A Freebie: The Crystal Keys: Champion of Destiny CHAPTER ONE




Like an ominous shadow, the sleek black ship slipped silently into the port city of Tyrone with an ease and grace which belied its massive size. The dark waters seemed to part willingly before it, leaving nary a ripple of wake to evidence its passing. The harbor was already brimming with more than a hundred cargo ships and fishing trawlers awaiting their turn at dock. Even with her sails trimmed, the new arrival was so immense that it dwarfed even the largest of these. In fact, it was at least twice the size of any vessel to have ever traversed these waters. Its magnitude, some speculated in hushed whispers, rivaled even that of the legendary demon ships said to have hailed during the God Wars from the fabled northern lands known as the Halls of Hell.

From their perch atop the cliffs overlooking Tyrone Harbor, Jodan Cain and Kenel Townson surveyed the scene below with fascination. They watched as masses of curious townsfolk thronged to the docks below to catch an eager glimpse of the monstrous ship.

The two young men seldom found the time to come up to the cliffs anymore. Both had turned sixteen this past season, the official coming of age in the Kingdom of Lartack. Kenel had enthusiastically joined his father and two older brothers as a full partner on their large family farm. As he had been milking cows and plowing fields since he was barely able to walk, he had adjusted effortlessly to his new responsibilities.

Jodan’s transition, on the other hand, had posed more of a challenge. He had begrudgingly assumed his expected apprenticeship to his father, Jocan, the city’s most respected blacksmith. Jodan had inherited his mother’s small, lean frame. This meant that he had to exert a considerable amount of effort to accomplish many of the duties which his huge, muscular father performed with ease. Although Jodan had acquired a considerable amount of muscle in the three months since his birthday, swinging a ten-pound sledgehammer all day was a daunting task. Though his father refused to acknowledge it, Jodan knew that he was simply not built to be a blacksmith.

To make matters worse, Jodan considered the chore of repetitively pounding hot metal into horseshoes and blades mind-numbingly dull and found it impossible to remain on task. It was not uncommon for a patron to return at the allotted hour only to find him sleeping soundly in the hay next to a half-shod beast.

Jodan was far from addlebrained, though that was the general consensus amongst the townsfolk. He was just . . .  different, a dreamer. The elder Cain attributed much of his son’s lackadaisical attitudes to that old hermit, Garad, who dwelled amongst the Iron Hills which flanked Tyrone to the south.

As a youth, Jodan had invented increasingly creative methods of escaping his father’s watchful eye, always with the intent of sneaking off to pay Garad a visit. He would then sit mesmerized for hours on end as the hermit filled the boy’s head with eccentric tales of distant lands overflowing with mysterious creatures during a time when gods and demons warred violently against one another in an effort to gain control of the Earth.

Jocan was infuriated that his son so readily accepted these ridiculous yarns as truth. It was a well-known fact that demons were a storyteller creation and that the gods had long ago vacated the Earth and left the warring to men. However, the elder smith found even the steel he pounded relentlessly day in and day out more pliable than his own son, and no amount of stern lecturing could sway Jodan’s mulish stance on the subject. Jocan eventually resorted to banning his son from calling upon the hermit and soon thereafter instituted beatings for the continued disobedience. However, even the lashings failed to halt the boy’s frequent visits to the Iron Hills.

As Jodan and Kenel examined the ominous ship from their unobstructed cliff view, something seemed out of place. Still staring intently at the dark vessel, Kenel asked, “Do you see anything odd about that thing?”

Jodan squinted and brought his hand up to his brow to provide shade from the brilliance of the setting sun. After a moment, he slowly shook his head and replied, “I don’t see anything . . . or anyone.”

“Exactly,” replied Kenel with a satisfied nod. “There’s no sign of a crew on board, but look at the way it weaves through the harbor traffic.”

The two young men sat in momentary silence, captivated by the grace with which the monstrous ship effortlessly navigated the busy harbor without striking another vessel.

Jodan nodded in awe. “It’s like majic.”

The boys sank into a long thoughtful silence as they watched the mysterious ship make its way to mid-harbor and drop anchor, where it became motionless. Each boy was lost in his own thoughts, pondering the sinister dark beauty of Tyrone’s strange new visitor. A half hour passed as the sun descended below the horizon, painting the cloud-studded sky with one last burst of radiant, breathtaking color before fading to blood red and then finally giving way to night. As darkness settled over the scene below, an eerie uneasy feeling enveloped them and sent a sudden chill rushing up Kenel’s spine.

Kenel jumped as his companion broke the silence with a soft whisper, “The Black Shark.”

“What?” Kenel snapped, feeling foolish for having been startled.

“The Black Shark. The name of the ship is the Black Shark,” repeated Jodan in reverence whilst still staring out across the darkened waters.

