Chapter 4
The Lost Port

Near the Ruins of Sandstone, Gladius

"I had never seen the sea until I returned to Gladius. The first time looking at the sea is popular in many of the books I've read. The sea is enchanting and yet it is also full of sorrow. Maybe a man of the sea could shed some light on its mysteries. Then again, maybe it reveals its secrets to no one..."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

It only took a few days to reach Golden Bay, the coast of Gladius. Mark tried to not make his wonderment too obvious. It was his first time to see the ocean and he was awestruck. The great Lake Azure in Byrn was little more than a puddle compared to the endless blue spread out before him. Sonia chuckled.
"If you're trying to hide it, you've already failed," she said. "Go on, it's natural to be impressed seeing the ocean for the first time."
"Sentimental rubbish," Edward grumbled.
Mark ignored the comment and motioned for Sonia to do the same. Ignatiy visibly shuddered at the sight of the water and even Adrienne seemed ill at ease. Mark understood why Ignatiy would be upset, but he didn't know what was bothering Adrienne. He thought small talk would take her mind off of whatever was troubling her.
"How did you escape from Darkwall?" he asked her.
It apparently worked because a confident grin overtook the troubled expression. "While that crazy friend of yours was making so much noise, I escaped through the pit."
Ignatiy stopped dead in his tracks. "The pit!? You couldn't have!"
"What's the pit?" Mark asked.
"It's where they keep those monsters," Ignatiy replied. "No one could survive that."
Adrienne's grin turned malevolent. "Even conjured beasts like the Red Demons know better than to cross something more dangerous than them."
"Are you saying you're more dangerous than those hellbeasts?" Edward sneered.
"Yes," she replied bluntly.
An uncomfortable silence came over them and Mark opted to avoid small talk from that point on. Consequently, few words were exchanged amongst them for the rest of the trip.
It was past sunset when they reached the ruins of Sandstone. If the other cities in Gladius were an example of how it once looked, then very little remained. Huge chunks of the city walls were missing and not a single building remained intact. Sonia took the liberty of explaining what happened.
"This was one of the richest of the seven city-states until Edward's grandfather cut off all foreign trade. Twenty-one years ago, pirates attacked and spared nothing. Most of the damage you see was their handiwork. The rest is the work of looters and people scavenging the stone for construction elsewhere."
"What are the chances we'll find a sea-worthy boat?" Mark asked.
"Slim to none," she replied.
Turning to Felix, Mark asked, "How did you get here in the first place?"
"It was a one-way trip," the old knight said. "The nearest ports are weeks off in either direction. That is time we cannot afford to waste while the hope for an alternative remains."
The hope for an alternative was not much. Sonia was right about their chances. An hour of searching produced nothing that even remotely resembled a boat. Though everyone felt a degree of frustration, Edward was the first to voice his complaints.
"I should have known this would be a waste of time," he grumbled. "What do you plan on doing now?"
"We will have to improvise," Felix replied. "I want you all to look around for planks of wood, barrels and rope, as much as you can find. Do not worry about quality right now. I will be the judge of that."
The group dispersed to see what they could salvage from the ruins of the city. Because their condition was still rather delicate, Teresa and Ignatiy were excused from the task. Adrienne would have been excused as well, but she displayed unusual vigor and there was no one who would tell her she could not do anything.
Mark did not get far when Felix called out to him.
"Let the others busy themselves with the scavenger hunt," the old knight said. "I want to speak with you."
"What is it?" Mark asked.
Felix looked out to the sea. "War is not an easy business, nor is the warrior's trade light work. The burden is much heavier on conscientious souls. I have seen it many times before. You can tell just by looking at them. I was watching you a good while before I introduced myself. I saw that tell-tale look in your eyes, the look of a man who struggles with what he has done and what he must do.
"Last night I asked Sonia about it. Your cousin is quite protective of you, but once I proved my good faith, she told me everything that has happened. And so I learned about your misadventures here in Gladius, your run-ins with the Guard and your encounter with that mountain savage."
