leveled out and became smoother she knew instantly where they were headed; to King Rowan’s Castle.

She made no attempt to free herself, instead, she spent her time trying to figure out why the King would kidnap her? What did he want? Perhaps he knew of her visit to The Shadow and wished to know what purpose it served? If that were true then she needed to know what was worth telling and what needed to remain forever a secret. She learned long ago that Kings were easily appeased with even a sliver of information if it proved true and worth its weight in gold. There was much she knew and none she wished to impart on anyone, let alone a King she knew was responsible for summoning the Paragon, but these were desperate times.

She was not afraid until the carriage finally came to a complete stop and her heart leapt into her mouth. She could hear the rather gravelly voice of the driver speaking to another man, most likely a guard at the Castle gate.

“We’ve come with a package as requested by the King.” Footsteps sounded just beyond her hearing and the carriage door opened. She tried to turn her head which laid awkwardly on the floor of the carriage, but all she could see, as she strained to look through the loose stitching of the sack over her head, was the boot of the man who put her there. The door shut immediately and the sound of a gate being raised increased her nervousness. The carriage lurched forwards as it passed through the gates onto the Castle grounds.

This time the carriage only went a short distance before it stopped again and the man who was inside with her stepped out. Under his weight it rocked again, the unexpected movement causing her head to bang against the wooden bench disorienting her sight. He lifted her with little effort and placed her over his shoulder once again and they marched inside. Her head bobbed up and down with each step he took and nausea overcome her.

They stopped at a large door that was opened for the two men and Nelle to enter. She was dropped carefully into a high-backed chair that had no arms or cushion and felt rather uncomfortable to her. The sack over her head was removed and the larger gentleman cut the rope which had her hands bound behind her back. Under any other circumstance, she would’ve quickly used them to her defense and brought forth all her power down upon them, but she knew the Paragon must be nearby.

She presumed all Kings to be less than intelligent but none of them would be so stupid as to leave a witch control of her hands. She was no fool. She’d never come up against a Paragon before, but of all the lessons she was taught at Woodvale Academy, the one that stuck with her was to never try and defeat it. She chose instead to sit perfectly still and tried her best to look like she wasn’t afraid.

The men who brought her stood at attention on either side of her chair. She turned slightly from side to side to try and catch a glimpse of them for the first time. She recognized the driver right away by his small size. He was probably her height with very little meat on his bones and no way he could’ve lifted her. He looked like he hadn’t eaten in a long time and she bet he was not a member of the Royal Army. They always looked well fed. The other, much larger and tougher did not look like he was part of any Army either, as evidenced by his rather portly stomach. He was a heavy drinker, she could smell it coming off his pores. She was about to say something when the door through which she was carried earlier opened and she heard footsteps coming towards her.

King Rowan of Gaspar, with his long green cape dragged upon the floor sat and crossed one leg over the other as it spread across the steps leading up to his chair.

“Nelle, how good of you to come and see me. I trust your trip here was a pleasant one?” His voice was warm and inviting but she knew better than to take lower her guard. He was never to be trusted.

“Oh, it was. It was,” she answered, looking up at both of her captors with contempt. “I trust there is a good reason for my being here and it wasn’t to exchange pleasantries?”

“As a matter of fact, my dear Nelle, there is. I have it on good authority you paid a visit today to The Shadow. I would know why?” She noticed out the corner of her eye the smaller of the two men flex both fists as he waited for her answer.

“I was summoned to the vessel by Captain Silver—,” she stopped short, remembering no one was to ever say that name in the King’s presence. “She was devastated by the attack your ship posed on her men that morning. She needed to know what you may have in store for her next.” She eyed the man again and saw his knuckles turning white. “I told her I saw nothing.”

“You lying witch,” the smaller of the two men rounded on her and grabbed her by the throat with one hand. He lifted her off the chair with such ease, her eyes grew wide with fear. She knew instantly who he was, could feel his power even now coursing through him as he squeezed tighter around her throat.

“Enough!” King Rowan shouted. The Paragon dropped her back in her seat and resumed his stance next to her chair, his chest heaving with fury. “I apologize for my friend. He is new to this world and does not yet know how to control his temper. But you and I know how to behave don’t we, Nelle? And if you don’t tell me what I wish to know I will be forced to let my friend here get it out of you. I’d really hate to do that.”

Her voice shook, along with her hands as she brought them up to her neck. She could not see them but she knew red marks, imprints of his fingers, were already present. She swallowed again and it hurt as she cleared her throat to speak. “I’ve told you all I know, you bastard. You thief. You and I both know who that crown you wear belongs to.”

