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Miguel Enrique Samuel Montaña

Miguel Enrique Samuel Montaña

Quezon City, Philippines

A long time Research Professional who has worked in the fields of Social Development, Market Research and Community Engagement.

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About the author

A long time Research Professional who has worked in the fields of Social Development, Market Research and Community Engagement. You wouldn't be completely wrong thinking Miguel Montaña is the kind of guy who knows exactly where he wants to be. But he never is where he wants to be, because the man wants to be a writer. He sits in meetings, stares at data sets and does the whole research thing as well as he can. He is pretty good at it, but it's not what he wants to be, not what he wants to die as. 

Inspired by his time as a varsity scholar for the University of the Philippine's Judo team, he wrote the Starving Vulture. A story that started out first as an adventure tale, but would eventually become about mercenaries trying to professional and moral in a very unethical trade.
Hope you give him the time.

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The Starving Vulture

Honor does little to protect you from cruel ambition.

A tale about mercenaries, who must stay professional despite the heavy consequences of their trade.

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Science Fiction & Fantasy
80,199 words
100% complete
5 publishers interested


This is a story that was written by a person who loved the Gunships of Azeroth, and the foreboding threat of the Legion. This is a story written by a person who sat through Lord Of The Rings in both book and film. But this is also the story written by a person who is a professional in the real world. One who deals with the reality of the corporate setting, and is wondering what would being a professional mean in more dire realities?

Many adventure sci-fi fantasy novels are essentially escapes. They are built on worlds far too grim or optimistic, where evil may be dominant or magic orb is always ready to banish it away.  But the story of the Starving Vulture is about professionals. Mercenaries who are interested in only three things: being paid for their work, doing a good job, and coming home alive. I believe that this story will appeal to professionals in the workplace that are also readers of sci fi and fantasy.


Steam engines fuel the trade between nations. The Four Empires; Rome, Parthia, Qin and Nippon continually plot, war and ultimately thrive against each other. While the rest of the world must bear the consequences. 

It is 1527, set in a world where Steam technology was revolutionized only ten years after the birth of Christ and where empires long dead in our history not only thrive but dominate.

Five years have passed since Rome and Parthia ended their three hundred year long “Eternal War” leaving many veterans like Malic Thanis lost in the caverns of a post war society.

Finding solace and kinship in the feared mercenary company the Starving Vulture, Malic Thanis will be thrust into a journey that will have him and his fellow mercenaries traversing through a fallen free city beset by the very mercantile criminals that it serves. Through it all, the men of the Starving Vulture must maintain their skill, their bravery and their sanity. For failure is dishonorable, and dishonor is for the dead. And the dead do not get paid.


Chapter 1: Introducing Malic Thanis and the world of the Four Empires.

Chapter 2: The men of the Starving Vulture conduct a meeting with their client, Lady Arslen Kawl of the Chryseum Trade Guild. 

Chapter 3:  Despite the risks, the Starving Vulture accepts the new contract from the Lady Kawl. Heading into the Free City of Rancidheim.

Chapter 4:  The mercenaries enter the city, deliver their wares and wait for their client's partner, the Laika House Trade Guild, to produce a gold package for payment. 

Chapter 5: Outnumbered but not outmatched. The company formulates a plan to secure the gold package and escape the city.

Chapter 6: The company completes the contract with Lady Kawl, only to find out that the Laika House was supposed to provide the other half for the Starving Vulture's complete payment and purposely missed the coin. 

Chapter 7: Malic, Bahnok and Fyrslig conduct an intelligence gathering mission in the now war torn Free City of Rancidheim.

Chapter 8: Chased by one of the warring factions in the city, Malic and his team rush back to the Starving Vulture to deliver their intel.

Chapter 9: Under the cover of night, the mercenaries of the Starving Vulture land in the city, initially avoiding conflict. 

Chapter 10:  The Starving Vulture face the enemies of the local crime lord. We are first introduced to their capability as a fighting company.

Chapter 11: The Starving Vulture continues its path through the city. Despite the terrible weather, the creeping fatigue and the onslaught of their enemies. 

Chapter 12: Resting from their march, the dullness of the break gives the mercenaries time enough to doubt the honor of their profession as they begin to realize that their trade has dire consequences.

Chapter 13:  The company continues its march through the city, finally arriving at one of the Laika House's strongholds. 

Chapter 14: The company finally rests without fear after delivering the weapons to Laika House. Upon waking, they witness the fruits of their labor.

Chapter 15: Before departing, they are asked to serve as part of her honor guard for Laika House's regent as she attends a ceremony that formalizes her faction's victory in the city's civil war.

Chapter 16: The Starving Vulture finalizes the contract with Laika House and acquires their pay.  Finally returning to the port.

Chapter 17:  The company is escorted back to their ship. No longer under the cover of night, they witness first hand the destruction the Free City has endured under the Laika House and the blades of the Starving Vulture.

Chapter 18: Before departing, Malic and a squad of some nine others are ordered to purchase food supplies. Only to find out that the nearest merchant they planned to trade with is facing a protest from a group of pirates who are close to resorting to violence.

Chapter 19:  The Starving Vulture has left Rancidheim and has finally completed their contract. Malic contemplates his role in the chaos, the ethics of his trade and the lie of his neutrality. 


My background as a Market Research Analyst allows me to identify online communities that would be susceptible to consuming stories that within the Genre of the Starving Vulture.
Communities that have a track history of supporting local authors and independent writers such as myself. 
Attendees of local comic conventions, book fairs and pop culture conventions consist of individuals from all walks of life. Including professionals who will be the primary audience. 


Facebook users who are members of specific Fiction franchises such as the Warhammer 40K Community, The Iron Kingdoms, as well as Cyberpunk and Steampunk communities will be specifically focused for promotion.

I intend to make full use of Facebook's targeted ads features to get in contact with the communities that have a clear preference for books similar to The Starving Vulture.


- The Black Company by Glen Cook: Depicts the dealings of an elite mercenary unit with a dominant Empire. Published 1984

The Black Company, unlike the Starving Vulture focuses on Epic Fantasy and Dark Fantasy themes while following a large regimental sized mercenary company. While The Starving Vulture focuses on a small elite group, assigned for smaller lines of work.

- Honor Guard by Dan Abnett: The Tanith First and Only, a military regiment from a dead world is assigned to secure sacred artifacts from a planet that is considered lost to the enemy. It is the Fourth Book in the Gaunt's Ghosts series. Published 2001

Though both stories depict military outfits that are assigned to transport a package through heavy conflict zones, the characters of Dan Abnett's work are driven by duty.  The mercenaries of the Starving Vulture are bound only to the contract but strive to be professionals. This in turn invites the conflict of ethics and professionalism, as the mercenaries question on how detached they can be from the consequences of their trade.

- Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield: A fictionalized historical account of the Battle of Thermopylae through the eyes of a captured Greek Survivor as he describes Spartan culture to King Xerxes of Persia.

Though Gates of Fire and Starving Vulture both detail the importance of discipline and tactics in combat. Gates of Fire looks at the application in the battlefields of the classical Greece, while the Starving Vulture is a story about mercenaries fighting in a ruined city.

- Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames: A retired group of mercenaries must answer the call for help from an old comrade whose daughter is trapped in a besieged city.

Both stories focus on mercenaries and allure of adventure that the trade brings. But while Kings of the Wyld is a story about old adventurers returning to their field, the Starving Vulture is a story about the nature of professionalism in the life of a mercenary. Despite sharing a similar setting, Kings of the Wyld is set in a dark fantasy world while the Starving Vulture is set in a steampunk fantasy Renaissance premise where firearms are dominant but so are swords and crossbows.

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The Starving Vulture
Chapter 1
1527, 20th day of the month of July
Initum Novum, Capital city of the Settlement Republic of Harbor Fold
As far as my memory has allowed me; it has always been a rarity for a resident of this city to awaken peacefully from their slumber. We are more likely to be disturbed from our sleep by the unholy noise produced by screaming fear ridden drunks who had awoken to the realization that they had spent a comfortable night sleeping upon on a puddle of horse piss, or the deafening rumble brought about the hissing and cranking of every damnable steam engine in this city.
But in my present situation, I instead had awoken to a pair of blood-stained seagulls squawking and defecating from the window sill of my fair sized yet generously grimy living space. The two were having a joyous moment feasting upon a duck which I could only surmise was not scavenged but actually caught and killed by the accursed birds. Attempting to shoo them away was going to be a challenge, since the confines of my head still throbbed from last night’s obligatory heavy drinking. A customary event that followed after a good month’s contract, but it was nothing more than I could handle. I half expected my brothers Varric and Lufris to open up the door to my room and pour a pail of freezing water over my half dead self; just as they had in our days in the Legion. Instead the dread lack of their presence graciously reminded me that their short lives had ended some five years ago. “At the end of the war for that matter” I mumble to myself, recalling the day they died.
Passing the despair of the past, I rub my head in anguish trying to remember the plans I had concocted for the day. Was I supposed to head for work? Perhaps not, it was company policy that the crew would have at least two free days after a contract, not to mention the Captain himself reminded us last night at the tavern. Or was I supposed to just spend this day drunk and slobbering in my bed sheets? “Good idea” I mutter while managing to shoo away the gulls with their duck, allowing me to slam the window shut. With my back aching, I crouch for the bottle of cheap fruit rum under my bed and prepare to knock myself back into a drunken stupor. Only for my prospective drinking to be interrupted by a sudden knock on the door.
“Who in damnation is it?” I ask the unwanted guest rapping his knuckles upon the portal to my home.
“A loose woman you had fun with last night” replied the tell tale baritone of a man’s voice
“Creator’s name, who is it really?” I respond, while fidgeting for the safety of my double barreled pistol which was sitting on my bedside table.
“It’s Fyrslig, you drunken dump” the voice replied, the tone laced with irritation.
Staggering towards the door, I grab my sword before greeting my guest. The neighborhood was as safe as my finances could afford but it always helped to stay ready, even if a friend claimed he was knocking. I opened and there stood a man wearing the crumpled yet elegant decor of a Roman Legionnaires’ red ceremonial coat over a loose white shirt. In his hand he held a smooth ironwood cane that had the words ‘Redwood’ affectionately etched in bright silver letters upon its frame, a symbol of prosperity that contrasted the gaunt physique that never left him after a short period of imprisonment and torture.

