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Dungeons and Dragons, Fifth Edition

Crouched low, peering over the edge of the dock, you see the man's reflection in the still water of the inner bay. He is no more than twenty feet to your left, the feathered plume in his hat swaying ever so gently in the summer breeze. The motion catches your eyes. Your pupils dilate, ears flatten instinctively. He is barking orders to his crew as they disembark from a voyage to...gods, who knows where!

Scores of large men, tattooed half-orcs, dwarves of various scowling dispositions march by, coming off the gangplank with a purpose and their captain's words at their back, arms full of crates bearing trade stamps and tariff markings you do not even begin to recognize. Your vision of all this is blurred and distorted by the occasional rippling motion of the water, as you dare not look directly at any of them. The docks are a madhouse, and a Tabaxi kitten drawing attention to itself would immediately be "in the way" and likely kicked in to the bay by an errant and impatient boot. So you practice moving without being seen, staying so still you fade from notice, concentrating on being as invisible as the wind in your fur. You pretend to focus on the fish, silvery glints flitting by in the shallows, and if you were hungrier they may even hold some interest. 

But you aren't here for idle snacks. You are here because, in the madness and the confusion, there are shiny things. Things from lands you can only dream of, lying awake in your mother's ramshackle hut on the servants' pier of Lunaria. Things of silver and gold and platinum that sailors and captains have tried to hide from their crews, slipped in to pockets when a watchful eye lapses, which seems a terribly dishonest thing to do. And since these things have already been stolen once, you aren't really stealing them. Not really. You can only steal something from its owner. You can't steal from a thief. 

You enjoy the shiny things because they are pretty, and feel good in your paws, for a while at least. They teach you things, or feed your imagination. You need the shiny things because you can sell them to the right people for money, so your family does not have to struggle. So your sisters and mother can all eat from the same meal, that there may be enough to go around. At only 12, the fences that run contraband for the thieves' guild know your face, but not your name. Names have power, and they cannot have that, even as a kitten you know this. Not even your shortened name, for the non-Tabaxi kith. They only call you Blue. Because that's what you are.

A sailor drops a crate, and the captain turns to berate him. A pouch is strapped too far back on his belt, out of sight, away from his own guarding hand. You had him made for a clueless noble and you were right. Eyes affixed to the water, pretending you have caught sight of a tasty minnow, you scurry toward the man, soundlessly on the soft, wet wood. You position your plumed mark between you and the nearest sailor, whose cut of the job he is threatening to decrease for any damages done to the goods. Your flank is shaded by a stack of already unloaded containers. Presumably unseen, a needle-sharp claw begins fraying the fine silk thread at his belt.

Then, a shadow. 

You look up just in time to see a half...ogre? Particularly orcish orc? You cannot tell in the time it takes the bodyguard's club to traverse the space between his shoulder and your skull. The impact sends you sailing, off the edge of the dock, and you barely have time to berate yourself for not associating this towering figure with his foppish employer before you have plunged, headlong, in to the clear water. You are half conscious, and in your concussed struggle to breathe, your lungs are--


--struggling not to fill with water, as another explosion rocks you to consciousness again. The powder hold, you're certain of it. With instinctual grace you roll off the driftwood you are clinging to, sinking beneath the tumultuous waves as flame and debris begin to pepper the surface of the water above you. You can feel the heat, even from here.

When the worst seems to have passed, you bring your flattened ears and eyes barely above the surface, striving to appear as much like random jetsam as possible in the fire lit midnight sea. Your beloved Starling, the ship that has been your home for your whole (admittedly brief) adult life, is burning and broken some 50 yards from you. Silhouettes on her deck of a desperate struggle to save her are greatly diminished after the most recent detonation, which has torn a mortal wound in her side and toppled the main mast. The ship alongside her, with its blood red wood and matching flag, was making good on its standard's promise; no prisoners were being taken. Even now, cannon fire and mage lightning streaked from the latter to the former.

A thrumming, pulsating noise above draws your gaze, and you realize that this rival pirate organization, whomever they are, are impossibly well-funded. A light cruiser hovers in the darkened sky above, illuminated by the telltale purplish aura of the evocite-infused hull. Salvage crews are already rappelling down and scooping jettisoned cargo up, tying it to the ends of their ropes and then ascending with pulley-driven speed after a couple tugs on the cable. Mages with everlight torches scan the surface of the water. They are clearly looking for something. You are certain they will not find it. The leather satchel against your leg is heavy, moreso for the water now filling it, heavier still for the thin sheet of lead sewn in to the lining, but its rescue is non-negotiable. And in your hand, you feel the hard edges of the sigil you ripped from the shirt of their captain, as he--


--fished you out of the water with his quarterstaff. Again.

Four years of coming to the docks. Four years of taking the blind man's challenge. Four years of being fished out of the water.

It seems simple enough on paper. You stand on a post just off the pier and let Old Blind Marley swing a big stick at you. If you're still on the post after a minute, you get whatever coin passerby have put in his hat that day. If he knocks you off, you throw a few more copper in and try again tomorrow.