“Take her away and do not return until you’ve gotten out of her the answers I seek.” In a rash moment of anger, she spoke out of turn and now it just might cost her. An ignorant comment would cost her dearly and fear gripped her as she waited to be taken away. General Corwinn took her gently by the elbow, her knees grew wobbly for a moment and she fell back in her chair. The Paragon smiled at her with eyes of red looking down upon her. She would not let these men best her, would not cower. She gathered what little courage she had and stood up straight, squared her shoulders, and yanked her arm out of General Corwinn’s grasp. She took a step towards the Paragon he was not expecting and moved out of her way.

“Shall we, gentlemen. Do what you want to me. I’ve already seen your fate and it is not a happy one. No matter what you do, you can’t change it.” She looked directly at the King, his smug expression changing to one of concern as she walked out of his chamber with Corwinn and the Paragon following close behind.

They led her down a long corridor that took a sharp turn towards an alcove which had stone steps leading down into a dungeon. Each step she took made her legs feel like cement and the further they walked the harder it was for her to continue.

“Do not tell me Nelle the Witch fears me?” the Paragon asked noticing her slowed pace.

“I fear no man. It is men who cower before me.” He stopped at the bottom and they continued onwards down yet another corridor, this one littered with cells. Some contained men within them, all emaciated from lack of proper nutrition.

The Paragon halted at an empty cell and stepped aside, letting Corwinn remove a key from his belt and open the gate. It made a loud squeaking sound as it swung open and Nelle shoved inside. There wasn’t much to see as there was only a sliver of darkness coming through a small rectangular window several feet above even her height. A bed made of hay was haphazardly piled in one corner and in the center of the room was a chair. A stench emanated from a bucket in the corner so unbearable Nelle found it difficult to suppress the need to vomit.

“You may want to leave,” the Paragon said to Corwinn who stepped inside and started to close the cell door behind them.

“I’m fine.”

The Paragon gave him a grin that made Corwinn shudder. He flexed his shoulders uncomfortably, refusing to be disturbed by him as he felt an electricity unlike anything he’d ever experienced. “If you insist.” The Paragon turned his head slowly towards Nelle who backed into a corner of the room. Her eyes darted around looking for an escape, but saw none. She quickly made an orange flame appear in the palms of her hands, but when she looked at the eyes of the Paragon they glowed yellow and his teeth became pointed, licking his lips, her flame vanished.

The Paragon stepped towards her and she felt the electricity more intensely. She couldn’t take it any longer and let out a scream so loud Corwinn’s face contorted in agony to hear it. Nelle’s veins beneath her skin appeared on the surface of her body, trying to escape, as she lost all control, falling limp to the floor.

“What on Earth are you doing? If you kill her how can we find out what she knows?”

The Paragon lifted a hand towards Corwinn and he was flung back against the gate of the cell with a force so powerful it dropped him. “Don’t ever question my methods. If you don’t like how I do things I suggest you leave. Besides,” he turned to Nelle with an evil grin, “I’m only just getting started.”

Corwinn stood, brushing dirt off his new uniform. He scowled at the Paragon but knew it would be pointless to say anything. He opened the gate and stormed out without another word. Halfway down the corridor someone in a cell nearby leaned on the gate of his cell and asked, “Aren’t you Corwinn the Coward?” The thought of a prisoner thinking he was a coward for leaving the torturous scene angered him, so he turned back to where he just came.

Nelle let out another scream even louder and more intense than the last. He could not bear the sound any more than he had to. He looked straight into the eyes of the man in the cell and answered, “Yes, I am,” then walked with haste up the stairs as far away from her screams as he could get.

It was several hours later before the Paragon found Corwinn eating in a room at the furthest end of the castle.

“Since you stopped drinking all I’ve ever seen you do is eat. Is this any way the King’s General should look?” Corwinn was shocked to see him with a smile on his face.

“I trust you got what the King wanted from her?”

“I did indeed. We leave tonight so eat hearty. That pirate will be no more before the moon rises over Gaspar on the morrow.”

“And what of the Witch?” Corwinn asked.

“Do not tell me you worry for her life when you may just lose yours tonight when we fight the pirate?”

“I care not. But if she should prove useful to us later I just think it would be wise to leave her alive.” The Paragon gave no answer to Corwinn, who feared Nelle lost her life to this monster and he could easily be next.

Spire returned to The Shadow, surprised to see three other boats bobbing aimlessly in the water. He climbed aboard and found the three Captains of Silverblade’s crew milling about.

“What is this, a party? What has happened?” Spire questioned, but none of them answered as they wondered what troubled him. He calmed when he saw Captain Silverblade appear with Wendynn in tow. Standing under the morning sun, her long auburn hair falling about her face, she was glowing, an appearance common amongst pregnant women. Spire wondered if the others could see this slight difference in her as they listened intently to why they were summoned.