The man’s name was Fyrslig Jevons, a friend and comrade from my days in the Legions of the Roman Empire. Now a fellow mercenary in the Fame Volturius. Or as it is known in the more common Low Latin tongue, the Starving Vulture.
“Get your tools strapped up; we have some fetching to do for the Captain.” he said, his breath stinking of mint tea.
I groan in reply as I stagger off towards my closet to pick out a clean shirt and a jacket “Damnation Fyrs, I thought we had two days off after a job” I ask him while fidgeting for some clean clothes. Fyrslig pauses for a moment, as he stares at me confusedly till he bursts into a fit of laughter, his hand clutching what appeared to be a poorly bandaged bleeding belly wound, “Ah hell Malic, you don’t remember do you?” he replies “Remember what?” I respond, irritation setting in “You’ve been deep drunk for the past two days!”

“TWO DAYS! You mean since we delivered cargo at Mandrake City?”
I followed Fyrslig down the stairs of my habitation block and into the muddy cobbled walkways of the Denver Street Blocks, all the while he continued to regale me of my drunkard’s spree. Apparently I had participated in a series of drinking contests between myself and a myriad of fellow tavern patrons during a night of celebration.
“Did I really toss my lot in with a girl then?” smiling in hope that my drunken outburst bore a few favorable results.
“Savior’s Blood no, we both know that you’re never that lucky.” He replied condescendingly, I shrug in agreement. “ But you did get a kiss on the lips from a pretty Native from the Iroquois lands. Defeated her in a race to finish a bottle of barley wine, I did warn her she would lose. I’ve seen you drink tougher characters under the table. ”
“Lucky me I guess” briefly recalling the faint image of the drunken lady as she taunted my fragile ego by waving the bottle to my face.
“And you got punched in the face by her man; he was a terrifyingly large fellow that was a former Legionnaire as well. He had 8th Legion markings on his neck!”
“Damnation!!” I curse, only realizing the cause of the welt on my left cheek.
“I’ll be honest, nearly the whole company was about to rip his head off, but Clips, the diplomatic bastard, calmed the man down by explaining your pitiful tolerance for ale” he snickered, twirling his ironwood cane as he did so
“Are you telling me the whole company viewed me as entertainment while I was drunk?” my imagination recoiling at the thought of the mockery I was to endure at the hands of a rambunctious bunch of mercenaries no less.
“Of course we did! All hundred and twenty of us! Save for the Captain don’t know where he went” he replied cheerfully, his smile brimming with enough joy to turn the world upside down.
“So even Sir Karlstein?”
“The whole cursed crew, except for the Captain”
“First Mate Arami—?“
“What part of the ‘whole crew, except for the Captain’ don’t you understand? All a hundred and twenty of us”
“Savior’s mercy!” I exclaim, being mockery from soldiers was never pleasant, as it took a good while for our jokes to turn old.” Do I have a new label now?” I ask
“Not exactly, King of Drunks still rings around among the community. But after that night, the name Malic Thanis is already synonymous with the act of mass drunkenness” He replied, the snickering taint not leaving his voice.
“Stercore,” I cursed “did the whole town watch me while I was drunk as well?”
“Well no, but let’s just say most of the people you converse with on a daily basis were witness to your acts.”
As if in divine response to my question, the jolting sensation of a dry tart makes itself known as it lands upon on my face. “STERCORE! What was that for?” I curse in bewilderment, wiping away the pastry’s stale crumbs my lips. “You barged into my store two nights ago and ate up half a cake and three muffins that I had prepared for the following day! A payment was promised Mr. Thanis!” shouted a pudgy baker whose pale cheeks were now red with anger.
“Did I fulfill that promise?” Asking Fyrslig just before another tart flies at my face, providing the answer to my question “Of course you didn’t you bastard! Now pay up, it’s two golds for you!”
I hand the irate old man three gold denarii, the extra was for his troubles. Immediately, I walk away. Soon after it didn’t take long till the other shopkeepers began calling my name, accusing me of committing acts of wanton drunken terror.
“MALIC! You took a bite out of every apple in my store and belched all over the strawberries!” said the once kindly old lady who ran the fruit stand, she had a pistol on hand while she berated me.
“MALIC! You owe me three silvers for vomiting at my doorstep that night! It attracted rats and they ate almost half the fish I had stored in ice!” exclaimed the fish merchant as she pointed an entrail covered blade towards my direction.
The shame I experienced was all turning my countenance near blood red at that very instant. I tugged down on my hat and open my coat collars to cover my face. With each shopkeeper who expressed their anger, I would hand out a few silver or gold denarii to help ease their rage and pay the debt. But it wasn’t all angry shopkeepers who were after my hide, some of the locals who had witnessed my escapades were chanting my name rather cheerfully. Well mocking seemed to be a finer description for how they were really reacting to my presence.
“That will be enough good people, our friend Malic Thanis is no longer drunk but up and sober so be off now” luckily for me, Fyrslig wasn’t appreciating the crowd that was forming around us, so he led me through some alleyways and dark corners to be rid of them.
“Clever detour, but we’re further from the docks now ” I comment on the situation at hand, realizing that we had ended at the city’s main avenue, its character evident by the horse dropping filled sidewalks and the rumble of a nobleman’s steam carriage as it passed by the elevated rails that snaked across the rooftops of Initum Novum.
“That’s because we’re not heading to the docks yet” Fyrslig replied, pulling out a handkerchief to protect his nose from the fresh stench emanating from a nearby horse that had just relieved itself.
“Why is that?” I ask, somewhat worried that my post drunken state would be considered unfit for the possibly social task that had befallen me, “Captain had me fetching a letter at the courier houses and knowing you’d be dead drunk he also told me to wake you up while I was at it, so here we are,'' we begin our walk through the crowded morning streets of our city, rest assured that the stink of the place would wake me from my stupor.

