And with this, the opening of Red Sky ends. There are probably going to be three major sections to the story, so we're about a third of the way through.
The captain's quarters were spartan, without too much luxury. A hammock hung easily on one side of the room, and a map of the West adorned the far wall. There was a single table, with a bottle acting as a paperweight to hold down a few papers, and Steel strolled over and grabbed a chair, spinning it and sitting in a single motion. His companion walked over to stand behind him, and Lodaris and Alina glanced at each other again before each taking another of the chairs scattered about the room and sitting across from the captain. He reached under the table, coming up with three wine glasses, and offered them to the others; both took them, and Steel poured three drinks. His castemark was solid in the cabin's light, but had stopped bleeding, and Alina watched it with fascination from the corner of her eye.
"Well, since we've already been tested in battle, I suppose proper introductions are in order." Steel grinned. "I am Captain Twice-Forged Steel, the 'Avatar of Sindalin', and my compatriot is known as Corpse Scented With Jasmine, an unfortunately fitting name these days." The woman behind him raised an eyebrow behind her veils, but said nothing. "She's my advisor. And you two appear to be Immaculate monks." He paused, as Alina choked on her drink, and let her cough for a moment before continuing. "Immaculate monks who are drinking alcohol and have hair, which suggests that you are rather lapsed."
Lodaris chuckled without much humour. "I am Cathak Lodaris, and I would say that I am, as you put it, lapsed. This is my ward, Alina, who has never been a monk."
"Really." Steel raised an eyebrow, and Alina nodded after a moment. "And yet she was using the Air Dragon Style. There must be some story there."
"As interesting as the story about why an abomination is fighting to defend mortals." Lodaris' voice was harsh, and Alina gasped again, turning to him in surprise. Steel laughed, raising a hand to forestall her protest.
"No, no, he's pretty much right. By the Immaculate faith I am Anathema, a horrible demon clothed in flesh, which pretty much makes me an abomination. In the Unconquered Sun's eyes, I am a twisted perversion, a dark reflection of the Solars who was created to destroy everything." Alina frowned, and he shrugged. "In the eyes of the Neverborn I am a traitor who has sided with the living, which is pretty abominable, the Yozi probably just see me as an Exalt and therefore the enemy, and I've been told that the Fair Folk consider anything with flesh abominable. So I'm pretty much an abomination from everyone's eyes." He chuckled, taking a long drink, as his guests watched him. After a moment, Alina spoke cautiously.
"I've never seen a castemark like that."
"No? It's the mark of an Abyssal Exalt, champion of the Deathlords." Steel leaned back, balancing his chair on two legs. "I am a former Deathknight of the Lover Clad in the Rainment of Tears."
"But not anymore?" She searched his face for signs of deception and found none as he continued.
"Precisely. Jasmine and I were sent on a mission, you see, to recover some... property... that was stolen from the Lover. When we reached it, we found it in the possession of a Solar." Steel paused, and sighed. "Words were exchanged. Then blows were exchanged, and then armies were exchanged... long story short, we failed, Jasmine died, and I felt it might be best if I absented myself from my master on an indefinate basis."
"I... see." Alina looked over at Jasmine, who seemed remarkably spry for a corpse. "You died."
"Yes." Jasmine nodded once. "I am now a ghost."
Steel pressed on as though there had been no interruption. "At first I was annoyed at being beaten, but as it turns out, it was all for the best. The thing is, I like stuff." That drew Alina and Lodaris's attention fully, and they both raised eyebrows. With a grin, Steel elaborated. "I like eating a good meal, fighting a good fight, enjoying the worship of the masses, what have you. But if Oblivion wins, and everything gets destroyed for all eternity... well, no more stuff. It's all well and good if you believe that existance is an unending procession of pain and misery, but I enjoy my life. So being cut loose from my master let me see how flawed her philosophy really was." He shrugged.
Lodaris stared at him a moment, and turned to Jasmine. "And you?"
"The struggle for life is inherently futile." Her voice was flat. "However, I am not yet wise enough to forsake all attachments to life. Until such time as I can attain that peace, I am as comfortable advising Twice-Forged Steel as anywhere else."
"Oh." Alina carefully kept her frown off her face.
"And you? There must be some story to why a master of the Fire Dragon and an adept of Air find themselves bound on a boat to nowhere."
"I had a vision." Alina kept her voice calm, as Steel raised an eyebrow. "I have them fairly often, actually, and they always come true. It told me that there was a great evil here, and that darkness was trying to contain it... but if we did not come, it would fail."
"Well, it was half-right. I'm doing fine containing the problem." Steel grinned. "Not that extra help wouldn't be accepted, mind you." He leaned forwards. "For some reason, the Lintha have become obsessed with this little island over the past few months. I was just passing through, and happened to get involved in one of their little fights. The islanders, bless their credulous souls, have a bizarre little mythology, and they decided that I was the avatar of their death-goddess, come to ensure that none of them die before the proper time. I met with her, and she said she wouldn't reveal the confusion as long as I did protect them; she's a bit worried about losing her flock."
"Hm." Lodaris frowned. "Why do the Lintha care about Juriss? They are monstrous pirates, but still pirates. I would not expect a single locale to intrest them."
"You're the Immaculate, you figure it out." Steel shrugged. "The spirits, as a rule, won't talk to me. Only Sindalin made any sort of effort, and even she doesn't particularly like me. Something about being an affront to the natural order, little problems like that." He sighed. "Truthfully, I wouldn't mind having two more Exalts around to help out, even Dragon-Bloods. I sort of like this little place, and it would be a shame to have to leave."
Alina considered for a moment, and then decided not to correct him about her nature yet. Better to have the secret, just in case. She didn't trust Steel entirely. "Well, we will be happy to help, right Lodaris?"
"As good a place as any." Lodaris nodded after a moment. "We are far enough that the Realm will not follow us, and we can do some good protecting these people." His look implied that the Lintha might not be the only thing that the island needed protection from.
"Great!" Steel grinned. "Just one thing. Dukantha's mine."
There was a pause, and then Lodaris spoke. "Who?"
"I don't know, exactly." Jasmine shook her head in annoyance at Steel's easy words, and he chuckled. "But I've killed five Lintha captains, and three of them mentioned him; heâ€™s some sort of Lintha bigwig. It's all, 'Just wait until Dukantha returns', and 'Dukantha will wipe this island from Creation', and 'Dukantha will feast on your bones, you cannot fight him', blah blah blah. They've all been pushovers, so I figure he might be a better challenge.
â€œYouâ€™re not worried he might be stronger?â€ Alinaâ€™s voice was dubious. Steel laughed brightly.
â€œHeâ€™s a Lintha. How tough could he be?â€