Maxwell DuPont woke up—if that is even the correct phrase—on a beach. At least, he thought it was a beach. There was sand, which his face was currently stuck to, and the smell of salt, and a piles of drying seaweed at what was probably the high tide mark. There was also a small crab trying to crawl into his nose, and he sat up, blinking. Brushing the sand off his face, he pushed his long hair back from his face, cursing at the snags and snarls that the salt water would doubtless have wrought.
Exactly how he got from the barracks in Archangel to this place was…well. He was here now. He was still dressed in his nightclothes, but off to one side he could see his breeches and shirt, and further down the beach he thought he could see a pile of misshapen metal that was probably his armour. Getting to his feet, he found the sand was cool underfoot, and he hurriedly dressed himself in what clothes he could reach, shaking out the sand and jamming first one, then the other foot through the legs of his pants.
“Hey!” he shouted, waving at a shorter man in workman’s garb. “Have you seen a red book around?”
The man paused, picking a fan off the ground and, snapping it open and brushing sand off the cloth fabric that made up the fan itself. “Um, no, I can’t say I have…um…” the redhead raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, I’m Maxwell DuPont, but people call me Max,” Max said, pulling his shirt on.
“I’m Tebryn,” the redhead said. “People call me Tebryn. And the big guy behind you is Keith.”
Max whirled around and looked up into the face of a large, dark-skinned man, dressed in leathers, a short sword held loosely in his hand. His features were that of a Khushistani, his skin weatherbeaten and his frame lean with muscle.
“Hi,” he said, the word ‘friend’ flashing across his mind.
“Were you on the ship too?” Keith rumbled.
“Ship? What ship.”
“Airship,” Tebryn said, from somewhere further down the beach, and Maxwell stepped carefully back from Keith until he felt comfortable glancing over towards Tebryn, who was picking up a backpack and a second fan. “Flying ship in the sky, it was crashing and we showed up here.”
“No, I was asleep in the bar- in Archangel.”
“You’re a guard from Archangel?” Tebryn asked.
“What? I didn’t say—”
Tebryn held Max’s surcoat. “I’m assuming this is yours.”
“Fine, yes, I’m a guard. You?”
“Tebryn the Magnificent of Bellafonte,” Tebryn said with a bow, casting off his hardhat and replacing it with a top hat. Shedding his coveralls, Maxwell was surprised to see Tebryn in an almost skintight bodysuit that looked more like the garb of a circus performer than anything else he could imagine. Then the man pulled a travelling coat over his clothing and buttoned the front.
“Aren’t you going to put on your armour?” he asked.
Max looked down at the heap of metal links, half buried in the sand. Oh well, armour wasn’t supposed to be comfortable.
“You said you were on an airship?” Max asked.
“Yes,” Tebryn said, looking around the beach with a frown on his face.
“And it was crashing?”
“Well, it was going down towards the water, yes.”
“And you ended up here?”
“Where’s the wreckage?”
“Don’t know,” Tebryn said. “I was wondering that myself.”
“And where’s Conan?”
“Big burly guy. He was with us on the ship,” Tebryn said.
Tebryn shrugged. “He’s probably off assassinating someone.”
Keith stared at the smaller man and raised an eyebrow.
The redhead rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on big man. Like I told Dieter: black cloak, two concealed weapons. Assassin.”
“You feel very strongly about that profession, don’t you?” Maxwell said.
Maxwell watched as the freckles on Tebryn’s face danced as the man grimaced. “It’s a job, I guess. I just…don’t like the idea of people doing other people’s dirty work. Hey does anyone hear bells?”
Maxwell cocked his head listened, and indeed, ringing out through the cool gray air was indeed the familiar sound of church-bells. “Yes, I do.”
They looked up and stared out over the grassy dunes and scraggy trees and the shimmer in the air that looked like it could be chimney-smoke. “Why is the sky grey?” Maxwell asked.