“Gentlemen, I am glad you came. I want to first thank you for how valiantly you fought beside me, yet again, against the swine who call themselves the Royal Army. Together we are unbeatable, but I’m sure you witnessed my dismay upon hearing the name of the Paragon. I cannot tell you all that I know of this person, but what I can tell you is he brings Death in a way that cannot be stopped, not even by us.” The men began to talk over each other in protest at what she said.

“Shut up and let the Captain finish!” Spire shouted. He could tell there was something more important she wished to tell them.

“I’ve called you all here because there is something of the utmost importance I need for you to do.” She lifted a bag she held in her hand that until then none of the men even noticed she carried. She opened it and pulled out one Compass. Spire recognized it right away and he smiled to himself as he thought of Riven and wondered what he was doing. “I need you each to take one for me to the furthest corners of ShadowRealm and hide them where no man or beast may ever find them.”

Again, the men looked upon her with concern, unsure whether or not she had lost her mind since their last battle.

“Can we ask why you need us to do this?” Captain Arco asked. The Captains who stood on either side of him nodded as they wanted an answer to his question as well.

“This is why.” She moved too quickly for any of the men to react, especially Wendynn, whom she handed the bag of Compasses to before pulling a dagger she kept tucked in the waistband of her pants. With the blade facing her she plunged it into her heart. They all ran towards her but she stepped away from them. “Stay where you are. I am fine.” She removed the blade and showed them it was clean, no blood. She also pulled down the corner of her shirt where it pierced through, but left no mark on her skin.

“What sorcery is this?” Ojo, another of her Captains, asked.

“This is what I am trying to tell you. I am immortal.” The men gasped and stepped away from her in disbelief.

“Have you gone mad? Who has done this to you?” Wendynn asked, shoving the bag of Compasses he held back into her hands. He noticed Spire was the only one who did not seem surprised or even concerned when she pulled the knife from her heart. “It was you, wasn’t it? What did she order you to do?” He rounded on Spire who drew his sword in defense. Wendynn drew his and their swords clashed with each other as a fight, long in the making, began, but Captain Silverblade drew her sword as well and brought it down between theirs, separating them.

“Stop it at once. This is not a game we are playing. I do not have time to explain to you why I did this nor should I have to. You men are my bravest and best. I could’ve chosen anyone but I chose you. I need you to take these as far away from here and from me as possible.”

“You have yet to tell us why these Compasses? What is their significance?” Arco asked. Of all her Captain’s she appreciated his questions because they were always important. Unlike Wendynn who always questioned her based on his heart and not his head.

“In order for my immortality to hold my soul had to be split and contained elsewhere. I am trusting you with my life.” She handed out one Compass to each of the four Captains. “In your hands, you each hold a piece of my soul. If all of them should be destroyed it will bring an end to my life.”

“You can’t be serious?” Wendynn walked away from her. He could not bear to hear anymore. It was more than he could handle. And to tell him all this in front of the other Captain’s so he could not properly express his anger and disappointment he felt was unfair.

“When do you want us to leave?” Spire asked, keeping an eye on Wendynn in case he should attempt an attack when he wasn’t expecting it.

“Immediately. If the Paragon is already here, and I believe he is, then he will come for me soon. I cannot risk his finding out about the Compasses. He will grow even angrier when he discovers I will be harder to kill than he anticipated.”

“You cannot expect us to leave you here unattended?”

“I trust your men are more than capable of fighting without you?” she asked, and they all agreed, yet had worry looks on their faces. “Then it’s settled. I want you to take the smaller ships and take these as far away as possible. Do not come back here sooner than three quarters of a year. For if you do, I will know you disregarded my direct orders. I want you to travel by sea, by land, and by mountain to hide them. I’m trusting you with my life, do not make me regret my choice.”

All the Captains stood in a row, and with the Compass in their left hands they brought them up to their chests and spoke loudly, “On our honor.” She smiled, proud at the men who stood before her. She knew they were more than capable for the task that lay ahead.

“Wendynn?” she asked, turning her attention to him. “I require your services as well.”

“Do not tell me you have a 5th Compass for me? I will not take it if you do.”

“Quite the contrary. I need you to accompany Spire.”

Both men turned on her and spoke simultaneously, “No.”

“Where I need you two to go is important. Again, don’t ask me why for even I don’t know the answer. All I know is you must journey here,” she handed Spire a folded piece of paper. “Do not show me the contents, I have not seen it and I must never see it. Just take it and open it upon once you’re both on your boat. Now go, the lot of you. I’ve never cried before and I do not wish the first time to be as I watch my best men leave me all at once.”

