Storyteller's note: Captain Armand has been around for a while, but recently he's acquired a more important role, that of nemesis. So, I decided he deserves some attention, just to include him more in the story, especially since the lads are landlocked for the time being. Armand is still out there, and most certainly up to no good what so ever.
Captain Armand stands on the stern deck of his ship; the massive bulk of the black hull carves the dark waters of the Ashen Arm, and within the hour he will anchor up in the harbour of Mūr-Chadrac. In the cavernous belly of the ship lies the key, rather, the gate, to what is left of the future. "Soon," he mutters, "soon this will all be over." He has been patient, but now the pieces are in place for the endgame -- the end of all games.
Sailors scurry up the ropes, like so many insects, to trim the sails. A fine crew. His crew, and he has picked each man himself; the cream of centuries and centuries worth of crops. Each man taken from their wet grave, only the best have been given a place on this ship. Each man has willingly forsworn land, life and soul, and each man knows well what is expected, and what is to come. He takes great pride in running a tight ship, and no captain, alive or dead, above or below, can match the damned men of the Black Ship Kraken.
More than a millennium has passed since he led the Great Armada of Man across the Empty Ocean to do battle with the elves. An eternity, it seems. Strange, he muses, that he, an immortal, now yearns for the end. The end to all things, and the beginning of the vast and unending nothing that will follow. All life will be scoured from first this world, then another, and another, until all the life on all the worlds are extinguished. The suns will grow cold and dark, the continents will be swallowed by the Deep, and nothing will be left. And it has begun.
A pack of devilfish is following the Kraken, prowling silently like malevolent shadows in its wake. Armand turns to watch the swift predators, looking for familiar shapes. When he spots the huge silhouette of Old Scar, an almost tender expression brushes over his face like the sun revealed briefly behind stormy clouds. He bows respectfully to the old killer and turns back again, just in time to see Gormantang, a claw-like cliff that stabs towards the heavens, emerge from behind a bend in the fjord. It also marks the end of this journey; below the foreboding spire lies Mūr-Chadrac, the City of the Fallen Star. Already the thick, black, oily smoke rising from the city's vast forge-pits can be seen coiling upwards like enormous black, fat snakes.
Not long after, the Kraken glides silently between the sharp rocks of Shredder Reef, and when the ship passes beneath Skull Point, the air is torn asunder by a twin broadside-salute. To those on land, watching the Black Ship come into port, at first it seems like the vessel vanishes in a dark cloud of fire and smoke. Then the torn sails, flapping from tall masts amidst tangled ropes becomes visible. Tiny shapes can be made out, crawling up and down the tattered rigging, along yardarms and spares. The bowsprit pierces the curling smoke like a gigantic lance, and finally the hull itself, hulking, black and foreboding, comes into view. The smoke, torn into tentacle-like strands by the doomed galleon stretches lazily outwards and upwards, like some semi-corporeal creature of the deep searching for prey.
The salute is answered from the Citadel, the looming fortress that dominates the harbour from its location, perched on the cliff opposite Skull Point. Its massive cannons spit fire and smoke, thundering again and again in welcome of the Admiral of Lost Hope. Scores of great bats are chased from their rest in the caves beneath the fortress. They take flight in large swarms that fly over the chaotic mass of houses that make up the city, over roofs and spires, towers and palaces. Then they seem to melt away as the enormous anchor of the Kraken splashes into the grey water of the harbour, and the greatest of the Black Ships lurch to a standstill.
The Star Chamber is packed. It is the oldest room in the Citadel, and once upon a time it housed an elven court. Only the floor is left of the original structure, and the black marble displays a breathtaking star-map. When it is empty, every constellation visible from the Broken Coast can be seen, every star, and every astral body, including the most recent astrological phenomenon, the red star; Male Astra.