A crowd had gathered at the center of the city. To the unfamiliar, it would be reasonable to surmise that some public event akin to an execution or political grandstanding was occurring. A fair assumption since only such events would draw a gathering. But once you’ve seen the fences holding in the tightened mass, you’d realize that the main courier house was simply that busy an establishment. Filled close to full by cityfolk trying to send or receive mail through the institution’s messenger falcon system. Hundreds of trained birds, with the ability to fly faster than a bullet, yet still not enough to facilitate the mass onrush of letters that the citizens received. “I blame our cordial relations with the Natives. More friends mean more talk, therefore more mail” Fyrslig mumbles while slapping the wrist of a prospective pickpocket while squeezing through the crowd. The small boy, initially confrontative with a few curses, immediately runs away in fear; after Fyrslig pulls his coat back, brandishing one of his double barreled pistols. “For goodness sake Fyrs! He’s just a child!” I exclaim while of course cautiously checking my own pockets “Better to terrify him than to wait for the day that he will make a mistake with a rich bastard.” He tells me, I shrug in agreement; such incidents occurred with the pistol happy perpetrators walking free.
It took some time for us to find our way upon the counter, we spent what was nearly an hour pressed against the wall of the courier house’s waiting rooms; allowing the acidic stench of falcon droppings to enjoy its assault upon my relevant senses. Not a pleasant feeling given that the alternative outside was horse stercore and rat piss. I cover my nose and try my best not to gag at the rather dizzying musk. “Letter for Tertius Regulius” eventually reaching the counter, I ask the blank faced civil servant who hands a parcel and gestures for me to move away so that the people behind could finish whatever they came for.
The parcel handed to us had a strange fragrance about it. Akin to freshly bloomed flowers and pine cones. It wasn’t exactly a scent which you came upon in a city which is known for smelling primarily of coal, feces, gunpowder and rusty iron. Fitting since the parcel’s scent rose above the stench of the falcon droppings.
“Where now?” I asked Fyrs while pocketing the letter just as we exited the boundaries of the courier house “To the Fuller, Bannock is up next”
The Samuel Fuller was a book shop and as far as book shops were in the city of Initum Novum, it was eerie to say the least. The establishment place sold the usual literary fodder that the common man would so readily devour such as news heralds and fiction serials which were properly sold outside the store by a cheery looking young lady who seemed to never stop smiling.
But it was when you stepped inside the shop was when you’d encounter the much stranger sides of the uninhibited and unrestrained sides of free press, where everything was sold by a gloomy man whose eyes were covered in black powder and spoke in a tired and unwelcoming tone that resonated with the tell traces of angst, bitterness and perhaps a social defeat that began in the earliest days of his youth.
Within the decrepit shelves of the shop lurked various heralds and publications from nearly every manner of ideology that was spawned from far corners of the Roman Empire and beyond. The collection consisted of mostly philosophical interpretations and criticisms of the reality of life under a Civilization that has been obsessed with industrialization, gold and entertainment while it endured a three hundred year long war with another great Civilization that was no different from themselves. On a relatively lighter temperament, its’ collection also contained books such as that of the mad ramblings of a wealthy philosopher who strongly believed that the act of fornicating with a stone statue would result in the creation of a breed of superior rock children. But to Bahnok Samka, every aspect of this menagerie was to be bought, read and studied in the same manner as a pig devouring a bowl of rotting fruit. In short, he was a smart lad who believed that the absorption of free ideas was a form of entertainment.
“Hey Schola Stulture” Fyrslig called to Bahnok, using the rather apt label that referenced his Schola completed academic standing. Bahnok kept his own nose buried in a book that was titled “The Consequences of the Absence of Proper Magical Sigils in the Preparation of Food offered to Goat based Deities”
“So it’s the Murdering Monk and the King of Drunks” Bahnok replied smiling sarcastically. King of Drunks was addressed to me of course, Murdering Monk to Fyrslig, given his strong religious leanings despite the trade he held as a mercenary. Fyrslig flicked a nearby peanut shell at him in response, which he immediately blocked with his hand.
Samka was a vigilant sort; even in a location as peaceful as a bookstore, a pistol and his curved Marinus blade were placed on the table where he sat, both in quick reach of his hand. A veteran of the Bellator Marinus. He also happened to be a completed student of the Schola Academia of Alexandria, that little fact made him knowledgeable enough to be working on a peaceful high earning trade guild in the Tower Decks of the Sacred Capital herself. Why he opted to live a life half a world away from his home was something not many knew why. He had enjoyed his own privacy on that matter
“So Malic, how’s the queen doing?” Bahnok asks, his face contorting into a mischievous grin “What?” I respond, confused. The two burst into laughter, leading me to assume it had to do with my previous drunkenness, “You bought a jewelry circlet worth over 10 gold denarii and gave it to a complete stranger, proclaiming her your queen” says Fyrslig as he mimics a curtsy bow. “She was pretty though, planted a nice kiss on your cheek before running away” added Bahnok
“Ten gold! Stultus Memet!” I cursed “So how much coin exactly did I spend?” I ask, mentally counting the losses I was already aware of.
The two first traded looks of amusement, then Fyrslig replies telling me “Enough to excite you for the company’s next contract”

After Bahnok paid for the two books he had chosen we immediately headed out and boarded the Company’s own supply cart which he had parked just beside the Fuller. “Where to then?” I grumbled, tone dank and temperament weary. Due to my prodding, I had discovered that I had spent over sixty-five denarii worth of gold coins the other night leaving a sizable dent on my savings.
“To Janus’s, orders are to acquire and deliver the charge back to the ship.” Bahnok replies as he directed the horses further from the grime covered roads of the city center and onto the calmer garden fields of uptown.
The compound we were headed for was owned by a Ramius Janus, a regular client for the company and also one of the richest merchants in the land. Due to a devastating conflict that occured in the past, Trade Guilds were not allowed to field armies past a thousand men. Thus they regularly acquired services from the independent companies such as our own crew to transport cargo of special interest. A little tidbit about our client, despite being a merchant who had his hands in farms, mines and armories. He still had a few Pirate clans under his thumb, just enough to coax more than enough shipping merchants to maintain an armament supplied by him of course. Janus’s Wonderland was what he called his guild, I would never get used to that silly name.
The Wonderland’s main hall had such distinct architecture, that if you were a newcomer in search of it, you could easily identify the place once you caught sight of its extravagant visage. The large walled mansion glittered with brass, bronze and gold at its rafters while heaps of white marble made up its frame. It was located some distance from the city’s messy trade district but not too far from spacious garden roads that signaled that you were nearing the Tower Decks, the gigantic elevated platforms that housed the unquestionably richest residents of the city.
But like every sensible man who was in a business that practically defecated gold, Lord Janus’s Wonderland was well defended. Surrounding the mansion were entirely emptied out city blocks, a myriad of homes and shops bought out and turned into watchpoints for his guards. While the mansion itself was surrounded by a large circular wall that was patrolled by roves of gunners and crossbows. Naturally
The Hephaestus Hall was the mansion’s main room where you’d find a myriad of killing implements or as they like to call it “honor protection tools” all up for sale. You’d also be browsing for a weapon while being flanked by a team of crossbow men who watched your every move. But we weren’t going to be making an entrance through that side of the place. Dogs like us liked to make our company related inquiries at the back of the estate where we would attract less attention from the rabble of narcissistic nobles and rich ruffians who liked to use Wonderland’s front gardens for its other services. Dueling. You could pay a few gold coins for an arena, along with a blunted weapon of choice and the protective armor. A team of referees would be in place to prevent any unnecessary deaths and even a lawyer to uphold the agreement beforehand. It was all terribly formalized and kept as a form of entertainment for onlookers as much as it was a service for those that frequented them.
“It’s a pity we have to pass this way, I heard from some spice sellers that the Lady Hauser had accepted a sword duel from another noble.” Mumbled Fyrslig as we shooed off a group of stray street children playing in the muddy street “Those duels have been getting awfully frequent since she became of courting age. Truly, what else could you expect from the daughter of two Knights, Charmed and fawning at the first meeting? They should have known those challenges would come” I add. “Of course, a lot of these Nobles were raised by highly traditionalist clans from Western Hispania, respecting the women they court as martial equals is an otherworldly concept in their cultural background. The mere mention of a challenge from Hauser is enough to rile up their petty egos” Bahnok’s delivery had all the flair and confidence that Schola rhetoric brought with it, it was irritating to say the least. Discounting my lack of formal education for that matter “Yah, yah, save it for the Academia girls you bloody walking book” I lay the insult, “Drunk Twit” He responds, along with a slap to the back of my head, which I instinctively dodge.
Needless to say the property was rather large, the back gate of the mansion had already reached a section of the trade district that was made of the abandoned store houses that were once owned by now failed businesses, whose demise were all rumored to be products of the Wonderland’s machinations after they refused to sell their land to him. The gate and most of the area around it were wrapped in thick dead vines that were made to hide the spikes built into the wall that their owners called the “Anti-Gaelic fence” perhaps referring to the rather prevalent offensive belief that the Gaels were all thieves and criminals.
Once we neared the gate, Bahnok immediately raised his hand to display the letter that depicted a skeleton who held in both its hands an axe and a pistol, it was the seal of Janus’s Trade Guild.
“Open it” said a voice from behind the wall, the gate creaked wide open revealing a covered pathway that led to a poorly lit store room in which stood an elaborately dressed man surrounded by a group of sullen looking attendants. “Oh joy” Bahnok grumbled, “ it’s the Star”

