Captain of the Azure Tower Guard
A heavy fog lay over the sea. From the topmost deck of the great elven ship, The Amaranth, the surface of the water itself was obscured -- dense mists swirled and shifted, but never cleared. Sometimes, to their starboard side, the elves caught glimpses of the shoreline, dense with jungle. The sounds of the creaking ropes and boards, the splashes of the waves -- everything was hushed and muffled. For the moment it was blessedly cool on deck. When the sun rose, so would the heat.
Swordmaster Coryn leaned against the rail at the prow of the ship, looking down.
Years ago, when the ancient Mage Pendar had asked for volunteers to come with him, to travel the world and chase everlasting life, Coryn had been one of the first to volunteer. His prowess earned him a place as the commander of the mages’ guards. It had not gone quite the way Coryn thought it would.
He’d imagined leaping from adventure to adventure, waking to different horizons every morning, sampling unusual food and drink, meeting brilliant and beautiful peoples and -- of course -- seducing some of them.
Instead, the voyage included a great deal of waiting. And standing guard. And bearing with the arrogant absorption of the mages and their students. Not for the first time, Coryn wondered if he’d made the right choice.
Not that he was one to dwell on mistakes. He had hundreds of years before him -- he could always go home.
Another elf came to stand beside Coryn. She leaned against the railing, hair pulled back in a high tail. Naevys was a hunter and, like Coryn, a second class citizen on this ship carrying the high and mighty mages towards their purpose.
Coryn took a moment to appreciate the huntress in her fitted clothing. Coryn liked to think of himself as an elf who enjoyed the diverse range of forms the gods had blessed the world with, but you’d have to be blind not to appreciate Naevys.
“Anything out there?” she asked.
“Nothing as interesting as what’s right here.”
She smirked at him. “You’re a terrible guardsman,” she said.
He let out an exaggerated huff. “There’s fog, ocean, jungle, mud, and fog. Again. Forever. ” He shrugged elegantly. “What I wouldn’t give for a decent elven city.”
“You’d be happy with a fancy tavern and a lady of the evening,” said Naevys.
“You’re not wrong,” said Coryn, unapologetic.
“I wouldn’t mind some new faces,” admitted Naevys. “Any chance of it, do you think?”
Coryn smiled. “Where there’s life, there’s hope,” he said.
Naevys squinted her eyes, staring down into the fog.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing.
Coryn glanced out into the fog, a jest on his lips until he saw what she did. It was a broken mast, rising out of the water. The sails were rotted away to mossy tatters.
“Coryn…” said Naevys. Her attention had shifted. There was a second wreck, a splintered bow visible above the water.
“I see it,” Coryn started to say as the deck beneath their feet shifted -- as though the ship had run over something. Both elves staggered. Out of the fog, came the haunting echoes of horns calling to each other. Signals. The notes came from all sides. Next came the dull thud of a small missile hitting the hull. Then the sound of a dozen similar impacts.
Staring down, Coryn and Naevys saw a barbed dart, with a taut line attached stuck in the hull. The rope vanished into the fog.
Coryn drew his sword. He grabbed the railing with one hand and swung himself over the side, slashing with his blade. He severed the line and, in one smooth motion, swung back up onto the deck. As he did, he felt a sharp sting in his arm.
Back on the deck, he cried: “Alarm!” More barbed darts stuck in the side of The Amaranth. “Sound the alarm! Guards to me! To me!” Looking down at his arm, Coryn saw a small thin dagger stuck there. He pulled it out and dropped it contemptuously.
Guards ran across the deck to Coryn’s call. Coryn could feel the ship slowing, coming to a halt. He and Naevys watched the lines. They saw one slick green hand emerge from the fog, pulling itself along the line. It was followed by another and then a monstrous form appeared and began to climb up towards the deck. It looked like a cross between a human and frog, with armor made from a thick silvery sharkhide and a dozen wicked little daggers across its chest in a bandolier.
“Go tell Mage Pendar what’s happening,” Coryn said to Naevys. “Tell him we’re under attack.”