Spire tucked the piece of paper she gave him in his breast pocket and followed the Captains off The Shadow. Wendynn refused to move. He waited for her to make the first move. She knew why he waited and looked over his shoulder, the men were not yet out of their sight. She smiled at him and he knew she would not be giving him a proper goodbye. His heart turned to ice with every second she stood still. He could stand it no longer and left the ship without a word. She wanted to tell him not to hate her but she could not. He must never know of the child she carried. It was best the child never knew who his parents were, especially not his mother; the most wanted pirate in all of ShadowRealm.

As the men rowed away from her ship, she waved to them for the last time. She walked towards her cabin when out of the sky fell a note carried in the beak of a falcon which circling overhead.

She picked up the parchment and unfolded it to find a note from Nelle. She was captured by the Paragon, tortured, and released. She needed to see Captain Silverblade immediately.

“Wendynn!” she shouted, forgetting he was long gone. “Cripan!” she shouted instead. A young boy bounded up the stairs and stopped short in front of her.

“Yes, Captain?” he answered loudly as he saluted her.

“At ease,” she said sniggering at his enthusiasm. “Tell the men I need my boat made ready. I must go ashore.”

“Yes, Captain!” He turned and quick as lightning he was back at the stairs about to descend.

“And, Cripan.” He stopped on a dime when he heard his name. “Get yourself ready as well. You’ll be accompanying me.” With a smirk on his face unlike any she’d ever seen on one so young, he ran down the stairs. Hearing him shout orders to the men she thought he would might make a good Captain one day.
Within the hour her boat, the most exquisite ever hand carved, was carried out and lowered into the water for her. Cripan appeared as if out of nowhere and rushed passed her to climb down into her boat so he could help her onto it. She left orders for the men who remained and promised she would return before nightfall. Before she sat down Cripan had already grabbed both oars and started to row so quickly she fell backwards into a seated position.

“Sorry, Captain.”

She feigned a smile so as not to worry him for causing her to fall. “Carry on, young squire. Make for the Serpent’s Head. There is someone there I must see. Make haste!” He started to row again with vigor and what would take a full-grown man at least an hour to get to shore took him nearly half. He tied the boat to the dock and was about to climb up first when she stopped him. “No, young man. This is as far as you may go. It’s dangerous in there.” He showed his youth as his face began to pout and it broke her heart. “I need you to be my lookout. If you see anyone suspicious coming you run inside quick as you can and tell me.”

His eyes lit up at the opportunity to be a lookout for a Pirate he admired more than anyone in the world. “But what if that suspicious person should enter the tavern before me?” She could tell he was a smart boy.

“You let me worry about that. Just keep an eye on the coastline for me. I won’t be long.” She held his chin in her hand and turned his face from side to side. “How old are you, Cripan?” She did not allow anyone in her crew that wasn’t yet sixteen years of age and he looked much younger.

“I’m seventeen,” he answered, pulling his face out of her hand and turning away. She knew he was lying but would have to wait to question him when they were out of the imminent threat of danger. She needed to speak with Nelle and find out what happened to her.

Captain Silverblade climbed up onto the dock and took in a deep breath. Going ashore was not something she did very often. There were men in the Royal Army who’d love an opportunity to put an end to her. So, whenever she got the chance to sneak onto dry land she soaked up as much of it as she could. First, by breathing in the trees and the grass and dirt. Those things meant very little to those who lived on land every day, but to someone who was surrounded by water day-in and day-out, it was paradise. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply before lifting her hood up over her face to hide from those who may notice her.

She entered the Serpent’s Head and found it teeming with men as always. She'd hear stories from the men she allowed to come ashore about this place but this was the first time she ever stepped foot inside.

Her eyes darted around looking for Nelle, who she expected to be surrounded by men, but she could see no large group of men gathered. Perhaps she was wrong in assuming this was where Nelle wanted her to come. Or worse, it may have been a trap planted by the Paragon! How foolish she was not to have considered this first when the note dropped at her feet! She reached under her cloak for the hilt of her sword as she backed out of the tavern, watching that no one made a move to follow her. Once she was back outside she heard a voice she did not recognize call her by a name few knew of.

“Leonara.” She spun in place and squinted her eyes to adjust to the darkness, searching for the source of the voice. “Leonara.” She finally found it, just around the corner from the Serpent’s Head. A miserable looking hunched over hag who wore a cloak similar to the one she gifted long ago to her best friend, Nelle.

“Why did you call me that? And where did you get this cloak? There is only one person who I know owns such a garment.”