“So it’s Bahnok, Fyrslig and the King of Drunks himself Malic Thanis.” Greeted Thaddeus Star in his usual screeching nobleman accent
“Good morning Mr. Star”grumbling as I had become rather tired of the references to the previous night’s rampage.
“A bit more sober now I see. Are you aware I own over four of the establishments you ruined the other day?” he also owned the Habitation block I lived in, explaining his knowledge of the incident.
“Yes I paid for it, can we get to business now?” I did my best to hide the irritation in my reply
“Of course your majesty, wouldn’t want you to unleash the horrors of your bowels” he said giving me a sarcastic bow.
“I am sober now Mr. Star, no need to worry about that” I groan, in a polite manner of course. Keeping my delivery formal.
“Ha, if I had a single bronze denarii for every time you’ve said that, I’d be richer than Lord Janus himself. The caretakers of that block do mention you quite a bit you know, always keen on the bills but responsible for perhaps half of puddles of vomit that surrounds the place” Thaddeus Star flips his long hair back as he laughs at his own joke, the intensity of his self-induced hilarity forcing a small pocket of tears to form upon his eyes
Angered, my fingers tingle as they signal the body into preparing to facilitate this man’s death. But instead, I entertained a few fantasies involving punching Star’s smug face into the dirt and then immediately set my mind to return to work “Business, Mr. Star” I reply while clearing my throat. Our host first frowns; perhaps annoyed by the irritated tone of my delivery or the fact that none of his surrounding assistants were laughing at his joke. “Ok then gentlemen; let me show you what you’ll be working on” Star clicks his pure ivory cane on the floor prompting one of his subordinates to immediately open a nearby cate crossed with red paint. The crate’s contents revealed a set of rifles. Their curved handles bore the image of serpentine creature that encircled the metal; if I was not mistaken it was a Far Eastern dragon that was engraved upon it.
“These rifles have been shipped straight from the Qin Empire, they fire a special hollowed out bullet filled with oil so that when it hits its mark the target is immediately coated in flames. They’re muzzle loaded and use a paper pouch for the gunpowder. Beautiful weapons, perfect for making a statement. So one crate holds over six rifles and in each rifle has an ammunition pouch tied to it which holds twelve oil filled musket balls the size of an infant’s fist. “You’ll be transporting over four crates containing rifles and two barrels that contain ammunition. Each barrel holds over ten thousand bullets”
“Noted” replied Fyrslig who was busy scribbling on his ledger, which would contain most of the report.
Star then gestured to another blue crate which was immediately opened by one of his assistants. “Alright as you can see, these are not your ordinary wares these are—“
“Silver daggers” interrupted Bahnok as he examined the charge with interest
“You’re right Samka, didn’t think a man of your caliber would know such things“ Star snickered
“My caliber?” he replied, his voice taking the same offended tone I had exhibited earlier.
“A Schola from Civitas Academia I mean” Star says, his grin spanning the ends of his mouth.
”Are you some sort of traitor? What the stultus you have against Imperio funded education? And the daggers are made out of silver; it shines bright and has its own stupid luster. It’s not the first time I’ve seen one” Bahnok’s tirade was typical of his irritable attitude.
“Forgive me, we Settlers share no loyalty to Rome, but according to your reasoning, a mirror is silver because it is shiny?” Star gives out the grinding condescending laugh that could only come out of a pompous braggart, neither any of us in the room, including his assistants shared his sense of humor. Evident as we stood by staring at him idly. Save for Bahnok, whose face was contorting in anger.
“Well Mr. Star, I’d just like to remind you that I studied in the finest institution in Alexandria and in the Roman Empire while you---“
“Wait, let us just continue our business shall we? The Captain is waiting” I cut the argument short right before Bahnok can start a long lengthy debate that could end in pointless bloodshed.
“Very well then your highness” Star responded insultingly. I entertained another thought of punching him once more and then immediately let the fantasy flutter away.
Continuing, Star has the blades displayed “There are twenty daggers in this crate. All are half steel and half silver; the edge is primarily steel while the hilt itself is silver. Patterned after curved Iroquoian designs, making them extremely light weight, easy on the hand and utterly beautiful to look at.” Star picks one of the daggers and asks one of his assistants if it matches his needlessly brightly colored scarf. The assistant, a pale looking boy with dead eyes immediately responds “yes” his voice stammering as he clearly exhibits traits of being terrified. Thaddeus Star was known to be cruel to his subordinates, evident as he snarls at his assistant’s response. Thankfully it was interrupted by Fyrslig as he asks what purpose these knives serve
“Purpose? Why it’s either our client desires to murder someone in a lively fashion or to simply use it as a party gift. But beyond your concern Mr. Jevons, it’s none of your stulting business. Your Captain works that way”
Fyrslig nods his head, and asks if there is anything else
“Nothing more, that is all I suppose.” He replies while gesturing his subordinates to load the crates onto our cart “Be off now” he says, departing to whatever hole he resided in, maintaining the flair and dignitas of the Noble class.

“Hispanian bastard” Bahnok muttered as we cleared away from Wonderland’s territory, and with those words Fyrslig’s twitching palm lands on the back of the Schola Stulture’s head.
“What was that for?” he exclaims in pain while massaging the red mark that had immediately formed where it struck.
“That was for almost instigating a damned fight with the second in command of Lord Janus’s entire weapons business!” He angrily responds, in sharp whispers of course. Not wanting the people around us to know more about our little spat.
“So what? The man is a cursed fool, not like we couldn’t take him and all his paltry assistants” Bahnok replies confidently, a statement that my pride was inclined to agree with. We were former Roman Legionnaires after all, more than a handful to a group of Guild guards with knives.
“It’s inconsequential! I understand that you two have some sort interscholastic rivalry but you cannot sacrifice the business for that! And you’re supposed to be the damned peacekeeper of this crew! The educated one, the Schola Stultere!” Fyrslig took a moment to breathe, his face was red with anger and morning sickness. “Don’t forget, the Captain relies on you to do the clever talking!” he adds
“Nearly got us killed in there” I respond, my tone now sheepish since I had gotten used to his attitude by now, despite only knowing him far shorter than Fyrs.
Samka raised his hands in submission, uttering an apology for his actions.
Smart as he was, he could sometimes be taken away by Star’s insults. The two both hailed from the same city, Alexandria which was known for its educational merits. And they both attended Academias that shared a history of petty intellectual rivalry; Bahnok from the Imperator Academia Alexandria of course, an institution so prestigious that even the basic educated such as Fyrslig and myself would even be aware of its existence and Star from the rather notorious Academia Superior an institution that was so deprived of humility that it seemed that arrogance was all it was known for. But of course it was hard to blame our friend for his swift irritation, Thaddeus Star’s own brazen attitude was the cause of the problem; the bastard just simply enjoyed insulting those who would work for the Wonderland. Primarily because the sum Lord Janus would offer was so large that it placed us in no position to refuse the work just to avoid his subordinate’s pompous attitude.
“But you know boys, one day someone is going to snap and just put a knife through that fool’s throat.” Bahnok mutters in a dull tone.
“I hope it’s not you Bahnok” Fyrslig comments.
“Oh I do hope it’s going to be me.”
We end the topic at that, Bahnok, smart and irritable as he still was not too proud that he would consider confronting one of the most powerful men in the city. Or maybe he would, whatever path he took I hoped there would be manageable ramifications on our end.

It was already nearing the late afternoon when we arrived at the port, our clothes now carrying with them the alluring fragrances of coal smoke; as well as the aroma of the freshly butchered pork and garlic that we picked up along the way for supplies. By that time, the district had already cleared up considerably compared to the morning rabble of passenger ships and charters all vying for an early departure. But that didn’t mean that the streets weren’t still stinking of gutter muck, sea stercore and fish. “I’d thought living here for three years would have me accustomed to that stupid port stench” I say, nearly gagging at the whiff of port wind that had touched my tongue.
“New Capua’s port never smelled like this, I wonder why?” Fyrslig comments as he puts a handkerchief to his mouth.
“Cause the sewers in the Empire all led to an empty field inland, here they just dump it off at the sea.” adds Bahnok, pointing at a series of rectangular holes that filled up the bay wall. “the stercore comes out of there all nice and fresh for our noses” he snickers
“You’re late!” a familiar voice materialized behind, prompting us to immediately stand in wary attention as its source walked in front of us. He was a heavy set one, aged somewhat in his later years. His beard was unkempt and his face was covered in soot and washed off lucky face paints, all this stood in contrast to the disturbing cleanliness of his teeth.
“Sorry about that sir, we had to dodge some of folks his drunken self; angered that other day” Fyrslig says while pointing a finger at me
First Mate Aramis first gives me a judging stare; the man had the uncanny ability to find out if someone was lying by just looking at him. Well I wasn’t. So I had nothing to worry about, but his imposing nature made me nervous nonetheless. “Can’t argue with that manner of thought” he said, his scowl lightening “it’s better you hurry up, the Captain is getting anxious for some reason.” ordering us to move ahead we waded our wagon through a menagerie of port characters; consisting of three arguing street peddlers, a sword duel in the middle of the docks between two smuggler captains and an obnoxious group of nobles who were busily trying to repair their automaton drawn litter beds, we finally made it to our destination. Its armored hull still glinting amidst its dark and ruined complexion, a myriad of brownish colors stained the grimy yet reliable sails, while the steam pipes of the engines trailed its way to the back like a pheasant’s tail feathers. The ship was a former Navy class Frigate that was considerably old and cosmetically ruined. It’s coat of fresh paint and relacquered ironwood did little to hide the brutal history etched upon its very frame. To many it was just another mercenary ship, cursed to toil away for gold and blood, but to us, she was our life, and our home; the very seat and namesake of our mercenary company. The Fame Volturius or in the more common Low Latin tongue; the Starving Vulture
The rest of the Company was resting at the moment, making the best of the cool afternoon wind by sitting and lying idle as they rested. But the moment they heard our voices calling for assistance with the crates, they all let out a synchronized groan as they picked themselves up and began working on loading our cargo. “Aren’t you three going to help us?” Stan asked, a crewmate whose collection of needlessly bejeweled bracelets were beginning to reflect a blinding glare “No thank you Stan” I reply while blocking the light from my eyes “We already did our shore work”.
Stan scoffs and replies saying “You just don’t want to help because you’re still stulting drunk Malic!” prompting the rest send a few jeers my way, reminding me once more of how notorious my inability to handle my liquor had become. “Well Stan, We just came from Mr. Star and he says he misses the sound of your voice” I manage an insult, prompting the others to reroute their jeering towards Stan who suddenly turns quiet while his face goes bright red from the shame. Stan used to work for the Wonderland as one of Star’s assistants and he was prone to expressing his disgust of Thaddeus Star by recounting the unwanted harassment and verbal abuse he received from the nobleman. As the others were busily sorting out our cargo while annoying Stan, the three of us boarded the ship and entered the dark, damp and dusty room that constituted the Captain’s cabin.
Chapter 2
If there was one word to describe our good leader Tertius Regulius, it was enigmatic. He was eerily quiet and rarely ever seemed to head a conversation, unless it involved a client. He wore a grey silk strap in his forehead that was supposedly a symbol of the Navy raider battalion that he fought under for twenty long years. While his deep scowl and staring eyes never denied to remind you that you were in the presence of a warrior. Very intimidating man to say the least
“Good morning Captain” The three of us greet him in unison, “Forgive us for the delay sir” Fyrslig adds.
“No need to apologize. It wasn’t a problem. I’ve been in this city for four years, more than enough to know how much of a mess it is to walk through it” He replies calmly
We hand the Captain our respective packages. With mine being the pine scented parcel from the Courier House, Fyrslig’s being the ledger of our cargo and Bahnok handing “Heroes of the Aztec Downfall” one of the books he bought from shop earlier.
The Captain first checks the ledger and then opens Heroes of the Aztec Downfall. He scours the pages intensely, dragging his finger upon specific sections of the page and noting down pieces of the hidden message he was deciphering. I had witnessed this a few times before, they were map coordinates.
“Anything to pass on to the First Mate sir?” I ask
“Aye, tell him we head South, nearby the Stringsbane Republic” He replies. After that he then opens the pine scented parcel I handed to him and pulls out a letter made from deer pelt. The expression on the Captain’s face suddenly changes as he reads the letter. His emotionless scowl suddenly becomes deeper and he lets out a sigh that sounded a bit like despair.
“Something wrong sir?” I ask
The Captain then sets all the items down on his table and grabs his coat. “The normal drivel we’re accustomed to” He replies, cracking a smile.
“So it’s another gang that apparently needs ten fire spitting rifles?” asked Bahnok
“Highly likely, you boys leave now, and tell Aramis we set off for Stringsbane half an hour after the cargo is loaded” he says, waving us off.
We salute in reply and depart the Captain’s moldy room