“Clouds?” Tebryn suggested.
Maxwell looked up into the cloudless sky. “Nope. No clouds.”
Tebryn paused and looked up, and Max wondered if it was the first time this morning—if it was indeed morning—that the man had looked up.
“Oh,” he said.
From horizon to horizon, the entire sky was a cloudless grey. The sun was shining somewhere overhead, in the direction Maxwell thought was east, but even its light was wan and lacklustre.
“Where the bloody hell are we?” Tebryn asked.
The three men followed the sound over the dunes, scrub, and eventual fields planted with various crops that Maxwell didn’t recognise. It couldn’t have been more than an hour before the low, whitewashed buildings appeared, along with the bell tower of a modest church. Following the sounds of activity and the smells of cooking food, they found their way to the town square, where a group of youths were busy erecting a maypole. Looking around the square, Maxwell could see a blacksmith’s forge, a shingle with a castle on it, and one with a carved wooden potato that was either laughing or screaming in terror. He also noticed that the three of them had attracted the attention of the locals. Sort of. Most of the people looked at them with disinterest, glancing up and then glancing away, but some of the children ran after them curiously, and several were pointing and giggling as Tebryn absently rolled a copper coin across his knuckles and then tossed it into the air, sometimes making it jump from one hand to the other without warning. Although by ‘jump’, Maxwell meant ‘seem to disappear from one hand and reappear in the other apparently without passing through the air between them’.
“Ho! Travelers!” a large, red faced man waddled with surprising speed towards them. He had a beard that was mostly sideburns and the bottom of his large nose disappeared into a bristle brush of a moustache. It almost looked as though the hair from the top of his head was migrating down his cheek. He wore a long quilted tunic that had seen better days, and a chain of office that Maxwell suspected was merely gold-ish. “Has the ship come in?”
The men looked at each other. “No, I don’t think has,” Tebryn ventured after a brief pause.
“Then how did you get onto our island?”
“Don’t know,” Keith rumbled.
“You don’t know?”
Tebryn grinned. “Well, I could tell you that we were on board an airship that was crashing into the ocean and woke up on the beach this morning, but you wouldn’t believe me if I said that, would you?”
“What’s an airship?”
“A flying ship. A ship that flies through the clouds,” Tebryn said solemnly.
“And did you?”
“Did we what?”
“Fly through the clouds?”
“Oh yes,” Tebryn said with a smile. “You should have seen it. The Pride of Miniginti, she was called and she cut through the air like a golden arrow. She was headed to archangel before a dastardly coup from the nation of Minzantos. The guards rose up and started to butcher the passengers but even they didn’t know why the ship was sent crashing into the ocean.” By this point some of the villagers had gathered closer to listen, and some had swept in to pull their children away from the mad man in a top hat.
“Why was it crashing?” a woman in the crowd asked.
“I have no idea, my good woman,” Tebryn said solemnly. “My friend…s and I were just about to enter the engine room to investigate when we found ourselves on yonder beach.”
For a moment the crowd stopped, uncertain how to take this sudden end to what had promised to be an epic narrative. Then Tebryn smiled and said “See? I told you you wouldn’t believe me.”
They laughed then, and the robed man with the gold-ish chain stepped forward and offered them his hand. “A fantastic story indeed. I’m Raymond and I’m the mayor of this town.”
“I’m Tebryn, the big guy’s Max and the bigger guy’s called Keith. Um… could you tell me exactly where ‘here’ is exactly?”
“You’re on the island of Corvinus,” Raymond said slowly as if he was still a bit concerned for Maxwell’s sanity. “You’re just about in time for our annual festival!”
“Festival of…” Tebryn asked.
“Corvinus,” Raymond said, in the same ‘I can’t believe you’re asking me that’ tone.
“Well, yes,” Tebryn said. “But what’s it in celebration of?”
“Corvinus,” Raymond said again.
