Land, sky and wave tops,
Clash and seethe while far beneath
Ocean deeps abide
~ ~ ~
“This is exquisite.” The water genasi trader bent to look at the blue jade bowl. It appeared to be glowing on its stand as the autumn sunlight shone through the open shoji onto the translucently thin stone.
“It is far too fine to grace this humble place.” His hostess uttered the formal courtesies with total sincerity that belied the sprawling elegance of the house and the obvious pride of place the bowl held within this grand hall. The lady of the house was fine boned, her skin albino white though her eyes where the clear, high blue of the peak of summer. She seemed impossible thin and frail but the silver-thread embroidery on her kimono told of her high place in a mighty clan, her clans central place in a powerful Imperial faction and her own mastery of the elemental arts as an air shugenja.
“Where did it come from?” The trader asked, studying the strangely worked angular patterns on the exterior. “I most humbly admit that I have travelled far in my days but I have not seen such craftwork as this.”
“It is more than fine craftwork,” the lady said, “it is a piece of Imperial history.” She turned and with a twitch of her fan, summoned servants bearing trays who quickly assembled refreshments and seating nearby.
“However, if one knew where to ask, perhaps one could get a similar piece made.” She smiled. “It is simply that few people think to ask the crafters for anything but mercy if they ever encounter them.”
Settling herself with a view out through the shoji at the lakeside below she continued.
“The bowl was made by the sahuagin, the dwellers of the ocean deeps as a symbol of the pact that has divided our world since the Empire reached the seas.”
The trader was shocked. “The sea devils!”
“So they are known.” The lady said neutrally. “For most have forgotten that in breaking the tyranny of the elves it was they who played a central role.”
“I must confess my ignorance,” the trader bowed his head, “I find it strange that one so closely affiliated with the air would credit the defeat of the elves to anything but its mastery. The elven held power through their dominance of the skies – how did deep sea dwellers such as the sahuagin have any influence on that fight?”
“It is an excellent tale,” the lady smiled and lifted her cup, “I assume you have time to hear it?”
The trader nodded promptly, discarding his plans to visit another potential client that afternoon.
“Let me tell you of the founder of our clan, the lord who received that bowl.”
The elven man-o-war was listing heavily in the skies, its huge crystalline wings scorched and holed but still it flew east. The coast was far behind and below waves were lashed to foam below over a sea gone dark beneath thunderclouds. Lord Arashi nudged the flanks of his wyvern steed with his knees and it beat its wings, gaining height for another attack run. As they rose into the gathering storm ahead, a long steel-tipped arrow was nocked on his dai-kyu and he whispered to the war kami bound to the arrowhead.
“Fly true, brother, strike down the enemy.”
He pulled the bowstring to its full draw, waited until his mount surged to the top of a wingbeat and loosed. The arrow streaked across the distance to the ship, transfixing one of the ballista crew on the open deck to his weapon and fouling the mechanism.
Lord Arashi felt grim satisfaction at this, the foul devices had cost the wang-liangs dearly in the war, even now his wing-mate was limping back to shore near mortally wounded and with a hurt mount. His own fur ached in the static-laden air but he ignored it as the last elf on the exposed deck abandoned his weapon and dived into the hatchway. He nocked another arrow and signalled his mount to dive, twisting in the saddle to put the arrow through the crystal windows beneath the ballista deck. This was just to distract those on the ships bridge while he executed the next maneuver, which was for his wyvern to wingover and swoop back up from ahead of the ship, shedding speed to pounce onto the forward deck and cling with its talons. With practiced motions Lord Arashi thrust his dai-kyu into the wide scabbard above his quiver and drew his yari from his holder. He had barely time to swing it to bear and brace it before they were rising in front of the port forward ballista pits.
Lord Arashi slammed the blade into the decking using the haft to level the balista aside even as the bolt surged from its traces and howled over his shoulder. Through the balista port he saw elf crew drawing swords even as his wyverns tail lashed into stab one with its poisoned stinger. The interior was sorched with lightning burns from his companions earlier attack. He drew his katana and was about to cut the cords tying him to his saddle and leap through the opening when his mount roared and let go of the hull.