She sprinted away across the wooden boards of the ship and Coryn drew his sword. Moments later, the rails swarmed with frogmen. They carried a mismatched array of darts, daggers, and hooks. Though they were weighed down with weapons, the wretches were fast! Coryn ran back and forth along the edge, stabbing between the railings. His sword flashed, digging uselessly into thick armor or finding soft flesh.
Despite the danger -- despite there being two more frogmen for each one he sent falling into the ocean, despite the darts and knives flying by his head -- Coryn smiled. This was more like it.
The elven swordmaster was pressed back from the edge of the ship. He spitted his ninth or tenth opponent and kicked the slimy body off his rapier. In the fog and the chaos of the fight, it was impossible to tell who was winning and who was losing.
Coryn leapt down from the forecastle and onto the main deck. He stumbled. His head swam briefly. He recovered and began to cut a swath through his enemies. Parry and riposte. Roll and thrust. He dispatched another two enemies with easy elegance. He almost didn’t notice when the third frogman ignored his feint and parried his attack. Coryn was forced to scramble backwards to avoid a quick, vicious cut from a short sword. Again, his vision swam. A feverish heat filled his body, and then was gone. His opponent puffed up his throat, waiting for him to recover, mocking the elf. Irritated, Coryn lunged. He missed. The frogman slashed his shoulder, the blade slicing down his side.
Coryn jumped back, out of range, and pulled himself together. He proceeded to attack in earnest with a flurry of cuts and counters that put his enemy back on his webbed feet. The frogman panicked, trying to match Coryn’s speed. The elven swordmaster ran him through, slashed his thigh and sliced him neatly along the arm. Coryn didn’t bother to watch the frogman fall, instead turning to look for his next opponent.
What he saw shocked him. The elves were pressed back against the forecastle, hemmed in on all sides by the frogmen.
Coryn ran back towards them, helping the swordsmen to form a ring around the mages. How could they be losing? Against amphibians?
Coryn reached the other elves and another wave of heat rolled through him. His vision swam and he tried to blink away the darkness. He was panting, mouth open like a dog.
Coryn looked down to his arm. It was entirely numb. That first dagger...
By sheer will, he managed to focus on the encroaching frogmen. They seemed hesitant to attack, cautious.
Coryn noticed several of the elven fighters hidden at the back of the group, leaning against the forecastle wall and sweating profusely. They didn’t look like they would last long, but he couldn’t see more than small wounds on any of them.
The sun had begun to burn off the fog, letting the elves see clearly that there was a discussion happening away at the other end of the ship.
A few minutes passed, and then a delegation formed and approached the elves. An ancient amphibian lead them, heavily in layers of leather, and regal. The elves’ attackers stood aloof in their barbarous finery.
Mage Pendar pushed through the circle of fighters, ancient and formidable. Coryn stepped in behind him -- fighting not to sway. Naevys stood at his side.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Coryn nodded. No point in worrying her right now. They could take care of his wound and the poison there after surviving this inauspicious meeting.
A small purplish frogman stood forward, a herald apparently. It rapped an ornately decorated staff sharply on the deck and spoke.
“You travel the waters of the Children of the Reef without permission. None sail here without permission from the eldest people. None sail here without the leave of the Children. You must give up your ship. Take the small boats and suffer in the jungle for your transgression.”
Mage Pendar managed to keep his voice polite -- though Coryn was sure the frogmen wouldn’t have been able to tell one way or the other -- and said, “We did not know these were the waters of the Children of the Reef. We apologize and will leave your territory immediately. But we cannot leave our ship.”
The frogman grew a darker shade of purple and angrily struck the deck again with his rattling staff.
“You dare defy the eldest people? You will leave the ship or all of you will die!”
“The ‘eldest’ people?” asked Mage Pendar.
A condescending laugh arose from the Children of the Reef.
“The eldest, the first, the oldest people of the world,” said the herald.
“We are the sylvan elves,” said Mage Pendar. “Our lives are longer than the trees and we sail where fate takes us.”