Tebryn’s face broke into a warm, friendly smile. Maxwell was beginning to know that smile. It was the man’s default expression when faced with something confusing and he wasn’t sure whether to push harder or hug everyone into submission. “Of course,” Tebryn said, “That makes perfect sense. I don’t know what came over me.”
“Oh, we all have our moments,” Raymond said, although his smile dimmed slightly when he finished.
“When we first came here, you asked if we were from ‘the’ ship,” Tebryn asked. “What ship were you talking about?”
“The trading ship,” Raymond said. “It comes by once a year to trade with us—every autumn just after harvest time. It’s due any day now, and when you three came along.”
Maxwell shared a glance with Tebryn and Keith and the mayor noticed it. “I imagine you’ll be asking the captain for passage off Corvinus,” the mayor said. “I can’t blame you-it’s not like much happens on Corvinus.”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s lots to see on the island,” Tebryn protested. “Your beach, your fields…I think I saw a church?”
“We don’t have a priest though,” Raymond said. “Not since Father Scott passed on.”
A young woman with long brown hair walked up, her curls swept back from her face by a woven headband, and a basket of freshly picket flowers in her hands. “Oh, hello, new people! Did you come with the ship?”
“Sally! Leave the people alone,” Raymond said, flapping his hands as the woman pulled up a seat next to Tebryn.
“Oh shush, Raymond,” Sally said. “I run the general store. Well, the only store on Corvinus that isn’t the blacksmith’s forge. If you need anything, you should drop by.”
Tebryn turned his perfect smile on the shopkeeper. “Why thank you Sally, I’ll probably drop by tomorrow if that’s all right with you?”
“Oh, any time…”
“Tebryn,” Tebryn said, doffing his hat. “My friends are Keith and Max, but I’ve got the best name. And smile.”
Sally giggled. “Do you have any place to stay tonight.”
Maxwell grinned privately and thought he might have been the only one who saw the redhead’s smile freeze on his face and his eyes blink in incomprehension. The other man recovered quickly though.
“No, I can’t say we have. Is there an inn around here? There must be an inn?”
If the girl was disappointed she didn’t let it show. “Of course there is. Miriam’s place at the sign of the castle. Hey Miriam!” she yelled into the crowd.
Miriam was a middle aged woman who was heavily pregnant, and owned the inn at the sign of the castle across the square, and she beamed as they entered the small, warm kitchen through the front door. Sally had already told them that her husband had passed away under mysteriously circumstances partway through her pregnancy.
“He woke up early one morning before dawn and heard something on the roof,” she’d said, her voice hushed and conspiratorial. “Then the next thing anyone knew he was lying on the street and…” Sally paused. “I woke to her screaming,” she said sadly.
In any case, the rooms were plain, but dry, and the beds were firm and the linens old but well cared for. After finding out that Miriam’s room rates included breakfast, the men paid for two days’ rent, and settled in for the night. Max lay alone in his tiny room, and found himself drifting off to sleep in short order.
There are dreams that seem real. There are dreams that when you wake up you’re certain they’re memories until they start conflicting with your other memories. Then there are dreams that you’re certain are dreams. Sometimes you can influence them. Sometimes you have to watch and scream as things happen that you’d rather didn’t. In this case, Max knew he was dreaming. He wasn’t expecting to dream, and this one was different to the ‘normal’ dreams he’d become accustomed to since finding the book, but he knew it was a dream. He was in a stone corridor, facing an ornate wooden door, it’s panels carved with eldritch runes that glowed with power but swirled away when he attempted to focus on them or discern their meaning. Without willing it consciously he felt himself approach the door, his feet silent on a hard stone floor. Even bare feet should have made a sound. So should the hinges on the door as it opened before him.
The room beyond was both large and restrictive, and filled with the unwavering light of hundreds of candles. Looking around, Max couldn’t see the side walls, the edges of the room vanishing into blackness at either extreme to the left or right. The ceiling however, was strangely low and it almost felt as though it would fall and crush him at any moment. The far wall however, was close—so close that he was certain he’d reach it in a few steps.
