Aleistar could feel the approaching dawn. It was still a little under an hour away, but after so many years he could tell the coming of dawn from multiple senses. He had no idea if this was due to his curse enhancing them or if it was simply habit. But, no matter what the reason, there were signs his senses never missed.
It always started with the scent of morning. No matter where he was he could smell the unmistakable but subtle smell of the world heating as the yet unseen rays of the sun began to warm Oerth. It was slightly different depending on where he was. On open seas, it was a refreshing salty, crisp smell as the entire planet slowly simmered. In a city, it depended on the character of the city. Greyhawk City had a slightly sweet smell with a depth that could never be identified. But sometimes there were differences even in the same place. Here in Greyhawk City when docked at the Wharfs outside the gate there was a muddy smell that hinted at something older and more primal. He assumed it has something to do with the river. Rivers were odd, give him a sea or ocean any day. But no matter where he was he smelled dawn before he heard it.
The sound of dawn was like the soft rolling of an insistent wave. This made it hard to discern on the ocean. But the familiarity, the ancient and relentless changelessness of it, made it identifiable even in a chorus of similar sounds. Here at the city docks it was easy. The subdued roar of day was like an alarm clock.
His familiar gazed at him from across the room. Xerxes, the undead parrot who showed up one day, was part of his curse. The thing was as vocal or silent as torment necessitated. Although not strictly a tormentor, it would not spare him the pain of self reflection. It could be he was really part of the curse. Or it could be birds were jerks; Aleistar could not say.
For the 16,443 morning he was waking up not knowing many things that were important about his curse. He and his father had, all those mornings ago, stumbled into a bad situation on an archeological dig in the jungles. In rapid succession they fought undead, ran into a lich who experimented on them, apparently freed said lich from a curse by accident, his father was seemingly killed. He escaped, fought more undead, found a ship, and caused some serious problems. The lich fused with the ship by accident and left with, surprise of surprises, his father very much alive and imprisoned.
Then things got bad.
He was found half dead by angry Olman tribesmen who did not take the freeing of the lich from an ancient curse with much class. So, because it was apparently the way of their people, he was cursed by Mictlantechuhtli, god of death and darkness to wander the earth seeking the ship. He must never leave the water for more than three days. He must greet the Sun each morning and Moon each night. Each time he fails this he turns slightly more into a vampire. He must find the ship and imprison the lich or destroy him.
He looked at his translucent image in the mirror as he got ready. It was barely visible. Over the years…mistakes had been made. There were times when, through no intention, he could not meet the commands of the curse. He had slid more than a little toward a state he had no intention of inhabiting. He adjusted his clothes and took a deep breath. As always for the last few years…the others would be waiting.
Penny Treesong gazed up into the blackness of the sky. Stars were visible, as were the two moons Luna and Celene, but it was a dark night. She looked to her left at the face of the ship’s cook, Baozhai Suntouched. Baozhai was watching the predawn activity on the docks. People hurried in the darkness while they loaded supplies. The obnoxious scent of sailor food came across the deck but was repulsed by the divine smell that always came from Baozhai’s kitchen. To serve on The Wild was unique in many ways. Assuredly, the quality of the food was one of the good ones.
Penny prepared for the coming of the light by raising the illusion that hid her appearance. Slowly the two side horns that were draconic ridges that encircled her head and emerged on either side, faded. Her ears lost their points and became the normal human rounded shape. Finally the central horn from her forehead vanished.
Baozhai looked at her, “It is Greyhawk City. Perhaps the illusion is not necessary here. After all, there are few things that shocks these people.”
Penny smiled because a smile was always expected from her rather than the frown that was in her mind. “Doubtful. Besides what do I say when someone even politely asks. Hello there, I’m part dragon and part unicorn, oh I know I look human but that’s just because both of the species that made me like to wear your form.” She laughed a real laugh, “Could be a tad uncomfortable.”
“But,” Baozhai said, “interesting to say the least.” She looked back toward the crew quarters. “Sometimes I wonder why he cuts it so close.”
