While Primrose and her posse begin their walk to the Maiya caves, they happen upon the other party of Ophilia's. Mattias and Therion are absent, running their own errands around Rippletide. Balanced on H'aanit's shoulder is a notable cask. The two groups convene at the path out of town.

"Ah, hello there, again," Primrose waves with a friendly smile.

"O-oh! Hi there!" Ophilia waves.

"Hey, it's you guys again!" Tressa and Alfyn say at the same time, pointing at each other.

"My, what a pleasant surprise," Cyrus rubs his chin, "You lot wouldn't happen to be … on your way to the waterlogged caves in the west, would you?"

"The Caves of Maiya?" Alfyn looks to the professor, "Yessir, we're on our way there to kick some pirate booty!"

"Hm, whatten a fateful concurrence," H'aanit raises an eyebrow, "Tis our destination and goal as well."

"Huh? No way!" Alfyn exclaims.

"What do you plan to do with that barrel?" Olberic looks observantly to the load on the huntress' shoulder, "Is it full of ammunition?"

"Nay, tis mulled wine."

"Wine?" Now it's Primrose's turn to raise an eyebrow, "Whatever for?"

"Well, hehe!" Tressa clears her throat, "Yours truly figured that we can trick the pirates into taking the wine, which will lead us straight into their hideout, where they party, get drunk, pass out, and then we get the jump on them!"

"Mulled wine is... hardly enough to get adults drunk..." Olberic says pensively.

"Uhh..." Tressa scratches the back of her head, "Well, any other wine would be wasted on pirates... and this was the cheapest option..."

"Have no fear!" Alfyn pulls out a floppy sprig of green from his trusty pack, "Allow me to introduce you to my good friend, sleepweed!"

"My!" Cyrus takes immediate interest in the plant produced, "Gelsemir eleganza... a popular plant known for its refined properties as a somniferous. In nature, it usually blooms around late spring and is known for having bright yellow flowers. Like the rest of its family, the plant has natural toxins that run through both its petals, leaves and, sometimes, pollen. Handling this-"

"Wowee, you know a lot!" Alfyn laughs.

H'aanit rolls her eyes, "Letten us be off a'fore he runneth his tongue 'til night."

"Huh, that's not a bad idea," Tressa thinks a moment, "This'll definitely knock out those smelly pirates then!"

"Uhm, this definitely won't kill them or anything, right?" Ophilia asks hopefully.

"Hm? That should hardly be an issue, my dear," Primrose looks to the cleric, "You saw how they acted in town. Death isn't too good for them."

"Tis not a dangerous herb, so long as we usen only enough," H'aanit shrugs, "In the Wooded Land, there be'en trappers who specially useth these means, without arrows or weapons. But I knowen not of their art."

"Hehehe, rest assured! I ain't aimin' to kill anyone!" Alfyn grins, "I'm an apothecary!"

"Then let us drug the drink and deliver it to the pirates," Olberic nods, "It will be soon that the ships shall sail into the night, after all."

"What a blessing of a coincidence!" Ophilia exclaims, "We have a ship to catch too...! Ah, since our aims are so familiar, introductions are in order... I'm Ophilia, Ophilia Clement."

"Oh, again, sure! I'm Alfyn! These're Primrose and O- I mean, Berg!"

"A pleasure," Primrose winks.

"I am Cyrus Albright, professor of Atlasdam Royal Academy."

"... My name be'en H'aanit. Mine partner is Linde. And this be'en Hägen," The huntress gestures to the beasts near her.

"And I'm Tressa Colzione!" Tressa says smugly, tipping her hat, "Merchant extraordinaire of Rippletide! Pleased to meetcha'll! Now let's go kick some pirate butt!"

Tressa pushes the cask of drugged wine slowly to the beginning of the spit before a low-tide sandbar. Beyond the watery sand is where the opening of the Caves of Maiya loom. The caves are located on the other side of the spit, beside a bunch of rocky shoals, where tide pools are known to gather when the water ebbs. The area has stone that is the same as which makes up the mountains of the Highlands, instead of soft sand.

The Caves of Maiya sit atop several layers of this bedrock. A lot of the stone surface is worn smooth by the sea's occasional floods and the crash of the waves on stormy days. At some point in the continent's history, the cave was entirely underwater. When the land changed, supposedly when Galdera was sealed away, a good deal of Middlesea actually evaporated from the divine flames of battle scorching the land, which is when these caves came to the surface.