As his mount tumbled out and down, wings lashing the air to regain stability, Lord Arashi clung to the saddle and tried to see what had attacked them. A long arrowshaft protruded from his mounts leg, elven fletched. As the sky spun crazily through his field of vision he saw the distinctive silhouttes of griffons outlined by lightning flashing in the thunderhead high above.
How has griffons made it this far out to sea, he wondered furiously. This would not cheat him of his prize, a few more griffon riders just raised the prospect of another chance to slay eleves after he had slain the mage who controlled the man-o-war and sent its crew screaming into the seas.
His wyvern screamed in rage as it stopped tumbling and swooped into a tight turn, before beating back up towards the foes. Lord Arashi did not have to guide the beast, its thirst for blood was leading it true. His hand found his dai-kyu, thankfully still secure in its scabbard and he looked up to spot his targets amidst the rain. Another lightning flash suddenly made his blood run cold as it outlined a massive shape descending through the storm. Suddenly it was clear where the griffons had come from.
The massive elven ship was bigger than anything they had heard of and griffons were swarming from what looked like a fortified erie built atop its hunched form. There was no returning now, Lord Arashi knew, he had to make sure he cost the elves as dearly as possible before he fell. He called to the war-kami of his arrow and let it fly for the nearest griffon then nudged his mount down towards the man-o-war. The distraction from the griffons has cost him the initiative and now a cluster of marines with swords and shields crouched on the aft deck, waiting for him. All they had to do was keep him on the deck long enough for the griffon riders to tear him to shreds and all had been for naught.
Lord Arashi nudged his mount down and as it dived, slashed the ties binding him to his saddle. As the wyvern swooped low across the deck, he tumbled backwards and sideways, trusting to his feline instincts. He landed on the sloping aft hull of the ship and slid sideways. The hull was slick from the rain and only by digging in his claws could he catch himself and the weight of his arms and armour. Some marines had dived to cover on the deck while another had been snatched up in his mounts jaws and a last buffetted overboard by its passage. Lord Arashi dragged himself to the nearly level centreline and drew his katana as he ran up the hull. The first marine to meet the armoured lord was slain with the first blow. Lord Arashi followed his blade down to avoid the face-slashing blow of the marines comrade then cut his legs from under him with the return of the katana stroke.
The mass of the wang-liangs body and armour smashed the smaller elves aside even where they blocked his blows. The twisting and hacking with terrifying agility for his size, Lord Arashi cut down the marines within swords-reach before heavy blows to his back told him that griffon riding archers were marking him. Lunging sideways he made for the hatchway down to the next deck but his way was blocked by the interlocked shields of the remaining marines. They realised they need only hold him off and let their wing-borne allies wear him down and Lord Arashi snarled with frustration. Drops of rain began to spatter across the hull and he was forced back as a griffon shrieked and swooped down with bared claws. His wyvern was snapping and tangling with another griffon high above.
Thundercrashed deafeningly and the storm broke. Rain grew heavier in the space of a few heartbeats until water was sluicing across the decks and the wind buffetted the combatants. Lord Arashi crouched, digging his toeclaws into the decking even as the marines retreated to inside the hatchway. Another arrow slammed into his shoulder and Lord Arashi turned and scrambled up across the ballista emplacement. He planned to leap down to the forward deck, smash through the hatch there and fight his way back but as he reached the top of the ship he stopped. Below the seas were swirling into a maelstrom and strange green lightning was flickering along the wave crests. Lightning streaked down from the storm. At first it seemed as if the citadel atop the ship could withstand it but as the bolts struck again and again in unnatural succession parts of the citadel began to crack and scorch.
The other ship was listing as Lord Arashi edged out along the wingroots to better see down. His fur crackled, and as he raised his hand he saw the same green lightning arc to his armour. He had felt the aura of magic for some time but had assumed it was emanating from the elven ship he had pursued. Now he was sure instead that something was wielding titanic powers, confirmed by the maelstron deepening and the winds above it beginning to circle. Even as the winds howled across the ship he stood upon and forced him to cling to the hull simply to avoid being blown overboard he felt it tilt and lurch beneath him. The other ship was also caught in the cataclysmic storm but appeared to be forging ahead over the maelstrom, still under control. He was preparing to reattempt the hatchway when the skies seemed to fall. The ships wallowed in the air and he saw griffons tumbling downwards when the seas erupted with tentacles. Towering pillars of dark flesh, crackling with green lightning they reached out of the seas and seized the massive ship.