No one stays on the post. And Marley never goes hungry. If he wasn't a monk in a past life, you're a high elf noblewoman. 

"Ya came close that time, kitten. Maybe you'll be the one yet," he declares to the disconcerting, unfocused middle distance over your shoulder, as you begin wringing the water out of your tail.

"You say that every day, Marley."

"And I mean it every day!" Even in his milky white eyes, there is a twinkle. You like him, despite yourself, and the hundreds of involuntary baths he has subjected you to. "I've more trouble feeling you out than most. You're all quiet like, even for a tricksy little cat-folk."

"I will choose to take that as a totally non-racist compliment." There is a clink as you deposit five copper in to his hat. You're making better money on your runs these days, and there's no harm paying for good lessons. Your family had stopped taking your money, choosing an odd morality in the face of a society that cared nothing for them over a fully belly and a patched roof. It left you with a budget surplus. "See you tomorrow, Marley."

"I will most definitely not see you, lass!" He never gets tired of this joke. 

Pulling the hood of your cloak up against the cold gray winter wind off the Pale Sea, you wander back off in to the crowded boardwalks of Lunaria, sidling in to the flow of traffic with a practiced grace. No one even bats an eye, or bothers glancing at you. There's no reason to. You're a practiced face in a crowd. Absent-mindedly, your lithe, nimble fingers lift a handful of copper out of the coin purse of a man being particularly cruel to his wife over the speed at which she is walking. It more than makes up the cost of Marley's game. Any day that is a net profit is a good day, especially at the expense of the wicked. 

You divert left after a short stroll, in to the alley between two buildings on particularly rickety looking stilts. Ears, swiveling, make sure you haven't been followed. A dozen yards in, you knock on a nondescript wall, and wait. Counting. At 13, you knock again, softer this time. The illusion drops, and a door swings open. With a furtive glance back toward the main thoroughfare, you step in to--


--the cover beneath an overturned life boat a hundred yards from the wreck of the Starling, thrown overboard without passengers, likely by the force of one of the numerous blasts now. Too many to count. Splintering in the hull means it is likely not seaworthy, turned right side up, but inverted it gives you time to think without being spotted. The sounds of the screaming and the explosions are muffled here, beneath the wood, and this is something of a blessing as well. 

You drape your tired arms over one of the benched seats and rest your chin between them, letting your muscles have a break from treading water and submerging and surfacing at random intervals to elude your attackers. They'll be searching all the debris, eventually. The mages will be using detect magic, if they aren't already, but the lead in the bag will make short work of that. Captain Ossining was a man of foresight. When the satchel came on board, he had explained these safeguards to you. And he had explained why he felt like they may be necessary, this voyage.

"Platinum is the unit by which smugglers measure danger, Brooke," he had said, leaning nonchalantly against the helm as you left port three days ago. "And we have received an inordinate amount of platinum for this job." 

You'd been heading south from Lunaria, and cleared the last of the Moonstone this morning. Your crew was to circumnavigate the southern tip of Alanthia and bring your cargo to Kaylonost by way of the sea. The captain had not deigned to share any more than that during the crew meeting, as was customary on the bigger jobs, but on the first night, he had pulled you aside. 

In your two years on the Starling, you had proven yourself dauntless, courageous, and possessed of remarkably little self-preservation instinct. It had saved crew members, and perhaps the ship itself, on more than one occasion. So it was you had come to be the bearer of the satchel.

"If it comes to it, if something happens to me, protect this with your life, lass. But dinna open it. If something happens, if the ship is in danger, do not ask questions. Take it. Get overboard. Survive. Make for the Emerald Crescent. Know that we have a chance to be a part of something bigger." You'd scarcely opened your mouth before he repeated, "Do not ask questions." And that was that. Captain's orders. 

Captain Ossining was a man of foresight, and a man of secrets, neither of which did you any good in the open ocean, a day off the coast at minimum, with what felt like an entire cartel combing the wreckage for something you held, and had never even laid eyes on. It was tempting to look now, to break the magical seal and be done with it, but you were fully cognizant that you also now held a dead man's final wish in your hands. These other pirates must never find it. These other pirates--


--never intended to destroy your precious Starling. An intact boat of corpses is so much easier to search than a flaming debris field. When the first boots of the boarding party hit the deck, Ossining had shoved the satchel in to your hands on the aft deck. His mouth had said "Remember your mission." His eyes had said farewell. He had grabbed a torch and headed below deck, away from his crew's life or death struggle. This vexed you, irritated you, confused you and seemed to go against all character of the man you knew. But a promise was a promise, and you headed for the nearest lifeboat. As you began to untie the rigging, the sounds of clashing metal, magical energy sizzling, and the screams of your shipmates overwhelmed you, a growing crescendo not quite visible to you from near the back of the boat, but the could not ignore the sounds...

Duty to many outweighed duty to one. Cargo be damned, these were your friends. 

Unsheathing both daggers, you ran toward the fray. Maybe you could save this. Maybe there was still time.