Now the view is obscured by guards, courtiers and supplicants, advisors, diplomats and dignitaries. When Armand enters through the large bronze doors engraved with scenes from the history of Argos, the murmur stops instantly. The crowd parts to reveal the Queen of Sorrow herself, seated on the blackened, silvery Thorn Throne, resplendent in a silk gown the colour of the midnight sky. A single pendant, a star shaped from an icy blue crystal, sparkling like its cousins in the heavens, framed in white metal, hangs from the delicate neck of the succubus. There is something mocking about her perfect smile.
Armand walks across the stars -- a whiff of the open sea spreads through the room -- and stops thirteen paces in front of the throne where he takes a knee. "Your illustrious Majesty, Queen of Stars, Mother, Your loyal and most obedient servant awaits Your command." Eyes downcast, kneeling on the constellation the Erians call The Enemy, his voice deep and melodious.
"Armand," the queen says, "my love, you come before me as a victor." She lets the words linger. "There is something quite seducing about the victorious hero returning. It agrees with you, I think." The Star Chamber is silent, only the subtle rustling of silk can be heard as the Queen's ladies-in-waiting edge closer to the throne.
"Why is it that you never look me in the eyes, admiral?"
"I would come adrift, Your Majesty," Armand answers, "I would become lost, and I fear I would come to resent the sea for keeping me away from you."
The Queen laughs, her laughter is like pearls being poured from a velvet purse. Armand smiles, head still bent. They have played this game before. In fact, once, an age ago, they were lovers.
Moments pass. No one moves. Finally she says, "Tell me about your endeavour, my dear captain."
"Cora fell quickly, my Queen, as we expected. The Knights of St Invictus were no threat, just as the traitor promised. Their Watcher died in her chambers before I called the Storm, and they got no warning. We already had men inside the city when the Old One came over the breakwater, and while some Knights made a futile stand together with the Wolf Lords, they never had a chance.
The crew of the Sepulchre and the Despair ravaged the city, while I entered the fortress -- again, the traitor kept his word. The wolfs and Knights guarding the artefact resisted, of course, but this is our age, Your Majesty. No one can stand against the Deep."
A murmur goes through the room as the crowd intones, "So say we all."
"When we left Cora, Your Majesty, sixty seven ships, twenty three fully crewed, had been claimed by the Storm and the Old One. Cora stands alone, the navies of Eria have lost the Straits of Ahriman, and we have the Gateposts. The Host of Man is cut off."
"My congratulations, admiral," the Queen says, "you serve the Lord of the Locust well, as always."
"Now, tell me," she continues, "I have heard about a ship, or, I've been informed, more accurately, a war-cabal, that have started meddling in our affairs in the Colonies. You know of what I speak?"
"I do, Mother," Armand says, "the Pius, it's called. The captain is a Pendrellian, a rogue Argonaut. There is also an Exalted among them. I have been following that ship for a year or so, and I am confident that, while they may cause some problems for your son, the Pius Cabal will not be of consequence as far as the Great Scheme is concerned."
"So certain, Armand?" The Queen's voice is suddenly cold. It has the feeling of frostbite.
"I am, Majesty. Their real leader is an old Wezellian drunk, and moreso, there is one among them who walk the Path of Thorns. He is the one who called upon the Drowned Man, and he will come to us. Isn't it true, Majesty, that he gave you his True Name before the cabal landed on the Dark Continent?"
"I hold many names, Armand, and you are forgetting your place, I fear."
"I apologise, Mistress."
The Queen laughs again, and at least one of the courtiers sighs of relief. "As ever, my dear, you walk a fine line between insolence and obedience.
Now, let us dispense of this. I will retire, and you, my captain, I am sure, have pressing matters to attend to."
Escorted by her ladies-in-waiting the Queen of Stars leaves the kneeling captain and her court. When she exits the Star Chamber, the stars on the floor goes out, as if a cloud blankets out the sky.
Armand finally rises, straightens his coat, and leaves the Court of Stars. He does have pressing matters to attend to.