“You know sir, what I don’t understand, how come the Wonderland uses all these fancy methods for contacting us, when everyone in the port district practically knows what we’re up to the moment they see our horse carts pulling up?” First mate Aramis and I were carrying a couple of smelly lasher oil barrels from the lower deck while I asked him the question.
“Oh, that’s just Janus’s way of doing things; he is not an admirer of the attention, since everyone in the city knows what his personal couriers wear. So instead he likes to play with his power pretending he’s a spymaster of some sort” he replies as he lifts a small but suitably weighed down barrel on his shoulder
“It’s remarkable how the Captain puts up with it” I manage, despite the dizziness induced by the odour.
“Herr Thanis, that’s because the Wonderland pays a ton of gold to let us carry their merchandise” A voice laden with a strong Germanic accent came from a short haired tall blonde man who sported a long scar that cut along the middle of his face, right between the eyes to be exact. His clothing consisted of a dark red silk suit that was buttoned on its far right side. The weapons he carried was a wide barreled blunderbuss pistol that had an exquisitely engraved roaring dragon carved onto its barrel and a long sword that sported a jewel studded handle. He practically stood in stark contrast to the crumpled shirts and dirty jackets that the rest of us wore.
“What he said” replied the First Mate whose impartial countenance had suddenly contorted into a look of bewilderment “Wait, are you wearing a stulting silk suit right before we are about to head off to sea?” asked the First Mate as he turned to question Lord Harald Karlstein the ship’s Quartermaster
“There is nothing wrong with the way I dress myself for work” Karlstein stated in his thick Germanic accent, as he wiped off some lasher oil stains from his silk suit. An act that made me feel uneasy considering the price of the threads.
“For the love of the Savior, Karl, have mercy on the silk worms that shat out that suit for you” pleaded Aramis, his tone surprisingly genuine
“Ahhh curse you, just finish what you are doing” Lord Karlstein says while hoisting a barrel of lasher oil with ease.
“Can you believe that man? You’d think a knight who now works on a steam ship would know better than to dress that all sparkly in a place like this?” Aramis asks me
“Well perhaps some habits just don’t die I guess sir” I stated, more concerned with the choking smell that was dizzying my senses.
“At least he still carries his Chivalric honor and acts upon it. That’s a rare instance to say the least”
I simply nod in agreement, much of my memorable experiences with the members of the Knightly orders were events that I was not too fond of. Discussing it would only sour my mood.
First heading to the engine deck we handed the barrels to the engineers Stephano and Van who then emptied them into the oil tank, returning to the upper deck as the ship prepared to leave port. The Captain was already at the stern giving the coordinates to our Navigator, Mr. Roland Darren who immediately began unlocking the various levers that controlled the speed of the ship. Aramis, joins the Captain and I help the rest of the crew as we began fastening and checking on the ropes that held the main sails together. “Sails checked Captain!” shouted Darwin, one of the designated sailors who was hanging from one of the masts “Alright lads! Release them!” responded the Captain
“Release sails!” The men echoed as they unfastened the rigging, letting the bright stained canvas float as it captured the wind. “Full sail!” The Captain added and in a flick of a rope the rigging at the side of the ship immediately swung forward letting its own store of cotton masses catch more of the cold South Eastern breeze. In a short moment’s time the ship was already drifting far from the docks and as soon as we passed the barrier flags that prevented us from taking steam, Navigator Darren blows a whistle that led to the engine room, immediately signaling Stephano and Van to ignite the coal, which soon set the engines into a flurry.
Through the floorboards we began to feel the gears and cranks coming to life as the ship’s screw propellers started spinning as the Starving Vulture began to tremble from her own awakening. “Whip the machine now Mr. Darren” the Captain ordered and after twisting a knob that allowed the reddish lasher liquid to flow from the oil tank into the engines. The smoke that bellowed from the pipes turned from coal produced gray to lasher oil black as the ship lurched forward.
“I guess we’re on our way” says Fyrslig as he pulls a pipe from his pocket and lights it up as the three of us recline upon some supply crates letting the voyage pass by.