“Aleistar?” Penny asked. “I suppose it’s the only thing he can control. Cutting it close.”
Penny shook her head at Baozahi’s motherly concern. She did that with all of them from time to time…treated them like she was their mother. Although odd at first, Penny had grown used to sharing her morning ritual of waiting for the sun with her two crewmates. There was no denying that the first time they all realized that they waited for the sun each day was a moment of discomfort and suspicion. It was as if each person had intruded on a private moment of the other. And for months they did it divided, sometimes close in proximity, and in silence.
It was Bazahi who, long ago, asked the question they all had wondered. She was the first to ask: Why? Penny had no problem with telling them she liked it. She did it just because she liked it and for no other reason. She guessed that it was because of her nature and calling as a healer that seeing Pelor each morning was something deeply important to her. Penny then asked the question back to Baozhai who said that her people had a deep love of the sun and explained the nature of the Emperor of the Isles: The grandson of the sun. And also there was a spell that allowed her to communicate mentally with her fiance at dawn.
Then Aleistar told them about his curse. Slowly it became an unspoken pact between Penny and Baozahi that he would not wait for the dawn alone. They greeted the dawn because they loved it and life. He did so with obligation and dread.
As Penny reflected on how they had gotten to the point when a half dragon half unicorn waited with a mysterious cook for a gradual vampire to meet the dawn, she heard Baozhai remark, “Someday your penchant for racing the sun to the horizon will be your undoing.”
Aleistar smirked as he bounded onto the deck from the stairs that led down to the crew quarters.
“For my daily date with two beautiful women…I had to make myself acceptable.”
Penny smiled, “You’re pretty Aleistar, but she’s engaged.”
“And you?” he asked with a grin.
“I’m part Bronze Dragon and part Unicorn. You’re either going to be killed or get nowhere.”
“Disappointing.” He said with a shrug.
“And standard morning conversation.” Baozhai added.
Akilu looked down the deck at the three crewmen waiting for dawn as he pulled himself from the water. He enjoyed long night swims next to the ship while it was moving. Short dips in harbor were sufficient since he often found the water unpleasant. He had received odd looks from some of the newer sailors in the dock. Even in Greyhawk City a Darfellan was almost unknown. Rare to begin with, the aquatic humanoids related to whales, were the focus of a mass genocide carried out by the sahuagin. The sahuagin father god and creator; Sekolah the god of sharks, demanded living sacrifice. The peaceful Darfellan met the need. Although stronger than most of their attackers, they were vastly outnumbered at the start. And that was a situation that grew worse with each death.
Now there were very few Darfellan villages and almost all of them were hidden from outsiders. Even most Darfellans were not trusted with the knowledge of all the locations. Akilu came from a village hidden on a small island in the Lordship of the Isles. His people were trying to get their numbers back to levels that would enable them to survive more in the open. So it was rare for an able bodied male to be abroad on the sea rather than at home mating in the rotation of mates. But some did go into the world to keep the people aware of events, be the connection between scattered villages and to hunt their enemies. He did return home to mate in the rotation as well as at allied villages yearly.
Even the thought of the hated sahuagin made his rage grow. Akilu sighed a prayer to the whale mother for peace in his mind and went about the morning business. With the Captain away he had to see to the running of the vessel, it would not do to dwell on things. And as one of the few who actually did know all the locations, he must be calmer than others. Even when thinking of the enemy.
As he was dwelling; Rotaesha nodded as she passed by on her way to breakfast. The aquatic elf from the underwater Elven City of Shavainwin was, after the captain, the person Akilu trusted the most. She had not lost her people but she had lost her family. They had been murdered by humans while swimming. The reason for the murder and the identity of the murderers was still a mystery.
Rotaesha gestured behind him toward the gangplank. “It seems Gren is the victim of a late night.”