The events were never far from Mark's mind, but bringing them up like that made his insides go bitter. The recent attack in Stormtree had only added to the bloody deeds on his conscience. However, now it was different. He had someone who had already faced those demons and he had clearly approached the swordsman to offer his help.
"How do you do it?" Mark asked. "How do you live with yourself after killing a man?"
"Surely you have been told that it is justified to kill a man to defend yourself and others, but that has not been enough for you, has it?"
"God's Commandments are absolute," Mark replied sullenly. "'Thou shalt not kill.'"
Felix gave him a critical look. "Come now, you are not so simple-minded. Being trained as an Aritan, I can see how your education would be lacking on the subject. However, we Templars are obliged to have an intimate knowledge of the Sixth Commandment. I blame your misunderstanding on a flaw of the vernacular. Have you not studied the Three Ecclesiastical Tongues?"
"I have."
"'Lo tirtzach.' 'Ou foneuseis.' 'Non occides.'" Felix gave Mark a moment to absorb the words. "Surely you can appreciate the nuance. What God forbids is more than simply taking the life of another. It is murder."
"I don't see much difference between killing and murder," Mark said, "and I'm not prepared to face damnation because of a semantic argument."
"It is more than a semantic argument. Would God be just to command His people to take up the sword and conquer the Promised Land when He has forbidden all killing? Would He be just to consign them to the fires of Hell for putting criminals to death as He commanded? Certainly not! 'There is a time to kill, and a time to heal.' Remember that.
"In war, it does not matter what side you are on. It is simply a matter of kill or be killed. There is no sin in killing an enemy soldier, nor in him killing you, provided both have the means and the will to fight. That is the lot of warriors. As it is written, 'Omnes enim qui acceperint gladium gladio peribunt.'
"The distinction lies in the reason for killing. If you kill in the defense of a life, be it your own or someone else's, the deed is sinless. True murder is when a man kills for the sake of greed, hatred, envy, and cruelty. That is the offense to God."
The old knight frowned. He could tell Mark was not convinced by his words.
Resting a hand on Mark's shoulder, Felix said, "If you do not accept this reality, you will be driven mad, and you will betray all the people who rely on you. For their sake, you must carry the burden."
Mark nodded. He was grateful to Felix for explaining the Templars' justification, but in his heart, it was not enough. He had already made the decision to take up the warrior's burden until Randwulf's day of reckoning, but it still felt like he was doing nothing more than meeting evil with evil.
He did not get to dwell on such thoughts for long, for Sonia appeared on the distance, calling out to him.
"Hey, Mark! We found something! I didn't think we'd be able to pull it off, but this might actually work. Come over here and give us a hand."
She led him to a hidden cellar Jill had uncovered. It seemed that however extensive Sandstone's destruction was, the pirates were not all that thorough. They found several other underground storerooms which were largely untouched by the raid and the two decades of neglect that followed. Most of these storerooms belonged to the city's many merchants and tradesmen, which proved to be quite fortuitous.
They found all the components they needed in relatively good repair. They rolled out casks of wine and whole spools of rope. They then cleared the shelves, which were the closest thing to serviceable planks they could find, and pried them off the walls. It was all brought before Felix, who carefully examined everything before giving them directions on how to construct their transportation to the island training ground.
After two days' work, they completed a raft big enough to accommodate all nine of them. Eight feet wide and twelve feet long, the raft offered enough room for them to move around a little bit, but not much. Happily, it was not supposed to be a very long trip.
They prepared to launch the following day, but the crew of Gladians had never been out to sea before. To say the least, they all had their misgivings.
"Wi' this fin' r'lly floot?" Jasper asked suspiciously.
The others echoed his sentiment in scattered muttering. Felix was undaunted by their doubts.
"The only way we will know for certain is to take her out," he said. "Now, before we leave, I want everyone to put aside everything you can spare. We have no need for excessive provisions. There will be food and water enough on the island. Bring only the gear you intend to train with. Leave the rest here and we will pick it up on our return."
"Is it really a good idea to leave stuff here?" Sonia asked.
"Those storerooms were untouched for twenty years. They should be a safe enough."