For the longest time, the caves had sat west of Rippletide. Journals of the early settlers from Grandport reported numerous expeditions around the area. The first explorer to completely document the caves was a daring woman named Maiya, for whom the caves are named after in modern day. Her notes detail a lot of rock formations that formed as a result of water erosion over the passing centuries. As those notes have aged, it is unclear if anything has changed from the maps she drew. In those maps, she wrote that there is one cavern in the far back of the caves which are the highest point of elevation in that landmark.

In addition to the formations, there are notably few known predators known indigenous to those caves. Maiya had queried that, perhaps, the original creatures that inhabited the caves had died out, unable to adapt to the rise out of the sea. What moved in were creatures that normally inhabit the surf, but only those which could survive in such a dark place. Most monsters of the Coastlands are diurnal and indigenous to tropical temperatures, which made them ill-suited for the dark and cool caves. As such, only vipers, some bats, and blind conches are known to be common dangers in the caves.

The viper specie is notably pale in the caves, having developed albinism away from sunlight. On the other hand, the bats are of the black variety, and have the stunning power of screeches, as many of their kind do. Hermit conches in the caves were actually a sort of crab rather than a mollusk. It is naturally blind, however, though its claws are lethal. At night, these creatures are known to hunt in the area around the caves.

However, none of them are as dangerous as the new residents who have taken up occupancy in the heart of the caves as of recent: human pirates.

Before these ruffians of the sea came to take up residence, the people of Rippletide enjoyed a much quieter cove. While there were few predators and dangerous creatures, there were plentiful cave pools where locals could fish for special catches.

Following the increase of monster attacks at sea, even pirates have to be on guard as much as the merchants they prey on. Many a crew has lost their lives to the aquatic monsters from the deepest depths of Middlesea, like sahuagin and the dreaded kraken.

The pirates Mikk and Makk were former cabinmates for their old captain, who had died at sea. Following the disbanding of their crew, Mikk and Makk staged a mutiny under their next captain, a spineless man who was helpless to stop them. But fortune did not favor them, as their ship was wrecked a couple months back near the Caves of Maiya, where they have since taken up residence.

Think of it as a change in career.

Formerly needing to plunder and waste time pursuing ships, the pirates found their new fodder, the people of Rippletide, to be a much more sustainable source of money and valuables. It was a town within walking distance with nearly no centralized force to resist invasions or even landlocked pirates. Nowadays, their ship is simply moored indefinitely as they march on their own two feet to intimidate and bully the merchants of Rippletide for their daily bread and butter. It is an infinitesimally easy choice to make. So, for now, the pirates were virtually just land ruffians.

Tressa grumbles. It was all her plan, sure, but that didn't mean she enjoyed this grunt work. She had the brilliant idea of moving the wine cask to the pirates alone so that the others would have an element of surprise. Also, the pirates should be somewhat less suspicious of a Rippletide native.

Right at the choke point of the spit, there is a pair of pirates throwing banal jokes about a local bar wench. The two look to see the merchant girl breaking a sweat as she pushed over a barrel, almost half her size, in the sand.

"Hey, whatchu got there?" One of the pirates instantly clasps the saber at his side as he stands to stop Tressa's advance.

"'Ey, it's the merchant girl who shot Lonny a good one!" His partner points.

"Oh yeah, yer right..."

"Ahaha!" Tressa forces a laugh through her labored breathing, "Sorry, sorry! I know I caused a big stink for you guys back there! Consider this a token of apology from me!"

"Huh?" The two pirates look at each other, then to the girl with slight suspicion, "What is it?"

"Wine!"

"Oh yeah? Show us!" The pirates get a small glint in their eye from the promise of free booze. So predictable.

Tressa smugly makes a grand show of uncapping the wine barrel. Inside is a dark liquid. It hides anything you steep in there well. The strong fruity flavor also masks any aroma the sleepweed might have. The pirates look at the booty appreciatively, none the wiser.

"Oh, that's some... that's some good wine smell aight! Mikk n' Makk'll be happy wit' dis!"

"Hehe, gimme!"

Tressa takes a step back as the pirates' hands greedily swarm over the product. After recapping it, they hurriedly go to bring it back to their hideout in the caves, barely a second glance at the merchant.

"...Whew. Ok, now to wait..."

She waves a little to signal the others hiding nearby. They file out to join the merchant.