The boat listed furiously as the enemy vessel's prow ground against the hull. More and more hooked ladders were falling across now. In the smoke and the confusion and the scattershot cannon fire, you searched for a target, any target. And then you saw it. A hat with a giant, unfashionable plume. Your pupils dilated, your ears flattened, memories rushed in to your head. Surely it was not the same man, but you owed those like him a swift blow to the head, regardless. 

Streaking across the deck like silent death amid the cacophony, you were within melee range by the time the enemy captain spotted you. He raised a blunderbuss as your dagger streaked forward. You twisted awkwardly out of the way as the muzzle flash flared, feeling the ball tear through your tunic but make no contact with skin. Your claws latched on to the front of his uniform to steady yourself for a strike to his throat. Your paw closed around something sharp, metallic, angular...and then the world went white. 

Flames erupted through the solid deck beneath your feet, nearly splitting the forward deck in half. The noise was everything, and then nothing, your mind and sensitive ears both unable to process any additional input. Bodies, your own included, sailed, tumbling, through the air, over the side, orienting only by flame and moonlight and the relative positions thereof. Stunned, instinctive, twisting your catlike body, you pointed your feet before impact and pierced the water like an arrow. You find the first solid, buoyant thing you can, a piece of the deck now floating in the sea. 

These pirates never intended to destroy your precious Starling. But Captain Ossining most certainly did. You see his eyes, as your consciousness fades. You see the torch in his hand. You think of the extra stocks in the munitions store, loaded up due to "increased pirate activity" along this route. You offer a rare and half-hearted prayer to Timora to let the ocean take you gently. And then the light leaves you, with only the sound of--


--cheering, as you've never heard on the docks before. You land back on the post for the final time, clearing Marley's low leg sweep then twisting nearly a full rotation, horizontally, in mid-air, to evade his last desperate twirling strike to your chest. And then it's over. You are panting from the exertion, shaking from the adrenaline, but you are dry. By all the gods, you are dry.

A defiant Marley plants one end of his quarterstaff on the wood of the deck with a thump audible over the roar of the gathered crowd. With the last resolve left in your legs, you leap back to the pier to stand before him.

"I told you that you would be the one, ma'am." He is trying not to grin, trying to appear so dour and taciturn at having at long last been beaten.

"Nobody defeats me six years in a row, old man." You are grinning, and making no attempt to hide it. He attempts to slide the hat full of coin over to you with one sandaled foot. You take it, shake the coin to give the illusion of pocketing the change, then set it down every so gently on the other side of him, to discover later.

"You're not fooling anyone," he says softly, privately, just between the two of you and the dock post. And then he winks at you. AT you, ever so subtly. Making direct eye contact with you for the first time in memory. And you understand, in that instance, just how much you have left to learn about the long con. 

"Excuse me, miss?"

You turn to see a human man in loose black clothing, neatly trimmed mustache and goatee combo, jaunty hat tilted slightly to one side, with an ornate rapier dangling from his waste.

"That was quite the display there. I may have use for someone of your talents. My name is Captain Ossining, and I've a vacancy on my crew aboard the fine and idealistic privateer vessel The Starling, docked just over yonder for another three days. Could I have a minute of your time? I think you and I could help--"


"--me get her out of the water."

"I am trying, Nulka. If you could hold the boat steady for 10 seconds, I might be able to!"

Bickering voices. Tugging on your sleeves. They have you. Oh gods, they have you.

You feign unconsciousness, waiting for your moment. You feel your body lifted, leaving the water for the first time in what feels like several lifetimes. Your memories are spotty, your fur matted and water-logged. You have just enough fight in you for this one last act of defiance. 

With a final heave from firm hands beneath your shoulders, your back is on the deck of a boat. The sun's cruel rays store their heat in your dark fur now. You do not know how long the sun has been up. There will be time for figuring that out later. Maybe.

A hand grasps your shoulder. You kip up to your feet instantaneously. Your own hands fly to your belt, to your dagger sheathes, withdrawing...nothing.

Your right hand flies to your hip holster, searching for your pistol. Nothing. There are gasps of surprise and rapid, backward shuffling footsteps now.

You open your eyes for the first time. Two surprised tortles, dripping with fishing gear, stare at you in fear and wonder. One has partially withdrawn in to his shell. 

Scanning the horizon, you see nothing of the Starling. Nothing of the pirates. Nothing of your previous life, save for a splintered and barely buoyant overturned lifeboat, under which you remember hiding, and nothing else. Not yet, save for flickering, traumatic images. 

In the distance, to the west, your recognize a coastline. The Bracken. The tortles found you here, they explain, floating in the water, hooked to the lifeboat by only the strap of the satchel slung over your shoulder.

And then the memories flood in, and you sink to your knees. It is all gone. But the satchel is safe, secured, unopened.

And in your pocket, as you take a dismal inventory of what little remains on your person, you feel a hard, angular symbol, torn from the shirt of the captain whose pirates inflicted this pain upon you.  

Purpose fills your eyes then, cold and hard as the moon under which you last saw your crew alive. 

"I need to get to the Emerald Crescent."

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