The escape of La Danse Calinda was hardly graceful, but it was an escape, which one might suppose would be good enough. The airship and the dragon hit the water at nearly the same moment, throwing up a chaotic splash among the storm-raised waves. While the poor beast thrashed several hundred feet away, the Calinda’s crew would have to make the best of their time to adjust her sails to carry her away in the traditional manner of ships.
They likely would not have time to stop and watch the young dragon finally scratch away the annoying bolt that had stuck its great, orange eye like a thorn. Barely three hundred years old and not yet fully grown, its inexperience had caught it this time, with that hesitant and poorly controlled dive upon so unpromising a prey target. All it got for its trouble was a poke in the eye and wet wings. Eventually, following its formerly aquatic instincts, the dragon would hold its breath, increasing its buoyancy by a build-up of acidic gas in its gut until, floating comfortably, it would fold up its vast, leathery wings and use its long tail to propel itself back to the ocean cliffs where it no doubt made its nest, for all the world like a monstrous, scaled, acid-spitting, fire-breathing swan. It would climb up to its rocky roost, venting fire as it belched out the pent-up gas, hungry and annoyed but perhaps a little wiser.
In Kledy, Peino Starhand and his officers finished off the fish casserole in the tavern room of the Alderman’s Inn. The large, fish-shaped, earthenware tureen was pushed to one side. Before them, pewter plates were smeared with the remains of the sweet, creamy sauce, blank tracks drawn through it with bread, and the last soft flakes of white fillets.
“Sir, what did you mean when you said that card was meant to steal souls?” asked Nyora Watersinger, her dark eyes wide, her voice hushed under the noise of the tavern. She drained her glass of mead, and her husband, Lariud Moonwood, poured her another from a green bottle, concerned for her nerves as she was for his burned shoulder.
On the table between them, surrounded by the plates and glasses, salters and broken loaves, lay the card in question, folded neatly in the cloth bearing the Invocation of Nothingness, the spell which dampened the radiating aura of the small, innocuous-seeming object.
Peino Starhand sighed, as he picked a few slender bones out of a morsel of tender fish meat before popping it into his mouth.
“It was during the chase for the Hag,” he said quietly, referring to the fateful quest in pursuit of a certain pirate that had ended with the proof of the interdimensional vortex zone in the Sea of Lyr, a tale with which all at that table were all too familiar, “that my brother, Lord Nightwise, acquired a certain deck of enchanted cards. He donated them to the Wizards Guild for study and safekeeping, but I believe this card is one of them, or else it comes from a similar deck.”
“But,” began Tahain o’th’Farwind nervously, “if there is another deck, wouldn’t it have had to come through a vortex as well?”
“Yes, Tahain,” answered Peino. “The creature that attacked us today was from the place where the cards were made. I have seen its like before, there. As explained in my published account of the voyage, the trade in souls is the life blood of those strange lands. Things such as these cards are traps meant to poison one’s soul, lure it towards darkness and evil, thus increasing its value in their world.”
“How does it steal the soul?” asked Tahain, and the faces of the wizard Nyora, the navigator Lariud, the healer and the bo’sun and the quartermaster, all were fixed anxiously upon Captain Starhand, who simply shrugged.
“We did not stay long enough to learn that part.”
“Bah!” growled the bo’sun Vaet Longblade from behind his braided beard. “We have enough magic of our own. Do we really need to be importing foreign gewgaws?”
“What will you do with it, sir?” asked Nyora.
“Return it to Master Nightwise,” said Peino. He wiped his fingers clean on the edge of the tablecloth and picked up the enfolded card. “I doubt this was the one that summoned the creature. Bom Boneshred said there was more than one. Whatever others the wizard may have had were either lost to the sea or taken by someone else.”
As he tucked the card and its wrapper into the inner pocket of his coat, all at the table likely had the same thought of the strange airship and her strange captain.
Peino raised the last bottle, half full of golden mead. “We’ve work yet to do if we’re to take the dawn tide, my friends. Another round before we adjourn?”
To the general assent of the group, both for love of mead and the need to steady their nerves, Peino raised his hand to beckon the barman.