“It is I, Leonara.”

“Nelle…” Her voice faded into silence as she looked upon her friend with fear and sorrow. “Who has done this to you?”

“The Paragon. After torturing me he left me looking like this out of spite I suppose. You understand, I had to give him something or he might have taken my life. I was never as strong as you.”

“You didn't tell him of my child. Please, say you did not—.”

“Do not worry, I did not reveal your pregnancy, although I almost wish I had. What I told him was far worse. He knows of the four Compasses.”

“Four?” Even though she was reduced to a hideous Hag a sly grin spread across Nelle’s face and Captain Silverblade knew what she had done. “Bless you, Nelle. You may just have saved my life yet again.”

“I trust you did as I commanded with them?”

“I have. They are already on their way. But what of you? How can this be undone?”

“Let me worry about that. I won't be this way forever. You have more important things to worry about. Have you decided what you're going to do about the boy?”

“I think I'll let him stay in my care,” Captain Silver replied. She assumed Nelle spoke of Cripan, then realized she did not yet know of him. She placed her hands on her stomach. “It will be a boy?”

“Yes.”

“You will take him when he is born.”

Nelle scoffed at her suggestion that she care for a child. “What would you have me do with him?”

“Take him as far away from me, the open sea, and Pirates, as possible. This war is mine. I started it, I intend to finish it. I would not have him harmed for the sins of his mother.”

“You are a great many things, Silver, but what you’ve accomplished is not born of sin.”

Nelle wished she could argue in defense of Silverblade keeping the child but knew what her closest friend said was true. She had to put a stop to the King of Gaspar and the Paragon. Her son would just be a distraction, a distraction that would bring about more enemies and possibly even his death.

Without provocation, she laughed at the thought that the best chance this unborn child had for survival was with her, Nelle, a Hag.

Nearly nine months passed and Captain Silverblade spent most of them hidden in her quarters refusing to be seen by anyone. Once she started showing and became unable to hold down food, she used that as her excuse for remaining bedridden and none of the men dared to question her.

She grew worried from the King of Gaspar’s lack of attacks. And every night the Paragon didn’t show his face or make his presence known was a restless night. Fending off attacks from her enemies would’ve at least given her and her men something to do. But to have them sitting around with only friendly ships ready and willing to pay their due was just not much fun. Her men grew restless and so was she. Then the baby began to demand attention from within her, kicking and punching every chance it got. She knew it would be due soon.

The only person she allowed to enter her cabin while hidden away was Cripan. He knew she was with child and she made him swear a blood oath he would tell no one. She wasn’t very happy about pricking her finger to perform this blood oath, but she would do anything if it meant keeping her secret. Because she couldn’t dare let her men see her in this delicate condition, he was her eyes and ears and he enjoyed every second of it. The men on the other hand had to take orders from him and they hated it.

One morning Cripan ran into her room without knocking and saw her swollen belly as she was dressing.

“Pardon my saying so Captain, but you look like you’re ready to explode.”

“Close the door, Cripan. What brings you into my room without knocking? I told you about that many times, haven’t I?” He nodded and lowered his head as he always did, in shame.

“Yes, Captain, you have told me many times. I’ll remember one day, I promise. But a ship approaches and it looks to be one of the Captain’s you sent away. They are still too far away to know who—,” he said, but she pushed passed him, hard, and ran to her door. She couldn’t go up there on deck. The men would know instantly why she was hiding all this time and she would never be able to send him away when he was born. Wendynn would never agree to give him up.

“Go ashore and get the Hag.”

Cripan scrunched up his nose at the mention of the Hag. For reasons, he could not understand she’s had him fetch her on multiple occasions and the two of them would remain huddled in her room for hours at a time talking about things he could never hear through the door.

“Pardon my saying so Captain, but why are you so nice to that old Hag? She smells funny and she’s always pinching my cheeks like I’m a child.” Captain Silverblade suppressed a laugh.

“Run along now Cripan and do as you’re told. Quick as you can. This time it’s an emergency.” No sooner was he out the door did her water break all over the floor of her room. She started to do some relaxed breathing like Nelle taught her but the more she tried to breath calmly the more pain she felt. When the worst of it came she muffled her screams into her pillow.

Cripan ran up the stairs and grabbed the spyglass from a Pirate using it to see who approached their ship. He quickly climbed the sail post up to the highest mast and peered through it. He saw Spire was rowing and waving frantically at their ship.