“We’re going where?!”
“An hour since we left port, I guess that’s a new record” mumbled Burk, one of the crossbowmen, as he checked his roughed up pocket watch
It was only a moment’s time till we hit our destination when Bahnok suddenly had flown into an irritated childish rage “You know Bann, that is why we don’t tell you, ya? Because you act like this” Karlstein exclaims as he leaves the galley with a tray of food for the other leaders at the stern.
“Calm down Bahnok, didn’t they teach you everything at the Schola ? Calming down should be a part of it?” a crewmate remarks, the rest of us laugh at the subtle self-deprecating remark on our own lack of education. We were at the galley with most of the crew having a lunch of beans boiled in garlic while watching Stephano and Stan play a game of cards when Bahnok had found out about our exact destination, the crime ridden Free City of Rancidheim.
“Stulting Rancidheim, I hate that place” He cursed while slumped upon on a bench
“And yet you spend your wages on fancy clothes so that you impress the folks you hate so much in that dump” mumbled Stephano, encouraging a few jeers from the others, from which Bahnok replies with something about “looking proper in front of deviants” and “Go Stult your favorite whore” or something of that sort. Ignoring him, we return to watching. our game of cards while Bahnok leaves the galley mumbling something about “picking a jacket.”
“What’s his deal with Rancidheim?” I ask Fyrslig who was busily searching for denarii in his pockets to bet. “Well you know that he hates criminals, arrogant noblemen and corrupt politicians right?” I recall Bahnok’s near outburst with Thaddeus Star, who was the most recent arrogant nobleman we had encountered “Well most of the folks of Rancidheim are basically made up of Arrogant Merchant Criminal Noblemen, thus his bouts of overreaction every time we have work in that city” He says as he picks a tiny green jewel and bets it on Stephano stating that he bought the stone for a lady he was courting and he expected it back. “No wonder he gets riled up” I reply as I drop a silver denarii for Stan.
The card game they were playing is called Curse Deck which is supposedly based on an ancient Egyptian and Greek myth where the labels on the cards represented the abilities of wizards. Each card had the symbol of lightning or some magical drivel representing the strength of the card, the point was for two players to build better curses per round until whoever reached a score of ten hence the name Curse Deck. I had no damned idea how to play it really, but in the end Stan won by showing a hand of two fire cards combined with three other cards that supposedly represented a fictional undead army thus making him “curse” Stephano’s hand with a force of the living dead that also had the ability to shoot fire. Still no idea how the game worked exactly but it was fun to bet on the small matches
After collecting my winnings which included Fyrslig’s green jewel, I left the galley while the others prepared for another round of cursed deck. As I stepped into the deck, I took in the salty air; the smell of a true sea was a far cry from what one would smell in the port districts. Done with enjoying the serenity of the moment, I get back to my first agenda; to search for price bottles of ale that the others had hidden around the ship. Deciding upon a corner, I fidget for my objective which I could feel inside the secret smuggler holes hidden between the walls of the Starving Vulture. Finally my hand starts to grasp something that felt of glass, “The Creator is watching” smiling I pull out a small bottle that had the label “Fresh Grain Spirit” on it.
“Well, perhaps the blessed Savior loves me” I mutter while unscrewing the maple wood cork from the bottle, the sweet fragrance of the drink immediately fills my nose, nearly having me salivating in anticipation. But right before I down the contents into my throat, a hand suddenly appears out of nowhere and snatches the bottle from my grasp.
“Hey I found it!” I yell as I turn to face the thief only to find out it was the Captain himself.
“Stercore, I mean I’m sorry Captain” I stammer awkwardly, giving him a low bow. The Captain, who was sporting half a grin at the moment –a very very rare instance, I might say—he simply pats me on the head and reminds me that “the no drinking rule was in place”. He then stuffs the bottle back into the hole and heads back to his room, the First Mate who was observing from a corner was nodding his head in disapproval, I could only shrug in response.
Unable to grab a drink, I head to the bow of the ship to stretch my legs and simply watch the trip go by, it was one of the finer habits I learned from my seafaring comrades.
“Blocking my view Malic o boy” I look behind me and see Bahnok leaning against a crate quietly sipping on a flask, he had changed to a cleaner looking greyish embroidered jacket; switching away his usual brown one. “Mind if I join you then” I reply “Sure” he says, gesturing towards an empty spot.
I sit beside Bahnok and stretch my legs, tipping my hat down to block the sun’s glare. Bahnok then hands me the flask saying it’s grain spirit, “No drinking rule is out” I reply, half heartedly, rejecting the offer “That’s just for you really” he smirks.
I stare at the flask for a short moment, contemplating the ramifications of my following decision. “I’ve had enough” I decide, returning the drink to him, remembering that the Captain had caught me earlier; drinking now would mean dishonoring my acceptance of the rules he had set for us. Thus I resume my attempt at a short rest.
The wind was gentle, as it always was. The sway of the ship, allowed me some respite from the drudgery of my work. But despite his silence, Bahnok’s drink still made a rather distracting sound as he fidgeted with the bottle. “Malic, mind if I ask you something?” he said, his interruption not unexpected.
My mind ached under the unwanted break as I managed a reply, “What?”
Sitting silently, he dances the flask on his hand as if he was building the courage to say something, “Have you ever been dedicated to someone?” he stammers.
A memory begins to play within my thoughts. I revisit a time while I lay down bleeding on the cold grass. A medicae, knelt beside me. Her hands were on a crossbow bolt that had lodged onto my right arm. The steel tip had pierced through chain mail, not so deep that it had paralyzed the arm but it made movement a constant agony. She pulls it with unexpected speed, causing me to scream in an unexpectedly shrill voice, which the medicae finds amusing as she laughs while sewing the wound shut. That was the first time I met Levilla.
“The Roman Empire and the Roman Legions” I lied, tightening my hat to my face. As I attempted to cast the memories aside. “That is not what I meant Malic” Bahnok stammers, his voice hesitant as he tries to find the words “Ever loved anyone?” he manages
Sighing, I realized what made him bring the topic about, it was Rancidheim. The island served as his home for a hefty amount of time, it wouldn’t be surprising if he had maintained a romance with a resident or two. “It’s the city isn’t it?” I ask
His countenance now looked fairly stunned by my question, “No, Malik” his voice sounding faint and weak. “I just hate that stercore bred city, for everything it’s made of”
“I believe you” my tone laden with sarcasm. He scowls for a moment, but sombers down “You’re right, it is true that there was someone in the city that I---”
“Is that thing heading straight for us?” my friend’s brief moment of emotional vulnerability and openness would have to wait. For in that moment, I had caught sight of a ship that was facing our direction.
It was a massive cargo galleon perhaps thrice the size of the Fame Volturius. But it looked distinctly Parthian, a characteristic presented by the half triangle shaped sails it sported. Though I had never seen a Parthian battleship up close, I knew of their appearance from the depictions illustrated from the war news heralds I read back in New Capua. The three flags that it hoisted were the Golden Laurel Leaf Emblem of Rome, below was the simple red flag of the Settlement Republics, that had the Low Latin words “Loyal But Free” in its center. But the last one on the flagpole was an unfamiliar one to me. It had a white background that had the High Latin sewn onto it stating Bestia Ex Chryseum: the Beast of Gold.
“Enemy ship?” I ask, feeling nervous at the thought of a naval confrontation.
“If it was after us, I’m sure the Captain would call battle stations by now” comments Bahnok. By that time, Lunt our watcher on the crow’s nest had begun to loudly ring the bell, signalling the approach. Immediately those who weren’t on deck all rushed out from their respective resting holes and quickly began grabbing weapons from our armory. No battle stations were called but we were told what it was. A mid-sea transfer, we were to conclude our business with the approaching vessel.
As she neared, I pull my sword halfway from the scabbard to check on the steel for any blemishes such as rust, dirt or old blood stains. Maintaining my blade was paramount to my daily rituals but assuring myself twice hurt no one. I also check the ammunition in my pistols just for luck, “done” I whisper to myself while patting the surface of both of my steel plated armguards to confirm their firmness. I head towards the port side entryway of our ship from which our, enigmatic guests would enter.
As I observed earlier, the ship was indeed thrice our size and rather lightly but well-armed at the same time. Four heavy cannon turrets lined both sides of the ship, around nearly every corner was a smaller swivel gun with a vigilant sailor on its trigger and on both the bow and the stern were huge bombard cannons that were at least four times the size of a normal cannon. A bit too heavily armed for a merchant’s trade ship.
There was an immediate clamor that befell the Volturius as the crew began scurrying around the deck, readying turrets, checking weapons and pulling up the cargo. Our Captain who stood silently aboard the stern seemed to be devoid of our own confusion as the First Mate continually hammered a barrage of commands at us. “You three are with us” Lord Karlstein commanded Bahnok, Fyrslig and myself to join him before he, the Captain and the first mate prepared to cross the makeshift bridge to the other ship. “bodyguard time” Fyrslig whispers.
A mighty creak swelled up from the bottom of the sea, as both ships anchored into the shallow clear waters; resting parallel to each other. From the deck, I could see other ship’s name as it was freshly painted on the side of her hull, “Heimdallr of the Trade Guild Chryseum” it said in bright gold and white lettering.
As soon as we boarded her a voice rings out “Greetings! Captain Tertius! Fine weather today isn’t it?” Emitted from a young lady perhaps not far from my age, our host stood under a wide umbrella, and was flanked by a group of well armed guards. She wore a remarkably lavish white dress that beautifully matched her equally pale complexion that comprised both her hair and skin. She had a smile that seemed so utterly welcoming but also devious at the same time and her eyes shone a gentle bright blue but nonetheless emitted an aura of dread focus. A preference that made me unnecessarily blush. Luckily my coat’s tall collars and my one cornered hat had cast a shadow on my face.
“Good day Lady Arslen” The Captain greeted our benefactor with a low stiff bow as he stepped onto the Chryseum.
“Oh Captain Tertius, no need for a straight laced chivalric greetings. Now, now, now, tell how have you been?”
“Remarkable, I’d say Lady Arslen”
Lady Arslen gives a short laugh in response and says “Is it because you’re meeting with me again after so many long months? Oh yes Captain, it’s alright if you just call me Arslen, Tertius” The Lady tilts her head and leans slightly forward –perhaps a sign of affection- then compliments Regulius’s rough but authoritative armored coat. The Captain, clearly flattered still maintains a level of modesty, thanks the Lady as he prattles on regarding the transfer of cargo per the orders from the Wonderland.
“She’s sweet with the Captain?” I whisper to Bahnok
“She’s sweet with everyone. She does that when Arslen wants something beyond this deal” he replies, his hushed tone failing to mask a building tension that I had sensed the moment I stepped onto the Heimdallr. The two continue their small conversation as Lady Arslen calls for a table and a chair to be brought, to allow for a much more comfortable discussion. Two of her bodyguards facilitate the request, immediately readying the furniture.
“I thought this was just a transfer” whispers Fyrslig to Aramis “So did I, but I guess we thought wrong, and so did the Captain” he replies
Puzzled by Aramis’s remark, I suddenly noticed the Captain’s hands. The fingers folded together, but his right thumb stuck out as it moved in a rhythmic pattern. He was sending us a message.
I was never one for finger codes and codes in general, which was always Bahnok’s job, the heavy thinking. But I was required to be proficient in the speech as it was necessary for many situations. And right now it was helping by translating what the Captain was saying “Get ready for a fight”