Kenel stared at Jodan for a moment with bemused skepticism before inquiring with a chuckle, “And just how would you know that? Perhaps you have developed some mystical prowess while slaving away at your father’s forges?”

“Ha! Not likely!” replied Jodan, finally tearing his eyes away from the vessel long enough to meet his friend’s gaze. “It’s just—” Jodan hesitated and looked away, knowing well what Kenel’s reaction would be to his next revelation. “Well, Garad once told me a story about an evil ship known as the Black Shark which issued forth from the bowels of the Halls of Hell during the God Wars. He said it was captained by a demon who answered directly to the Dark Lord. According to Garad’s description, it looked exactly like that one.”

Kenel’s face grew serious. He shared Jocan’s extreme distaste for the Iron Hills hermit and his eccentric stories. “You shouldn’t put so much faith in the tales you glean from that crazed old lunatic,” he rebuked.

“But if that thing navigated the Straits of Death at this time of year, then it would have to be some kind of demon vessel,” Jodan retorted crossly, referring to the direction from whence the ship had approached the port city.

The Straits of Death was the notorious stretch of water adjoining the Natoric Sea and the Sea of Peace, which separated the lands of Shandar and Balvovia. The Straits were difficult enough to navigate in fair weather, but during the stormy season, when the winds changed direction in a matter of seconds and raging storms developed without warning, the churning, turbulent waters were nearly impossible to traverse.

Most of the ship captains from the western lands chose to utilize the fall trade route which skirted the southern tip of Balvovia and approached Tyrone by way of the Panoric Ocean. However, a handful of arrogant seadogs had daftly pointed a sturdy bow toward the Straits during the bad season, most never to be heard from again. Only a very few of the hardiest seamen had somehow managed to survive this foolhardy endeavor. With ships and bodies alike battered, bruised, and broken, each survivor swore adamantly to never attempt the likes again.

The disgruntled silence between the boys was quickly interrupted by the sound of someone approaching noisily from behind. “Hey guys! How in the world are you doing?” the slender young man who emerged from behind a large boulder called excitedly.

Their disagreement instantly forgotten, both Kenel and Jodan broke into wide welcoming smiles as they motioned for the new arrival to join them on their perch. The highly charismatic and carefree Prince Tabot Kalian was the middle of Duke Taelace’s three children and second in the line of inheritance for his father’s crown. That privilege fell first to the eldest of the three, his brother, Darias, which suited Tabot perfectly. The last member of the royal offspring was their extremely spoiled younger sister, Tamaria.

The young prince was beaming with excitement as he joined his two friends. “Did you get a look at that monster of a ship that sailed into harbor a couple of hours ago?” Tabot asked as he gazed appreciatively out over the darkened bay. “She’s magnificent.”

“Yeah,” replied Kenel, “but what is it doing here?”

“And where is it from?” added Jodan with an unconscious glance at Kenel.

Prince Tabot shrugged his shoulders in dismissal. “We don’t know. So far there has been no contact,” he answered. “Father says that if no one from the ship comes ashore by morning he will send out a diplomatic envoy to extend an official welcome.” The young prince could not contain the huge smile that spread across his face, lighting up his handsome features. “I’m hopeful that father will allow me to serve as the official palace representative.” Tabot’s smile faded slightly as he considered the likelihood of that actually happening. “Of course, Darias will probably be chosen instead,” he added, rolling his eyes.

Though his father had encouraged him to take a more active role in the governing of Tyrone, Tabot had never shown much interest in the affairs of state. He was after all, he often quipped, only the second in line to the throne. He was content to enjoy his time alongside his friends, fishing and hunting in the wild country that surrounded Tyrone. He had found, however, that since coming of age the others now had little time for the pursuit of childhood pastimes. Nowadays Tabot looked forward more than ever to the rare opportunities such as this lazy Holy Day evening when he could hang out like old times with Jodan, Kenel, and his best friend, Brant Branson.

“How long have you two been here?” asked Tabot, suddenly changing the subject. “Where’s Brant?”

“We’ve been here a couple of hours,” answered Kenel, “but I haven’t seen Brant since the beginning of last week.”

“I saw him two days ago,” replied Jodan. “He stopped by the smithy. He was acting kind of odd though.”

“Odd?” interjected Tabot sarcastically. “Really? Brant? Never!” The boys all chuckled.

“Brant said he had something important to discuss, but he wouldn’t tell me what,” Jodan continued. “He said he wanted to talk to us all at once.” He shifted his weight to relieve a cramp in his leg. “He said he’d definitely be here tonight though.”

“It’s not like Brant to not show up,” said Kenel thoughtfully. “Something pretty important must have come up or he’d have been here by now.”

With Brant temporarily forgotten again, the three boys spent the next hour laughing at jokes and exchanging stories about their activities over the last couple of weeks. Tabot merrily produced and passed around a wineskin filled with his father’s finest mead and cheerfully related the story of its dramatic acquisition, which included the bribed aid of a pretty kitchen maid, the defeat of a fiery raging beast otherwise known as his father’s head cook, and plenty of renown Tabot charm.