Stepping onto the ship was Grendlestomp Heartbreaker, a gnomish giant slayer who has a large appetite for romance and wine. His ramshackle appearance and the smell of alcohol indicated that he had not just stepped out for some air. The gnome smiled at the large whaleborn first mate as he remember the night and anticipated the question.
Gren woke up with his head down on a table in the Last Stop Inn in the River Quarter. He checked the coins in his hand and noticed that the amount of a nights stay had been deducted. It was fair, he had slept there after all. He remembered something else: A poker game. A poker game, comments about someone’s mother and then fighting three men. He looked around the room until his eyes settled on one man who bore a familiar bootprint on his face. One accounted for, thought Gren. He followed the trail of blood to the kitchen to find the second man. He found him, in mostly good condition but missing most of his right ear. Gren became aware of an unaccustomed wet heaviness in his left pocket. He tentatively reached in and removed the fragment of the ear. He held it for a moment in amused confusion before licking it and slapping it onto the mangled remnant still attached to the man’s head. The force of the reattachment woke the man from his state. As he sat up, Gren delivered a right fist across his jaw. It would not do to have a conscious loser of a fight behind you to bring reinforcements. The shudder of the blow knocked the carelessly reattached ear to the floor.
“Well, I tried.” Gren mumbled as he went to find the third man.
Finding the third man did not go well. He was nowhere in the inn or stable area. Nothing for it now, Gren thought. He hated to leave with a possibly conscious vengeance minded man behind him. He wondered if that was actually worse than having him in front of you. After all a man in front of you would be waiting outside the inn when you left. With two more friends. He most certainly would.
Gren looked over the three men before him as he emerged both grumpy and mentally allergic to the bright light of the sun. Two were stupid, one was an idiot. The idiot would be the one who wanted to do this all again with the same number of people.
“Really?” Gren said as he unfastened the hook ropes that were both weapon and belt. “You brought two friends. Like the two from last night, Not good at math?”
The man scowled. “Last night you got lucky.”
The man was twice again as big as Gren, but gnomes were used to that. Gnomish giant slayers thrived on it. “No. I was lucky two nights ago.” The man paused confused until Gren added, “Just ask your mother.”
The fight would have started right there if it was not for his friend laughing. The first man spun on his friend but before he could say anything Gren looked at the second man, "Yours was there too, she provided the costumes. Both of them looked at the third man. “Nah,” Gren said, “nothing to say about his mother. Good upstanding lady.” He paused as he finished getting his weapons fully ready, “his dad however, is a total freak. I was with him three days ago.” That’s when the fight broke out.
He smiled at the memory of what followed and began to tell the first mate the story.
In the mornings Thalendale would fly. Actually in the latest and deadest part of night she would fly until dawn. She would do the same at twilight. There was something about seeing the world from above at the beginning and end of each day that helped her keep things in perspective. For the morning it served a purpose beyond her own embrace of freedom. It made sure the ship was safe. She could see for miles, even in the dark. She was the patrol and security who made sure everyone was safe. She spun in the air, her wings twisting at impossible and nearly magical angles and staying in flight. Thal was an experienced aerobat and loved to push the limits of her speed and ability.
As dawn was breaking she saw Gren plodding up the gangplank. She smelled, even miles in the air, the slightly acid oily scent of the first mate bristling. She dove at a straight ninety degrees toward the ship. This story would be too good to miss. She could see that Gren had blood laced with alcohol on him; someone elses blood. It would be a bar fight story. She loved bar fight stories. She never got into them and painfully desired to be in one. But the one time Gren took her to get involved in mischief she ended up cheerfully resolving the dispute. The gnome told her to get a little bit of an edge to go along with killer looks and he would take her out again in a year. Still, she learned much from his stories and was not about to miss one.
Roderick sat in the crows nest and watched Thal dive toward the ground like the downward arch of a long shot arrow. The elf loved stories and gossip more than he did. And that was saying something since he was the bard. He would hear Gren tell his tale at each meal today and for the next week; there was no hurry. Roderick was deep in thought about the Captain’s new questing strays. The Redsky did not seem like the type to quest or care about quests in any form other than a story. Indeed she showed an interest in the tales of people but not in people themselves.