The two continued their business prattle, with mostly Lady Arslen handling the majority of the conversation, while the Captain continued to tap the message as he discussed matters with Arslen. Further increasing our tension.
I began to grip the handle of my sword tightly, trying my best to figure out the best scenario for the possible conflict. Observing Arslen’s own bodyguards; their only seemed to be nine of them save for the ship’s crew which was currently ignoring us as they hurriedly scurried around the ship busily maintaining it. But the nine guards that surrounded her all exhibited an aura of one who has dipped their swords in blood far too many times.
One was a tall burly man who wore armor that appeared to be made of layers of thick crocodilian leather over a plate of steel. His weapon was a light Norseman battle axe that he held on his right hand while to his left was a circular shield that was made of black iron. Another was an Archer who calmly stood on top of a crate, his bow already had an arrow nocked on it and he exhibited a scowl that showed us all how damned confident he was.
The other seven were dressed in a uniform of light grey coats and were armed with sword and pistol. But there was a one eyed woman among them who carried a brace of six triple barreled pistols that were holstered on a belt that ran across her chest. She also carried a scimitar that had its scabbard etched with various emblems and terms in High Latin, she was probably a Knight I surmised. And there was also that young boy who couldn’t be older than fifteen years. He wore a dark coat and carried a sword and pistol, unlike the rest of the group he stood closest to Lady Arslen, watching us with a dead stare.
“Interesting lot” I mutter to myself, quietly of course.
Though we were positioned considerably distanced from the Captain and the Lady Arslen we could still hear the conversation and so began to catch hints of what was causing the Captain’s unease.
“But Tertius, please, if you would. I understand that your concern is involved with how you fix most of your work in your home city of Initum Novum”
“That is correct”
“My dear, you have nothing to fear from losing future business prospects, the crew of the Fame Volturius is a well-respected and renowned Mercenary group.”
“Of course Lady but that reputation is a product of trust with our employers, and Lord Janus or even the Wonderland as a whole is remarkably fickle. If he finds out that we added an extra item in the agreed cargo, a man as fickle as he is could interpret that differently”
Clearly amused, Arslen gives out a hearty and passionate laugh, a white gloved hand covering her mouth. “By the Blessed Savior Tertius, you and I both know your reputation comes from something far deeper than that unbreakable sense of professionalism you carry wherever you go.”
The wind blows down, Arslen closes her eyes and takes in the southern breeze. While the Captain sits still, his left fist clenched in reaction to the Lady’s words
“Perhaps, if you lose the trust with the Wonderland, you know that Chryseum and of course my own prospects can definitely compensate you in the future. Might I remind you that even though Lord Janus’s enterprise holds considerable influence in Initum Novum, my reputation alone holds more than enough merit in many cities and nations in the Northern continent”
The Captain casually tosses one of the biscuits served by Arslen into his mouth,
“It’s a matter of practicality really, I enjoy the ease of my work there” He says while chewing. His mood seemingly calmed.
“Doesn’t that dampen the fighting skills of your men? Bringing a few tons of armaments to and fro along the Southern Republics is of significant tedium, don’t you think? We both know that the most excitement your Volturius has had this for the past three months was scaring off a party of idiotic bandits at the South Islands, and of course the rogues of this side of the region are mostly made up mindless thugs. Barely a challenge for men who pride themselves as veterans of the Eternal War”
“How did you know about that?” the Captain asks, as he signals another message, one that I recognized. it said “Prepare yourself”
“I have my methods Captain Regulius” Arslen replies as she sips from her teacup gently.
“Please Arslen, definitely another time but not now. We only wish to fulfill the initial contract.” replies the Captain, tipping his head in a low bow as he stands from his seat.
Seemingly unfazed by the clear sign of rejection, our host continues to bargain “Oh Tertius, I assure you, this won’t be a problem. If you come upon Lord Janus’s wrath, I can simply put you under the protection of the Chrystheum. My personal bodyguard alone is enough to put those Wonderland thugs aback.” Arslen says this all by leaning on her hand, as if she was bored but still maintaining her charming but definitely uneasy grin.
“So can the men of the Volturius, my Lady. As you did mention earlier. You are after all fully aware that every one of us once served the Legions of the Roman Empire, veterans of the Eternal War” the Captain keeps his stoic gaze on Arslen’s mischievous smile.
The two were silent for a moment, I was no genius but those were some thinly veiled threats. Arslen had just suggested that refusing her now would end up with the Heimdallr releasing a full broadside on the Fame Volturius, effectively trapping us here with her nine bodyguards and the roughly three hundred crew members of their ship –Yes I counted-. But then again whether they had more guns than us or not, given the distance, position and posture of her closest protectors. It would still be remarkably easy for us to cut a bloody swath through her bodyguard before expiring slowly from the retaliatory gunfire that would come from the Chryseum’s own sailors.
Arslen breaks the silence, interjecting easily “Why why, Tertius, it seems that there is way too much tension between our respective retinues, tell your men to relax”
The Captain chuckles and gives us a wave, commanding us to ease down. We remove our hands from the scabbards, resting them on our sides. A bit less threatening, but still prepared for a scuffle.
“Forgive my men’s vigilance; they were not exactly informed of this situation.” The Captain tells her. Lady Arslen then lets out her soft laugh once more “Oh Captain Tertius, we’re among civility here in my ship, no reason to be ready to fight. Of course I am referring to how the crew on your own ship are all armed to the teeth while the men here are simply rested” leaving her seat, she gestures towards our comrades on the Volturius, all positioned in quick reach of a cannon or rifle.
“That’s just how I do business out at sea Lady Arslen, you know how anything can go wrong”
“Are you saying you don’t trust me?”
The Captain, seemingly taken aback by her response fakes a nervous laugh before he continues “Definitely not, but perhaps it is the same reason why you are so beautifully dressed to meet an unkempt mercenary such as myself. You just want to look good” he compliments
Lady Arslen cracks her soft laugh once more and then asks the Captain again what his decision would be.
First it seemed as if he was about to verbalize another rejection but instead he ends the discussion and extends his hand for the Lady to shake, which I took as silently agreeing to her proposal. In an instant, Aramis whistles for the cargo transported from the Wonderland to be transferred while one of the crew of the Heimdallr bring out ten crates and reveal the contents to the Captain. I didn’t get a glimpse of what the nature of the contents since they were revealed to him under the cover of the shadow of Arslen’s parasol. After he checked each and every one of the contents, he signals for us to carry the presented cargo to the Volturius “Lord Janus will receive his expected pay through us. Trust me” she said,
“My, my Tertius, is this boy new?” Lady Arslen suddenly states as she approached me while I was I was about to lift a weapon’s crate in front of her.
“Yes Lady, that is Malic, he’s been with the crew for at least four months”
“Greetings Lady Arslen, I am Malic Thanis, a member of the crew of the Fame Volturius” I remove my hat in respect and bow my head as I greet her, hopefully hiding my reddening face. She widens her smile in response before bidding us goodbye and walking away
After that we departed from the Heimdallr and began to set a course further south for Rancidheim with our brand new cargo. Needless to say we were all incomprehensibly relieved that we didn’t have to fight at all. Exciting as a battle was, the assurance of a mundane survival was a far more appealing event.

Chapter 3
I wasn’t entirely sure of how Captain Regulius truly regarded our unfortunate situation. He did display a modicum of vigilance and concern throughout our ordeal but overall he just seemed utterly indifferent to it.
But of course that meant that his calm physical demeanor was of great variation, compared to our own regard on the matter.

“What was that Captain?” one of the engineers said “I thought it was just an exchange of cargo” Piped Edward, a small runt of a lad who worked on the rigging.
The crew, save for the assistant navigator and some sailors on the jalopies were all gathered in the galley for a discussion on the events at hand.

“Lads, that exchange took longer than expected. But you know how those sort of folk work, almost always another hidden side to a simple agreement.”
Captain Regulius was standing atop a table in the mess hall in clear view of all of us. I had observed the breaks in his countenance quite a few times during the meeting with Lady Arslen. Though he stayed stoic, a brow would squint or some side of his jaw would clench at the varying statements of Arslen. It was definitely obvious that the others might have seen him during far more expressive moments, but to us he was simply stoic no matter what we glimpsed or witnessed.
“Aye Sir” we echo a salute

“As I announced earlier, to the chagrin of Bahnok” the crew snickers at that one “The Wonderland hired us to transport cargo over to Lady Arslen’s ship in exchange for two crates that we were to bring to Rancidheim, but as all of you now know, we are transporting over nine more crates thus possibly harming our relationship with the Lord Janus.” murmurs echo throughout the galleys, the men clearly worried at how it would affect our future contracts, Wonderland was a frequent employer after all

“So she threatened us then?” asked Sven another sailor.
“In all her mercantile pride she did, implying that refusing the cargo but knowing of its existence would be considered a threat to her.”
“And Lady Arslen always fails to give empty threats.” Added our First Mate
“But what were the contents of what Lord Janus wanted Captain?” asked one of the crew
“Fifty Vulcan steel swords”

Vulcan Steel was one of higher quality metals. Weapons made from it were wielded by the more sinister elements of the Roman Legions, an armament built to inflict great damage on large targets despite weighing no heavier than a small wooden stick. Someone wants to climb the ladder of the free city of Rancidheim
“How about the other nine, sir?” another asks
This causes the Captain’s demeanor to change, his blank gaze quietly shifting to that of a worried scowl. Sitting down on the table he stood upon, he calls for a drink of water before revealing the contents of our mysterious new cargo.
“Parts for building over twelve breech loaded quad barrel light cannons. A weapon that definitely should not be in the hands of anyone from that city” he sighs