“Do you remember creepy old lady Garner?” asked Jodan.

“That old witch woman who lives out east of town?” asked Tabot. “The one with the blind mule?” Kenel silently rolled his eyes at his friends’ overly colorful description of the harmless old woman.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” answered Jodan. “She came into the forge this week to have that wretched old animal shod. After father had finished the work for her, she didn’t even have the money to pay for the shoes. She fancied paying for father’s services with a bottle of love potion she had conjured up at home.”
“So what did your father say?” asked Kenel.

Jodan chuckled to himself as he answered. “Needless to say, father was enraged! He took the bottle that she was trying to press upon him and flung it over her shoulder toward the smithy. Apparently, when the bottle shattered against the wall, the potion ended up spilling into the watering trough. Father was still out back bellowing at old lady Garner about his fees when I returned from an errand. That pathetic old mule was standing inside a stall looking pitiful and half dead, so I fetched it some water from the trough.”

When Jodan paused for effect, Tabot eagerly interjected, “And . . .?”

“Well . . .” said Jodan, dragging out the denouement of his story. “The damn love potion must have really worked because that old mule went absolutely crazy! He might be blind, but it seems he still has a keen sense of smell since he certainly had no trouble locating Mr. Dawkins’ prized mare! He started chasing her relentlessly around the barn until she found an open door.” Jodan laughed to himself again. “Last I heard, the witch still hasn’t paid father, and they still haven’t found the mare. As if that isn’t bad enough, father and Mr. Ralls are still arguing over who is going to pay for the damages to Mr. Ralls’ bakery, which is where that old love-crazed mule somehow ended up.” The boys’ appreciative guffaws rang out in the crisp night air.

As the boys continued to chat, the harvest moon slowly rose to hover pregnant and low in the night sky, bathing the landscape in its pale radiance and creating a mystic dance of ever-shifting shadows. Their conversation inevitably turned to the quickly approaching New Year’s Festival and the plans for their hunting and fishing expedition.

The boys had been planning their excursion for well over two moon cycles. With the New Year’s Festival only a week away, there were several last minute preparations to attend to. Though it remained unspoken, each was vividly aware that this would likely be their last opportunity to shirk their mounting adult responsibilities for such frivolous pursuits. The holiday festivities would encompass a full ten days, and they intended to take advantage of as much of that time as possible.

Duke Taelace had insisted that Prince Tabot attend the opening day ceremonies including the New Year’s Feast. After that, he had relented permission for Tabot to sneak away. It was doubtful that he would be missed anyway, as traditionally Darias would be allocated all excess palace obligations not handled directly by the Duke.

“Tabot, how soon after the banquet will you be able to escape the palace?” Kenel asked eagerly.

“I am, of course, expected to remain for the traditional speech delivered by Father following the feast, but I foresee my departure shortly thereafter,” replied the prince hopefully.

“Shall we plan on leaving the city by three hours past high sun?” Kenel asked. The other two nodded their mutual consent.

“I hope that works for Brant too. I wish he was here tonight to confirm the plans,” said Kenel. “This is so unlike him. Maybe he’s with that old fool, Garad, listening to some wild story about demons and gods,” he snorted.

Tabot responded lightly. “Oh, I’m sure he’ll be ready. Brant has been greatly anticipating our adventure. Besides, he’s bringing the tent,” he said as he slapped at the pest feasting on his arm. “The mosquitoes will suck us dry the first night without it! I’ll be certain to track him down this week and corroborate the plans with him.”

Preparations complete, the three drained the last of the mead, packed up their belongings, and started along the familiar hillside path down which they had trod countless times before. Jodan was the last in line, and before he started down the narrow trail, he abruptly stopped, turned, and gazed out across the bay to where the giant ship was now only a black silhouette against the dimly lit midnight sky. Squinting into the darkness, he thought he detected an outline resembling a small dingy detach itself from the shadows and glide silently toward the dock.

Jodan was suddenly enveloped by an invisible blanket of apprehension. He had no idea why or of what, but for a few moments he was overwhelmed with dread. He knew the feeling was irrational, but as assuredly as he lived and breathed, he was overcome with paralyzing fear. He was consumed with an absurd urge to cower down amongst the jagged rocks in a fetal ball and wait for death to suck the very life from his lungs. Then faster than it had overtaken him, the fear quickly dissipated leaving in its wake a terrible lingering chill within his bones.

Jodan blinked his eyes hard and shook his head in an effort to shed the unwelcome sensation. Without another glance toward the harbor, he turned and hurriedly descended the path toward his friends. Even as he rejoined the other boys who were jesting cheerfully with one another, the eerie feeling continued to cling to him.

“Just my imagination,” he tried to console himself. “Just my imagination.”

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