The captain was an experience who experienced. And she did so with detached amusement. But now she had a group of heroes in tow at the behest of Zagyg. Truly Zagyg was the only person she seemed to show any loyalty to as far as doing what they said. She was loyal to her crew, as any good captain would be. They all knew the bond of their words to each other and that bond, the one of your own word, seemed to matter to her. So the presence of these people made little sense. But it was from Zagyg so it could hardly be expected to.
Of more concern to him was the idealistic young half orc. She was what…fifteen or seventeen at the most.
At thirty five Roderick could be her father, and he felt a sense of that obligation. He was an older one of her kind. He had seen the world. There were precious few good half orcs who made a difference in the world. He was on the edge of that. He was a poet of fairly decent skill, if his on evaluation and that of the crew was to be trusted. He did good in the world; but he was no hero. This girl, raised by elves, pretty, smart, an alchemist and excited to see the world and be on a quest…she was a hero. How could he show her what she was going to face as far as racism and hatred and still let her keep the idealism that defined her intact?
It did no good to ponder on an empty stomach. As dawn folded into the world like a rug of soft colors rolled out to welcome a kingly day, he saw Penny, Aleistar and Baozhai head toward the mess hall of the ship. By the time he descended Gren was leading the others in that direction while saying something about licking a severed ear.
He had not seen the ship mage, the halfling Nirene Stormborn. But she was as fickle as the weather itself, sometimes jovial and sometimes reclusive. Sometimes the soul of joy and sometimes the scion of dread. It seemed the captain was the only one who truly understood her. They welcomed her when her erratic moods drew her to them and gave her the space the other side of her demanded. As he headed toward the luxurious smell of exotic spices and morning standards he passed the ship’s engineer Humphrey heading out to watch while everyone ate.
“Morning good sir.” Roderick said, tipping his feathered hat to the old man.
“It is one.” said Humphrey in an accent that most of the crew would bet was from a distant world and plain since it had no counterpart in any they have visited. “But lad, you go eat. I’ll take my old bones and do the work of half a dozen people while you all have a delicate breakfast like hothouse flowers. Eating your pancakes and egg dishes…like flowers do.”
“Oh sir,” Roderick said as he descended into the mess hall, “You know you are happy…we are just giving you time alone with your lady.”
Humphrey watched the half orc descend the stairs and vanish. Sly green bugger he thought to himself. Nice enough for a sack of circulating water, iron and oxygen. He was right though, this was time for him and the ship. The start of the day, when they discussed the course ahead. He had the mental bond with the ship, as the the captain and the first mate. The halfling mage had something similar but different. Still, it was his time to commune. The little vitamin bags did not need to keep watch. The grand lady the Wild Endeavor could do that herself if needed while they ate.
As he was heading to the stern of the ship he nearly ran into Nirene Stormborn as she came out of her room. She looked grumpier than usual, Her hood was up but the vague blue electric glow of her eyes was visible radiating out from beneath. He could smell the wiff of burning oxygen and hear the crackle as energy passed between her eyes.
“One of those mornings eh?” He asked.
Nirene nodded. “A bit of ionization in the air. The air is alive with anticipation of something?”
“Storm?” asked Humphrey.
“Not the traditional kind,” she said, “But yes. Yes. I would say…” she trailed off a bit confused, “I would say a storm of some kind.”
“Well we’ve seen many a storm, the good lady and I…natural or unnatural…or supernatural for that matter.”
She mostly dismissed him, not interested in a story or twelve about daring exploits of a whatever the hell he was and a ship.
“Are they eating?”
“Do I smell….Seed cakes?”
“Always the halfling girl eh…you smell them as sure as there’s air. She makes them for you.”
The crackle and blue light faded and she looked at him with warm brown eyes. “Good morning, Humphrey.”
“Morning girl. Same as always. Good morning.”