“Captain, could we be delivering this item to one of the gangs of Rancidheim?” asked Fyrslig, “Aye” he replies
The hall fell silent at the sound of those words. As a mercenary company it was expected that the Volturius would be working with unsavory characters. Lords and ladies with enough coin could easily have us ferrying cargo of nearly every sort to the darkest corners of the continent. Refusing service was only expected when dangerous stimulants and slaves were involved. Despite that fact, working with criminals has always benefited such acts. Thus the company viewed it as a violation of our Code.
“Bahnok, since we are heading towards your favorite city, any guesses on what we should prepare for?” Aramis gestured towards our illustrious comrade, who had his nose buried onto a ledger that he endlessly whispered curses into. Bahnok flips through his ledger and mutters aloud the names of the various gangs and syndicates that ran Rancidheim. “Dead Foxes, Jade Kings, The Capitals” he began mentioning other names that I couldn’t hear properly, but it was clear that sometimes I forget how observant he was. His training under the Volturius’s late spymaster combined with his education made him adept at taking in the various details that he would come across.
“It could be the Laika House Captain, I believe the other gangs have neither the expertise nor the training to wield something as sophisticated as a multi-barrel cannon. Also considering that they are the only syndicate that is made up of actual Roman Military Veterans, it would be sound to assume that they are most likely to be the group who will acquire the weapons.”
That name, Laika House, it sounded familiar. I recalled their history in the books and news heralds I was required to study when I was enlisted into the crew. Just one of the many shadowy Trade Guilds that have taken root in Rancidheim. They were prominent enough to be well known throughout the continent, unlike the others which seemed to hold sway only on their little island.
“Lestius Reeves would be proud Bahnok” says the Captain as he removes his hat in respect for the Volturius’s late information gatherer. I knew the man before I joined the company, I had worked in a tavern he owned before I was recruited. He died of old age.
“Th-Thank you sir” Bahnok chokes, as he promptly looks away. Hiding perhaps a few tears. Bahnok was more emotional than he revealed.
“If I may ask sir, how much are we getting paid?” managed one of the engineers. Our three leaders huddled for a moment and traded a few whispers before giving us the fairly uplifting news, “ the pot will be Forty Seven Thousand” announced a smiling Karlstein, the hall turned into a vector of vocal activity, as my comrades began discussing the benefits to be reaped from their share of the pot. I’ve been told that the largest pot the crew had acquired in the past was only numbered at twenty thousand. “Before you all get your stercore planned out, we still have to complete the contract. We are mercenaries, soldiers of fortune. At our core, professionals. The client expects that we succeed, and succeed we shall. Remember soldiers of the Volturius, dishonor is for the dead.”
“And the dead do not get paid” the last tenets we echoed to the Captain, was from our oath, The Bitter Truth. It was a code that dictated how we set our business, what kind of business we would accept and how we should conduct ourselves in the business. In short, it asked us to remember two things, “Dishonor is for the dead, and the dead do not get paid”. Grim, blunt and direct, enough for us to understand and internalize.
The Captain leaves as Aramis had spoken to the rest of the crew to discuss logistical aspects such as weapons to be readied, and armor that was necessary. A map of the city was handed to each of us to study and memorize, as our work could take an inconvenient turn. The First Mate was keen on reminding me directly on what to watch out for, given that it was my first time actually working in the city. He placed emphasis on aspects to watch out for such as watchful bystanders, armed civilians and oddly timed inconveniences such as obstacles left in the road or empty spots and corners. “Remember your training Malic, and we will make it back alive” the First Mate spoke with a stern but protective tone, the anger jests he would usually carry was faded away as he took the role as a commander instead of a disciplinarian. We thank him as he dismisses us and prepare to leave the galley until he calls for one, Fyrslig. “Mr. Jevons, I noticed you were rather pained as you listened to the announcement earlier, is there something you may want to express?” Fyrslig, stops and nods at the First Mate and approaches him. I consider leaving, but Bahnok asks me to stay, as to hear what the discussion was about. The galley was empty by now, even the cook and his team were done and had joined the others on the upper deck, leaving only the four of us. “Permission to speak freely sir?” Fyrslig asks while standing in attention, carrying the proper posture expected of us during our time in the Legions. “You may Mr. Jevons” the First Mate says. “S-Sir, I… I have some worries about the contract” Seemingly taken aback, the First Mate asks Fyrs to continue. “I understand that as mercenaries and professionals that we only honor the oath and we complete our contract. But I understand that there have been instances when the Captain would turn down work that would empower factions and elements that could lead to the destruction of the groups affected by our triumphs. Is it all too possible that, what we are about to complete is enough to set aflame a conflict in a city known for being far more volatile than Parthian and Roman relationships?” Fyrslig looked pained, despite being a sword for hire, he was a devoutly religious man. Perhaps the very state of his profession was always at conflict with his beliefs, and seeing our charge and the city that would be receiving it. Having a vivid prediction must have put him under great unease. It had after all earned him the name, Murder Monk.“I have Bahnok’s Rancidheim memoirs experiences to blame don’t I?” the First Mate says, pointing a finger at the schola stulture prompting him to shrug apologetically. “Perhaps sir, but it does not sit well with my conscience. Nonetheless I--”
“ ‘Am expected to fulfill the contract, and to protect my brothers as dogs of the Volturius.’ Is that what you were going to say?” clearly surprised, Fyrslig nods his head, “Yes sir” The First Mate sighs as he pats Fyrs’ shoulder. “You Jevons are a family of knights, correct?”
“Yes sir”
“But you yourself were a Legionnaire. Still, that sense of honor is strong in you isn’t it?”
Fyrslig breathes in before he replies, collecting his thoughts he straightens his posture once more. “Yes sir, my mother and father are both knights of Rome and so are my brothers and sisters. One of the few families to have both sons and daughters knighted. I am the youngest, I was not intended to be a soldier but a scholar.”
“And yet you enlisted as one”
“Yes sir, I did so without my family’s blessings.” I had heard this tale many times in the past, since Fyrslig and I served in the same squad and cohort during the war.
“You know Karlstein had the same misgivings as you have. I’m not surprised, since he is a knight and you were raised by two. Those teachings are indeed paramount to your being. But while he is reigned in by the fear of acting dishonorable, with you it must be the Creator above, isn’t it?”
“Yes sir, I wish to commit no sin as a dog of the Volturius.”
“Is that so.” The First Mate puffs his chest and straightens his posture. “I will ask you what I told our honorable Quartermaster. Do you trust me Mr. Jevons?”
Fyrslig doesn’t hesitate to answer, placing his right fist to his left breast and breathing out a hearty “Yes sir!” his enthusiasm is surprising enough that Bahnok and stand in attention as well.
“I trust the Captain, Mr. Jevons. I trust him to carry the weight of all our lives on his shoulders. If you trust me, you trust our Captain. That is our oath to each other as dogs of the Fame Volturius. Trust each other, and maintain that trust. I ask you to trust me, trust that we all work together to have each other’s interests in heart and most of all, the success of our contract. Can I expect you to do that?”
“Yes sir” Fyrslig says, saluting the First Mate once more before he is dismissed.

Initum Novum, the city from which we hailed is a Northern city and the boroughs of the North part of the continent are plagued by a blistering cold that permeates nearly every aspect of its weather. As a coastal establishment, rain is expected, but instead of being met by the warm drops of nature’s comfort, you were greeted by the torturous freezing bites wrought upon by an angry weather god. The nights were never easy, the common cold wind would easily numb down any of your exposed skin, denying you the simple satisfaction of experiencing the sensation of feeling the clothes on your back. So the best respite from it was alcohol, and perhaps fifty gold denarii worth of fur and leather coats. But as a veteran of the Mainland’s fog and snow ridden wasteland that called itself the Northern Border, the brisk weather of Initum Novum was nothing too jarring, in fact it was rather welcoming, in a frequently uncomfortable way I might add.
What I did despise was the deathly heat of the Southern lands that would bog me down. So I knew that we weren’t that far from Rancidheim when I felt a far hotter sun that began laying down its unholy rays of burning light upon me.
The crew had already returned to its jolly self, despite the unsavory work we were facing. Some were training with sword combat and fist fighting in the main deck while the lazier ones were back in the galley playing more cursed deck or some other variant of it. Fyrslig and I being both accustomed to cooler weather, sat under a makeshift umbrella balanced on two barrels. We chose that spot specifically for the wind that passed through it, but of course the sun is the sun and it cares little for the ingenuity of man; as it unleashed its glorious rays to effectively heat up our surroundings. You’d think we’d be at the lower decks away from it, but the heat from the steam engines just made things too warm down there.
While I was constantly fanning myself with a wooden plank, Fyrslig stuck his head out over the edge of the ship trying to catch the wind like a dog riding on a carriage. The rest of the crew laughed at us while we were at it, even though they’ve actually seen me do it for months, years even in Fyrslig’s case. “Still snow pups aren’t you Hatchling” said Huron, a crewmate who grinned at us through his numerous bizarre facial tattoos. Snow pup was their derogatory nickname for Fyrslig and I whenever we’d hit warm waters, while Hatchling was what they sometimes called me, being the new member and all.
“You’d think that joke should’ve gotten old by now, Huron” I reply, flashing an offensive gesture at him. He responds in kind and returns to his business of practicing his sword fighting. “To a sailor, a joke never gets old, they’ll repeat it a hundred times beyond the day you die, get used to it” Fyrslig comments.
It didn’t take long for a terrifying stench to enter my nose, one that nearly forces me to gag. Soon after the mood in the ship shifts entirely from relative happiness to that of complete disgust as the rest of the crew began to take in the distinct aroma of rotting blood, garbage and feces that accompanied the winds from a dying city. “We’re here!” Shouted Lunt from the crow’s nest and soon after Bahnok suddenly steps out from the lower deck and arrives dressed in his shiny grey embroidered coat, and a vest that held daggers, ammo pouches and a scattershot pistol holstered to his right side. “What?” he says as he catches us staring at him, “You think it’s a good idea to be dressed so threatening in a city populated mainly by professional criminals?” Fyrslig asks. Our little Schola Stulture only responds with a sarcastic laugh before he announces that he’ll be heading to the galley for a quick meal. Though Bahnok’s reasoning was clear to me, I always felt it be more sound to appear less threatening when facing a city filled with aggressive fools.

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