Lord Arashi watched in horror as the larger ship was dragged backwards down into the green-glowing centre of the maelstrom. He had time to tear off his helmet and fling it away before the ship he stood upon was also seized and dragged down so swiftly it seemd as if the hull fell away beneath his feet. For the first time he could remember Lord Arashi knew terror, of drowning, of being unable to swim and worst of all, dying futilely without the chance to know or strike at what killed him. The ship crashed into the roiling seas and the wang-liang lord plunged in beside it. Where his massive frame and armour had bowled aside his foes shortly before now it drove him like like down through the waters like a stone. The air was torn from his lungs and the saltwater burned his eyes. He saw only green flickers as water flooded his lungs and consciousness faded.
Lord Arashi woke with a start. His lungs burned and his body ached. He rolled, vomitting water onto gray sands. Gasping, he levered himself up. His body felt as if he were threaded through with red hot wires and he barely lift the weight of his helmet. Drag marks lead from the water line to where he lay. Out to sea the storm rumbled as it dispersed.
Nearby, squatting on the sand stood a strange creature, holding a spear in long taloned hands. Its skin was scaled, green and black striped over long limbs but its most striking features were the staring black eyes over a sharklike maw.
“Dragonrider,” said the creature, its voice rattling from deep in its narrow chest, “You live yet at our mercy.”
Lord Arashi struggled to sit up but failed. His body was too starved of air, he was defenceless.
“Your people have suffered at the hands of the elves,” said the creature, “but nothing as mine. We have been hounded by the sea elves, driven to the deepest, coldest realms of the ocean. Now, the currents have changed and we offer a compact.”
“What compact?” Lord Arashi gasped.
The creature, hissed, and raised its spear. A flicker of green lightning played over the jangling braids of coral and seaweed and it brought the spear down to strike Lord Arashi’s bare foot. He felt a surge of cool pressure through his body and the agony eased. Within a few heartbeats he was able to stand. As soon as he could, he knelt and bowed deeply to the strange shaman.
“I am most grateful.” Lord Arashi sat back on his heels. “I was hardly fit to converse with you before.”
“Yes.” The shaman said. “Your kind and mine have little in common and that is good. You are of the earth and air, the forests and the skies. We are of the ocean deeps. You shall drive them from the land and we shall drive them from the seas. Once the elves are gone, we shall have dominion of the seas, from below a depth darker than a stormy day. The shallows will be free to traffic or hunt. The rest is yours, so long as you do not trespass.”
Lord Arashi nodded. “I must take this to my people but what you ask is reasonable. We have no desire to rule beneath the seas.”
“Last, we will not suffer an elf to live. The land elves are your responsibility but those who dwell in the water have seen their last generation, this we swear by Sekolah.”
“Let me take this to the elders, I cannot presume to speak for them.” Lord Arashi thought of the tyranny of the elven rule. “I do not doubt you will be satisfied with their response.”
The shaman planted his spear in the sand and rose.
“And so my ancestor brought word of the sahuagin and their own fight against the elves. There was prompt agreement to an alliance – for victory over the elves was still not assured at that time.” The lady sipped from her cup. “But there never was an alliance as the races of the Empire are allied. The sahuagin disappeared back into the deeps – occassionally elven strongholds by the coast were smashed by supernatural storms or their ships were seen taken by sharks large as islands but that was all.”
“That is a remarkable tale, my lady.” The merchant said. “I never knew there was a compact between the Empire and the sea devils.”
“It was never tested. The Empire has no need of the deep ocean and since the withdrawal from the islands, we have little need of the seas itself. Some merchants and sailors and fisherfolk trade upon the waves, but they never venture beyond the shallows for the most part.”
“And has there been no traffic or trade?”
“None. The bowl was a gift, as to a host from a guest, when the shaman came to hear the reply of the elders. That was the only time we have received an envoy. The shallow dwelling aquatics speak of the sahuagin as monsters, merciless slayers of anything they catch. Thus the name sea-devils but they have been true to their word.”
“I wonder did they wipe out the water-dwelling elves?”
“I have never heard of a sea-elf.” The lady set down her cup. “Have you?”