Wan daylight filtered into the room through a large arched window, the panes that remained in its leaded frame darkened with dirt. The wind blowing in through the holes was cool and smelled of forest leaves and rich loam. The breeze billowed through the long black hair of the young girl sitting calmly on a rich red cushion before the window. Her skin was pale, her brown eyes wide and her smile was both cheerful and strangely knowing. Max guessed her to be no more than twelve.
“What took you so long?” She asked. “You should have come to visit ages ago.”
“Who are you?”
“You know who I am. This isn’t a good place to speak though. Too many ears. Come and see me before you run out of time.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Max awoke to the crow of the cockerel at dawn—
“There was no cockerel in the centre of the village. And the ones that were around didn’t crow at dawn,” Tebryn objected.
“Artistic license, Teb, come on, it’s not like you don’t embellish every story you tell.”
“Only the unimportant ones,” Tebryn said with a grin.
“What, like your past?”
“My past is boring,” Tebryn said, flicking his curling fringe out of his eyes. “It’s always more exciting if you come from somewhere a long way away. No one wants to the see the not so famous card prestidigitator from the next town over.”
“So, is one of you actually going to tell me what did happen?” Captain Melville asked.
They were standing on the deck of the Sea Sprite, salt spray leaving little white flecks on the dark hair of Max’s forearms as some of the traders dickered over food and a the few tradegoods that Corvinus needed. The sun was out and warm in the blue sky. Max had got so used to the grey that he’d forgotten how cheering a blue sky was, white clouds scurrying across on the fresh winds that had breathed life into everyone. Well, maybe it wasn’t just the wind.
“What’s the oldest building on the island?” Max asked over a simple breakfast of bread, butter and a sticky strawberry jam.
Miriam poured him some weak ale and sat down in her padded armchair by the fireplace.
“Probably the Marque’s manor—or the Church,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“If we’re stuck here waiting for this merchant ship to arrive, we might as well do some sightseeing. You’re both coming right?” he asked, looking pointedly at Tebryn and Keith.
“Well, I don’t have nothing better to do, so I don’t see why not,” Tebryn said. “Although if you’re wanting to see the Marque’s place you might want to get his blessing first, you know.”
And that was how they found themselves in a carriage on the way across the island to the Marque’s fortified Manor.
“Wait that was a bit of a jump,” the Captain said. “How exactly did that happen?”
“He invited us on account of our novel charms,” Tebryn said, and Max wondered—not for the first time—how the redhead managed to avoid getting sunburnt. Admittedly the man’s pale skin was a patchwork of freckles, but from what Max knew of northerners, the man should have been burnt to a crisp ages ago. Maybe it was magic.
“He invited you?” The captain said with a smile.
“Well, he sent his the Captain of his guard to invite us for dinner.”
“To dinner,” Max corrected. “I don’t think he actually ate people.”
“He may as well have,” Tebryn muttered darkly.
“But you didn’t suspect anything?” the Captain asked, toying with the end of the long braid of her hair.
“Other than him being urbane, having humourless guards and Keith thinking the man had good taste in cigars?” Max asked. “No, we didn’t have any reason to.”
“Well, the shopkeeper Sally said he was a vampire,” Tebryn said.
“Was he?” Captain Melville asked.
“Sort of,” Max said, just as Tebryn said “Technically, no.”
“All right, someone take it from the top?”
“We had a nice meal,” Max said. “A bit plain and simple for a nob, but there was pork and it was good. Then Tebryn did some tricks and the guards barely smiled.”
“Toughest crowd I’ve ever played,” Tebryn muttered.
“Now, I’ll be the first to say Tebryn just might not be as good as he thinks he is—”
“Welcome,” Max said absently. “But he was on fire that night and deserved more than polite applause.”