Mutters surrounded the elves. The purple herald snapped his staff down for silence once more. He asked, “How many years do you have, old one?”
“Two thousand, seven hundred and forty-nine,” said Mage Pendar. Coryn kept his face carefully blank. He always forgot that Pendar was that old. Even among elves, it was remarkable. Coryn himself wasn’t five hundred yet.
And he wasn’t sure he’d make it much longer. The feverish heat was back, and this time it wasn’t going away. His palms slipped and slipped on the hilt of his rapier.
The frogmen were clearly impressed by Pendar’s assertion. The herald backed up to speak briefly to his own elder. With grave diginity, the elder crouched down and drew a handful of painted bones from a pouch at his waist. He cast them on the deck and considered them closely. Then nodded. Chattering disbelief ran through the frogmen until the elder nodded and grunted more resolutely, scooping up his scrying bones. The herald, less arrogant now, returned to his place to continue addressing the elves.
“Is that your champion?” asked the herald, pointing to Coryn.
Mage Pendar glanced back at the swordsman. He looked briefly to the other guards, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Coryn was the best with a blade among the exiled elves.
Cautiously, Mage Pendar nodded.
The frogman looked Coryn up and down, eyes stopping on the wound in Coryn’s arm. The herald smiled.
“You are certain?” asked the herald.
“Coryn, there’s something wrong,” whispered Naevys behind him. “You’re hurt, don’t do anything--”
Coryn stepped forward. “Of course, he’s certain,” the elven swordsman bellowed. “I’ll take on ten of you, and maybe it’ll be a fair fight.” It took everything he had not to shiver with the vicious poison taking him over.
“This one is not so old,” said the herald, his own smile dividing his wide face in half. “If he wins, you may leave the waters of the Children with your ship and belongings in peace. If he loses, then you leave the ship immediately. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” said Mage Pendar. “Where is your champion?”
After a brief discussion, the Children’s champion came forward.
The champion wore an ornate chainmail vest, the links oiled and iridescent. The glitter of her armor and the vicious mismatched hooks she held in each webbed hand dazzled Coryn in the now bright tropical sunlight.
Coryn made his way forward to meet her carefully, the deck treacherous. When he reached his place facing the champion he fought to keep his back straight. He drew his rapier, but didn’t try to lift it. His shaking hands would have given away how very weak he was.
She saluted with both hooks, but her face was contemptuous. She clearly intended to make quick work of Coryn.
Coryn nodded to her, instead of flourishing his sword. Then he waited. He didn’t have the strength for a charge or a lunge. If he went too far off balance, he wouldn’t be able to recover. She puffed up her face and stepped forward with the springing gait of her people. The frogmen whooped, cheering their champion on. The elves were silent. Every one of them knew Coryn. Every one could see something was wrong.
The champion swung both hooks at Coryn, one from the left and the other from the right. Coryn gave himself one step backwards and then flicked his sword up and to the sides. The movement was lightning fast and he batted aside her lazy attacks, catching the end of one hook on his blade and twisting hard. If he’d had his proper strength, he would have wrenched the hook from her grasp, but as it was she was able to hold on.
It was her turn to twist the hook and try to disarm Coryn. He took another step away from her and managed to angle his sword so that it slipped away from the hook and stayed in his hand.
The frogmen’s champion circled Coryn, more wary now. Coryn turned, spinning carefully on one leg with his sword’s tip dragging across the deck.
When the champion attacked again, she meant to finish the duel. She swung the first hook at his sword, intending to wrench it high and wide. He let her, giving her an opening. With the second hook she tried to disembowel Coryn.
The elf snapped his wounded arm down to cover his abdomen -- catching the hook in his forearm. She yanked her weapon back, expecting Coryn to try to get away. But the poison was in that arm, and Coryn hardly felt it when the hook caught on the bone there. He came in close, nose to nose with the champion and put all his strength into angling the point of his sword down. The champion tried to press the blade away, but Coryn was taller and used every last bit of strength he had to bring his weapon in line. She pulled cruelly on the hook in his arm, before letting it go entirely to try to get free.