Cripan shouted down to the men, “It’s Captain Spire. He’s the first to return.” As the men cheered he climbed back down and handed the spyglass back to the Pirate he snatched it from. “The Captain needs me to go ashore and fetch something. Under no circumstances is anyone to go bothering her while I’m away.” As was customary after Cripan gave an order, the men would argue with him and refuse before ultimately having no choice. But he did not wait to make sure his orders were understood this time. Instead, he left them, and made haste for his boat he always kept in the water, right alongside the Shadow. Aside from ferrying Nelle back and forth, the Captain had him go ashore often to buy her things she desired to eat that didn’t come from the sea.

As he rowed towards shore, the small ship Spire was on finally reached the Shadow and he climbed on board. The men heard when he left he took Wendynn with him, many waging bets on who would survive that journey, as they all knew of their feud. When he stepped onto their ship alone those who had hopes Wendynn would be victorious over Spire, groaned.

“Do you not have Quartermaster Wendynn with you?” one of the crewmen asked.

“I’m afraid Wendynn didn’t make it.” Spire wore a long face as if he was just as sad as everyone else that Wendynn was dead, when truthfully, he suppressed joy. “Where is Captain Silverblade? I must speak with her.”

“She hasn’t left her cabin these last five months. No one’s allowed to see her.”

“She passes us her orders through the boy, Cripan. But he’s gone ashore and instructed us that no one is to disturb her while he’s away.”

He walked passed the men and made for the stairs leading down to her cabin. The reason for her staying hidden was already known to him and he would not let it keep him from laying his own eyes upon her.

“I’m afraid we can’t let you go down there, Captain.” One of the Pirate’s grabbed his arm to stop him.

“Unhand me before I cut off your arm.” The Pirate let him go immediately. “And don’t you ever put a hand on a Captain ever again.” He pushed past him and continued down stairs to her quarters. As he approached her door to knock he heard a muffled scream. He leaned against it, “It’s me, Spire. Can I come in?”

She did not answer. Again, he heard what sounded like a scream being muffled. Thinking she was being attacked he burst in the door to find her in a rather precarious position on her bed.

“Wendynn. Where is Wendynn? I need him.”

Those were the only words she managed to utter before the sound of a cannon fired just in time to drown out a scream she was not fast enough to muffle into her pillow. Another cannon fired, this time hitting the ship and before Spire could decide what to do it was made for him.

“I’m sorry, Captain. I must see to the men in your absence.” He closed her door and ran upstairs, each step he took making him regret more and more leaving her alone. At the top of the stairs he saw the men readying cannons to fire at a fleet of ships approaching in the distance. He stopped one of the men who ran past with a powder keg. “Who is it?”

“Don’t know, Captain. We reckon it’s that Paragon she’s told us all so little about.” Spire let the man go about his duties and ran to take the wheel. He saw three ships waving the King’s flag and knew it was time they raised their own.

“Hoist the colors!” he shouted to a man down below. The command was heard and obeyed immediately as their flag bearing the red rose in the mouth of the skull and crossbones flew high into the air.

When Cripan heard the sound of cannons firing in the distance he knew the Captain was in trouble and proceeded to pull the hag quickly to his boat. “We must hurry. Sounds like we’re being attacked.”

“No, you must take us around to the other side of the ship so I may board it unseen and help the Captain.”

“Are you nuts, hag? Don’t you hear that? It’s the sound of brave Pirates willing to risk their lives. I’m not going to abandon them now when they need me.” Cripan squared his shoulders and rowed harder in the direction of the cannons.

“Stop!” the Hag shouted and his arms ceased movement. His eyes grew wide with fear as he tried but could not move his arms. Nelle may have been turned into a hag, but she still retained enough of her magic to get the attention of an overzealous boy. “You will take me where I need to be or forever lose your ability to row any boat ever again. The choice is yours.” She left him to ponder her threat and realize she was not kidding. He finally nodded his head that he understood her meaning and she released the hold she had on him.

“I can’t believe the Captain had me ferrying a witch all this time,” he sulked as he rowed them towards the right so they would approach The Shadow on the opposite side of the battle.

When they reached the ship Cripan climbed up first then helped the hag on board. Because of what was going on no one noticed his return or that he brought someone with him.

“Stay and help the men. If I need you I’ll call for you.” Before he could ask her how she could possibly hope to call for him with all the noise, fighting and firing happening around them she disappeared through the chaos, for the Captains room.

When she got there, Captain Silverblade had already begun to push. Another cannon fired, hit the ship and rocked it furiously. Nelle, nearly knocked off balance, managed to right herself by leaning into the Captain’s bed.

“What is happening up there?” the Captain asked, beads of sweat falling all around her face.

“Don’t concern yourself with that right now. We’ve got a baby needs delivering.” She looked down between the Captain’s legs, which she had bent at the knees and spread wide, nearly fainting at the sight. “I think I must tell you this now. I’ve never delivered a baby before.”