“That’s a metaphor,” Tebryn said helpfully. “I wasn’t actually on fire.” It was a lame line, but somehow it came out charming.
“Good to know,” Captain Melville said with a laugh.
From across the deck, the aged Bosun’s scowl deepened, and Max wondered if he should remind Tebryn that the giant, muscular man was the Captain’s father. Then he decided that not telling the rogue might be more amusing.
“So the next day went out into the fields to talk and found her,” Tebryn said, nodding towards teh blonde woman in a simple peasant dress who was sitting at the prow of the ship with Keith.
“She has an amazing voice,” Captain Melville said.
“That’s what we noticed first,” Max agreed. “She wouldn’t talk to us at first though. She was too scared.”
“How’d you get her to come around?”
Tebryn paused and smiled as the rippling notes from Keith’s lute played counterpoint to Catherine’s soaring soprano. “More or less that,” he said.
“You’re not affected, are you?” Catherine said as they sat around the hearth of her small house, Catherine seated on her bed, Keith on a chair and Max on a small footstool. Tebryn was sitting cross legged on the sweet rushes and appearing perfectly at ease.
“Affected by what?” Tebryn asked as Keith set his lute to one side, flexing his fingers with a smile.
“You must have noticed it,” Catherine said. “Everyone’s so wooden, so expressionless. They don’t laugh or smile anymore or…”
“We thought people might just be wary of outsiders.”
Catherine shook her head. “No, it’s the Marque. This all started when he got here, everyone started having the most terrible dreams. They say it’s like being smothered in a big, black blanket of nothingness leaving you empty and wanting to scream but with nothing to scream with.” She looked around the room. “You’ve had those dreams.”
“Can’t say I have,” Max said.
“Then you’re the odd one out,” Catherine said with a small smile. “Like me, or Father Scott before he…before he…”
“Before he what?” Tebryn asked.
“He went to confront the Marque. Said he had to before he ran out of time…and never returned. And then people started vanishing. First it was one of the fishermen, then a farmer’s boy and then the blacksmith’s apprentice—”
“Miriam’s husband,” Tebryn murmured.
“We found his body,” Catherine said. “The others just…vanished. Lost fishing, everyone says. Thomas Zamperoni had never set foot in a boat, he was scared of water.”
“So we hold out until the ship gets here and we leave,” Tebryn suggested.
“What ship?” Catherine asked.
“The Merchant ship that comes around festival time each year. The mayor told us about it.”
Catherine shook her head. “That ship never comes. They just think it will. The festival never happens either. They’re just planning for it, every day. Over and over again.”
“Ah,” Max said.
“And if you’re having the dreams you’ll become just like the rest of everyone. Empty.”
“Are you sure it’s the Marque?” Tebryn asked. “I mean, you’re basically suggesting the only way to get out of here with our minds intact is to go up against him and I’d like to be sure that’s the right play if we only have so much time.”
“Father Scott had a book but…”
“It’s not safe. If you all…and then you don’t… and then he knows it’s me and…”
Tebryn stared up at the thatched ceiling. “And when he’s gone, what do you want to do.”
“If you can—”
“When,” Tebryn corrected firmly. “Rebuild the town? Some one will have to help people adjust.”
Catherine shook her head. “I can’t stay. There’s too much…and with Father Scott gone…”
“So you come with us,” Tebryn said. “I’m sure the Marque has a way to get his cigars imported. Probably a ship holed up somewhere in a secret harbour.”
“You know how to sail a ship?” Keith asked.
Tebryn grinned, “One thing at a time, mate. First we have a nob to defenestrate.”
“To what?” Max asked.
“Toss out a window.”
“Well why didn’t you just say that?”
Tebryn shrugged. “I like fancy words. Now where’s this book you mentioned, Catherine?”
Catherine’s smile was both scared and triumphant. “He said it was the one place Marque Quintus wouldn’t look.”