Both Edward and Ignatiy stowed their heavy packs, the haversacks were lightened, and a number of odds and ends were tucked away in the basement of a wainwright's ruined shop. All in all, the raft's burden was reduced by a good twenty stone.
After some experimentation in the shallows built their confidence, they were ready to set out. Without the means to contrive a suitable sail, they had to improvise oars to propel themselves. They had not gone far when Felix gave them instructions on their course.
"It should take two days for us to reach the island." He pointed out the direction they were meant to go. "Our heading is north and east. We will be fighting the current the entire way, so I want the oarsmen to rotate every half hour."
Since no one else could claim any skill at seamanship whatsoever, they were left wholly in Felix's care. For the most part, they were willing to trust him. Even the most dubious of them kept their complaints to themselves.
Although the raft was big enough for them to stretch their legs if they needed to, the water loosened the ropes and made the craft rather unstable. Mark, the only one who could swim, did what he could to tighten the ropes, but his efforts only went so far. In the end, they had to settle for sitting still and hoping the raft did not come apart.
Somehow they managed to get by and after about a day at sea, Jill spotted something on the horizon. She pointed to the irregular shape and everyone moved to get a better look.
"Is it land?" Sonia asked.
"We are still a good distance from any land," Felix replied. "My guess is that it is a ship... and a rather large one at that. We had best try to avoid it."
Though they tried to follow his advice, their oars were no match for a sailboat on a tailwind. The large vessel soon loomed over their tiny craft. They could barely keep enough distance to dodge the dozens of long oars digging into the water. Looking up, they could see several heads peering over the decks.
"Luhks layk cahsteweys," one of them said.
"Git th' Cap'n!" another barked.
A portly man with scraggly red hair, a coarse beard and a crude eyepatch looked over the edge. He bared his mouth, full of rotting teeth.
"Weh owlways be needin' moah oahsmen, an' thay be decked in treashah b'soides." His tongue raked over his decaying incisors. "Thay've gut wimmen, tew. Tayke wha ye cahn an' keyall th' res'!"
The besieged companions drew their weapons as several of the pirates jumped onto their craft. The wood groaned under the added weight. Edward cut one down as soon as they landed, but his powerful swing splintered the planks in its path as well. Anyone standing on those planks lost their footing and fell into the water.
Sonia drove her blade into the chest of one pirate only to be attacked from the side by another. She dodged a swipe of his broad-bladed knife and hastily drew her rapier out of the corpse. The pirate that attacked her had matted black hair and a dark scar running across his face, directly under his fierce blue eyes. His predatory eyes widened in mania as froth began to form at the corners of his mouth.
"What are you doing with that!?" he screamed. "That's mine! MINE!"
Taken completely aback by the raving pirate, Sonia charged with her buckler and pushed him into the water. At the same time, her foot punched through the plank she was standing on, trapping her leg. A pirate tried to take advantage of her vulnerability, but was nearly cut in two by Mark. The planks under Mark's feet broke, his arms alone kept him from being swallowed by the water.
Jasper fended off a couple pirates trying to grab Teresa, stabbing one in the gut when the planks under Teresa gave way. He hastily swiped at the other pirate's face and jumped in after her.
By then, their craft was barely staying together and it was all but impossible to maintain their footing. The first wave of pirates had been dispatched, but more were on the way, coming around the other side of the ship in longboats.
Ignatiy looked around anxiously at the pirates closing in on them. From a pouch at his belt, he pulled out a single bomb. Although he had left his pack behind, he apparently could not part with all his precious creations. He raided his arms high in the air, holding the bomb with one hand and clutching his pendant in the other. The crazed gleam in his eyes burned brighter than ever. Mark knew exactly what he planned to do.
"They'll never take us alive!" Ignatiy bellowed.
"No, Ignatko!"
Mark's cry went unheard and Ignatiy ignited the bomb. As the pirates closed in, they did not even notice the quick-burning fuse reach its end. The last thing Mark saw was the all-consuming fireball tearing through wood like reedpaper. Ignatiy must be ecstatic, he thought.