“That’s good, because I’ve never had one before. A first for the both of us.” The women laughed for a second and held each other’s hands as a shot of pain forced the Captain to push again. The baby’s head crowned.

On board one of the three enemy ships was Corwinn and by his side, the Paragon. Every inch close to the Shadow made the Paragon’s eyes glow brighter and more sinister.

“I don’t understand why you wanted to do this. You know she is immortal and the only way to kill her is to get those Compasses the witch told you about,” Corwinn shouted over the battle.

“Have you learned nothing? She would not be so dumb as to keep something so valuable on her ship. She would have sent them far away. Why do you think we’ve been spying on her ship for so long?” the Paragon asked him.

“Waiting for one of her missing Captains to return?” Although Corwinn phrased it more like a question rather than a statement the Paragon could see he finally understood the purpose for all of this. “Oh, you wish to kidnap the Pirate?”

“Yes. I have a feeling he will have more to say to me than that worthless Hag.” The Paragon had his eyes trained on Spire who was manning the ship but now he was gone.

Spire snuck below deck to check on what was going on, while the men were too busy to notice. He listened at the door and heard a baby cry. He wanted to open the door and see for himself but thought better of it. He could wait to see the child later, when the fighting had ceased and all was back to normal. He returned upstairs and found one of the crew ships he called for when he raised their flag arrived and managed to already sink two of the three enemy ships.

Corwinn knew this mission was meant to be a diversion and was not willing to sacrifice yet another of the King’s ships to the hands of Captain Silverblade or the ocean floor. He shouted for his men to set sail and make for home. The Paragon seethed, but he knew Corwinn made the right decision and remained silent as he stared down Spire who didn’t notice death was watching.

“Take him,” Captain Silverblade said. She turned her face away from the child that was now cradled in a blanket in Nelle’s arms. She held the baby out to the Captain who refused to look at him, let alone take him.

“Don’t you even want to look at him?” The Captain shook her head. “It sounds like the fighting is over. I should leave before I’m seen.” Nelle crept to the door and opened it.

“Wait,” the Captain whispered. “Don’t forget this.” She reached under her pillow and pulled out the fifth Compass. She handed it to Nelle who placed it in the blanket with the slumbering baby boy and vanished through the door. She was seen by no one that day as she climbed down onto the boat left by Cripan and took the baby with her ashore.

Captain Silverblade emerged from her room that evening, after Cripan assured her all the men were fast asleep.

“Where is the baby?” he asked her.

“Gone,” was all she could manage to say on the subject. “Go along to bed, Cripan. I need to be alone.” He obeyed and promptly went to his hammock which he set-up near her door to make sure no one tried to sneak into her room in the middle of the night. He was so young but probably the most loyal friend she had when she sent away her Captains and Wendynn.

The thought of Wendynn saddened her as she wondered if the son she gave up would look just like him one day? It was that reason alone why she could not bear to look at him or hold him in her arms. If he did look like his father how could she give him up? It was hard enough to send Wendynn away.

She climbed the stairs to the wheel of her ship, surprised to find Spire still there.

“I had a feeling you’d come out here sooner or later. Stuck in your cabin for months, you must miss this.” He stepped from behind the wheel. She reached out her hands and once it was firmly in her grasp all the old feelings came rushing back.

“Where is Wendynn?” she asked, looking Spire in the eyes now. He avoided looking at her and could not find an answer. Returning without Wendynn he knew would be risky, especially considering what he meant to Silverblade, but he knew she’d have to be told sooner or later.

“There was an accident when we cut through the Eternal Forest. He was taken by the Knonn. There was nothing I could do.” Tears welled up in her eyes as she heard the words, but refused to believe them.

“The Eternal Forest? I don’t believe you. Why would you go there?”

“You told us to follow the map. That was where the map told us to go. I’m sorry.” Spire put his arm around her shoulders to comfort her but she pushed him away. “Where is the child?”

“He didn’t make it either.” She looked up at the full moon which was so close it felt as if she could reach out and touch it. Gazing up at the sky she wondered if, wherever her son was, he could see it and was trying to reach out for it too.

Once Nelle got to shore she pondered the best way for her to get as far away from Gaspar as possible. Just then, a horde of the Kings Army, on horseback, road across the shoreline, kicking up sand in their wake. Opportunity favored Nelle as she waited for them to dismount their horses and tie them all to a post outside of the Serpent’s Head.

When they entered the Serpent’s Head, she took the best steed by the reigns and walked it a safe distance away. After she couldn’t walk any further, she mounted the horse, the baby held tightly in one arm, and spurred it forwards.