It was too late though. Coryn drove his sword down into her, putting all his falling weight into the blow. The blade sunk into her, between the neck and shoulder, almost to the hilt.
Both champions fell over.
Naevys hurried to Coryn. The frogmen watched them, greedy, unhappy. Then the herald rapped his staff on the deck three times. The elder turned and the Children of the Reef withdrew, leaving their champion’s body behind.
“Are you okay?” asked Naevys, “What’s wrong?”
“Poison,” said Coryn, his body shaking violently now that the fight was over.
Naevys’s face filled with horror, as the other elves came to surround them.
“Don’t look like that,” said Coryn, managing a smile. “While there’s life, there’s hope.”
True to their word, the Children of the Reef cut the lines holding The Amaranth, and the elves sailed on.
Only a few days after leaving the Children of the Reef behind, Coryn was the only elf infected with their poison still alive. The others, a dozen wounded fighters and mages, succumbed quickly, dying from even the tiniest scratch. Yet, as the elves sailed north, Coryn just wouldn’t die. The poison burned him from the inside out and he could hardly walk, but he wouldn’t give in.
That’s when the mages, especially Mage Pendar, became obsessed with saving him. They worked together, day and night, trying experimental magics on poor Coryn as months passed and the ocean around them became cold.
And none of it worked.
His lips were icy blue, and an innocent looking scar on his left arm was all that remained of the wound that finally killed him.
Naevys knelt beside Coryn’s body, waiting with it. She’d stood vigil with his corpse through the night. It hadn’t been all that different from the nights she’d spent watching over him during his long illness. She hoped her friend had found some peace.
“Step back now, Naevys.” Mage Pendar’s voice cut through the ranger’s thoughts and she obeyed. Then she looked around. It didn’t look as though the mages were prepared for a funeral.
They’d formed a circle as wide as The Amaranth’s deck would allow. Naevys looked at Pendar inquisitively.
“One more thing to try,” said the mage. His eyes were bloodshot and weary. Even if Naevys was unsure of his consideration for her friend, she knew that the mage was trying his best to save the swordmaster. Though what could be done now that Coryn was dead…
Naevys got out of the way, standing outside the circle to watch. The mages’ voices lifted as one, their staves and wands spinning together. Out of the water around them came slivers and chunks of ice. These flew through the air and covered Coryn’s body in frozen armor. His face disappeared beneath a shield of ice.
Even Naevys could feel the power pooling over Coryn’s body. Magic surrounded the ship, flooding up onto the deck.
Finally, Mage Pendar stepped forward, leaning heavily on his staff. He bowed down so that his mouth was close to where Coryn’s ear was -- under all that ice -- and spoke two words. None of the other elves could hear them.
The ice shuddered and jerked up -- peeling away from Coryn’s body like it was a mold. It maintained a mostly elven shape as it staggered up. As it moved, Naevys could see the hollow place in its back -- the hole where Coryn’s body had been.
The ice elf twisted, looking down at Coryn’s frozen body in distress, then it spun around -- casting a baleful glare at the mages. The mages stayed back -- even Mage Pendar moved away -- observing his work with detachment. Nearby, Naevys heard someone say: “Not quite what we expected…” in a mildly disappointed tone.
Unnerved, Naevys came forward. She swung her cloak off her shoulders. When the ice construct turned to her, she held out the cloak and then lifted it up to wrap around the thing’s shoulders. The frozen planes of its face had very little in them that recalled an elf, let alone Coryn himself. Its eyes were cold, burning blue. Full of fury. Yet… there was something in the way it settled the cape, that reminded Naevys of her friend.
“Coryn? Is it actually you?” Naevys asked.
The rage in the construct’s eye subsided. A mouth opened up, a crack in the frozen visage. It was difficult to understand the rough voice through the ice grinding against itself. Still, Naevys heard.
“What did it say?” called Mage Pendar, watching the exchange closely.
Naevys replied: “He said, ‘While there’s life, there’s hope.’”