She rode that horse as fast as it would go and did not let it rest till she was satisfied they were well away from Gaspar and all the surrounding cities. Miles and miles of trees and dirt paths passed by her with the blink of an eye, and she slowed him down to a trot when she saw the Deadlands looming in the distance. She had reached the very edges of Gaspar and had an important decision to make. Would she adhere to her best friends request and take this child as far away from its mother as possible, or should she play a hand in destiny and stay where she was? She grew parched as the question weighed heavily on her mind and her nose picked up on the faint aroma of a stew. She let her nose lead her towards a nearby tavern.

“What am I going to do with you?” she asked, looking down at the baby as it continued to sleep peacefully. She saw a lantern swinging above the door for patrons to find the entrance. Her eyesight wasn’t what it used to be ever since she was turned into a hag by the Paragon and she had to squint to read the sign next to the door which read; The Hogs Head. Before she could push open the door she was forced back by a group of men who were leaving. They saw her immediately and worried that she may be carrying some infectious disease, gave her a wide berth when walking passed her. None of the men in this tavern looked like they had ever been near water let alone the ocean a day in their life. Covered from head to toe in dirt, Nelle thought they did more than just work with dirt. They looked like they lived in it. These were farmers. A menial profession that never could amount to much in terms of stature or nobility. These kinds of folks were just the answer Nelle hoped for.

She ignored the men who turned their noses up at her, entered this small tavern and found an empty corner table for her and the baby to rest, away from prying eyes. They were noticed when they first entered, but no one seemed concerned to see a woman bringing a baby here. Nelle couldn’t remember ever seeing a tavern that was family friendly, but as she looked closer at the patrons, some had their children with them. Granted, none were as young as the babe she had swaddled in her arms, but they were not old enough for their first tankard of ale either.

A barmaid approached their table. “What can I get for you?” She hadn’t yet looked at Nelle’s appearance, but when she did, it took everything she had in her not to look repulsed. “What a beautiful baby,” she replied, turning her attention to something much more pleasing to the eyes. “How old is she?”

He is just a few months old,” Nelle lied. She didn’t want to raise suspicion by telling the truth, that the baby was just born, implying she had given birth and was now walking around with him.

“You’re lucky. I wish I could have one. But Ephram and I…” Her voice trailed off and tears started to form in her eyes. “I’m sorry. What did you say you wanted?”

“Just milk if you’ve got it?” The maiden nodded and quickly left their table before any more tears should fall. Yet again it seemed opportunity had presented itself.

Nelle stayed at the tavern and waited until the maiden’s shift had ended. She then followed her to where she lived. It was a long walk and Nelle wished she had known so she could’ve brought the horse along. Now she would have to walk back and the thought of it hurt her feet more. Back when she was her young and beautiful self she could walk for miles and miles feeling absolutely no pain, but now, as a hag, she felt constant pain and no amount of magic she tried to use on herself could put an end to it.

Finally, the woman turned off the main road they walked upon and Nelle saw it, the most perfect little farm house she could ever have dreamed up for this little babe. She knew if Captain Silverblade were there she would approve. There was a barn nearby, where she heard cows mooing and chickens clucking. She had a feeling this woman would make a great mother and she pondered how many other eligible women she’d find who would want to take a child in? Probably none. This couple would have to do, but she had to see what the husband was like first.

She had to be sure he wasn’t the drinking and cursing type, but loving and devoted. She got her answer the second the maiden entered the house. She was greeted with a large hug and lifted up off the ground. Witnessing all this through their window was enough of an answer for her. But she couldn’t just walk up to their house and hand over the baby. She’d have to leave him.

Their house and property was too small to go unnoticed if she got any closer than where she was, so she waited till they went to bed. While she waited, she conjured up a pen and paper, deciding to leave them a note trying as best to explain why he was left on their doorstep. She did not want to take any chances that they would attempt to find his parents or give him away. They needed to know he was special, destined for greatness.

She finished the letter and looked over her shoulder to see the last of their lanterns extinguished for the night. To write the letter she laid the baby down on the grass next to her and it slept soundly. She picked him up in her arms and crept up to their house. From within could be heard a rather loud person snoring and she bet it was Ephram as she placed him down in front of their door

She took the Compass and placed it on top of the note which she tucked inside the blanket he was wrapped in. And finally, she took from under her cloak the sword which had been given to her by Adelaide to ensure the safety of Captain Silverblade and this boy as well. She placed the sword next to him and backed away slowly.

She looked to the stars and asked the great God, Zoldir, to give guidance to this couple. That when the time was right they would tell him about this day. Only then could he start on the journey to do great things of which she knew and God had already foretold.

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