"How long do we wager it will take for the entire lot to be rendered inert and inebriated" Cyrus thinks a moment, "Ah, we must take a variety of factors into account though... Body size will affect how much must be drunk, as well as the speed and concentration of the drink... which was... what again?"

"I added about five leaves!" Alfyn counts on his fingers, "For that size of a barrel, it oughta be able to put a salamander to sleep! Fer the lot of 'em... there's like, what, twenty? Well, if they drink it right away, it oughta take about ten minutes at most. A cup oughta do the trick. A sip'll get 'em started..."

"Twenty is a good estimate," Cyrus nods.

"Then we may as well go quickly. Do you hazard the caves being a labyrinth?" Primrose looks toward the cavernous opening, "The brigand's den we were at was rather straightforward since they paved out their home in a shallow portion."

"No worries, I know the cave well enough!" Tressa puffs out her chest, "Like I said, we folks used to fish in there, and search for some jelly fungi now and then. Shouldn't have changed too much from then."

"Okay then... I guess we better go?" Ophilia clasps her staff.

"Aye," H'aanit keeps her bow at the ready, "Hägen and Linde will alerteth us to any troubles which may fallen."

"We are well equipped then, even if some of them may not have fallen asleep from the draught," Olberic nods.

"My, I do hope this seawater won't ruin your fine clothes, professor," Primrose looks to the scholar's robes.

"Oh, no trouble at all," Cyrus looks down at himself, "I must confess, I've never really paid much attention to that sort of thing... I believe my shoes might be a prone to the water however..."

"It can be a bit of a nuisance," Olberic says as they begin to wade through the spit to the cave opening, "So long as it is dried properly, leather will be fine. However, seawater is prone to making it crack. And do take care to dry your feet as well, lest you develop foot rot."

"Oh my...! I must take care with my socks then..."

Primrose chuckles inwardly, watching the scholar take off his shoes and socks as they walk through the seawater. Linde chuckles deeply.

...

Therion weaves his way through the crowd, deftly fingering some pockets here and there. However, these were some well-seasoned merchants. They had tricks like false pockets and locked waist boxes to guard their valuables. Therion scowls a little as he goes to take a break. There wasn't much to show for his run through the markets. Perhaps it's time he got to finding that cat...

With a sigh, he goes deeper into the nearby alleyways and sides by the wharf. Who the hell wanted to raise a cat so close to the water anyway? If anything, he was possibly wasting his time because the cat could have drowned as far as anyone knew.

Some of these nooks and crannies smell from the people who dump their trash into the neglected corners. There wasn't a terribly good system of trash collection, so rats were plenty. Perhaps that was why cats were bought here.

As the thief winds back out to the main street, he bumps right into the sandy-haired merchant. The two retain their balance.

"Oh, sorry about that!" Mattias grins, "Say, haven't I seen you somewhere?"

Therion shakes his head silently, pulling his scarf up to hide his face better. This guy was at the bar fight earlier, with the cleric from the flame. He looks to be a merchant. His hair seems familiar to Therion. Without another word, he runs back a few houses and turns in on the alley. Therion peeks back out in a few minutes to see if he could still see Mattias' hat above the crowd.

A thief's habits die hard.

He follows Mattias, keeping a decent distance measured by passerby. The crowds are decently obscuring for the thief of average height. The merchant seems to be headed for a pub other than the one the pirates went to. This one is more like a beer hall, with high rafters and a large, single room inside. Therion enters moments after Mattias, but chooses a table aptly far enough to remain inconspicuous.

This place smells of smoke as merchants unwind from their long voyages with the seamen. Unlike Horus' pub, this one is more tightly monitored by the Merchant's Association. The pirates avoid coming so far into town. In this more relaxed environment, Therion's nimble fingers pick up a bit more goods with the luck afforded.

But he can't be greedy. These merchants turn if they feel even the weight of a leaf vanish from their belt pouches. What a bunch of pain in the asses.

Situated a comfortable number of tables away, Therion silently fingers his pickings under his shawl, counting by feel. His eyes rove over the pub scene. At nearby tables, some merchants play small gambling games with cups and dice, and another even has miniature cards. They have the dragon's hoard in the middle, full of valuables up for ante. There's a nice ruby ring, a map pinned by a dagger, and piles of coins.

The thief counts about 25 leaves he scooped up. It's enough for a drink. A bar wench passes him a menu. It figures that stuff here would be so overpriced. A tankard of beer alone is 10 leaves. Therion sighs and orders some sour wine for just 5 leaves. It was more for appearance than drinking.

Mattias is chatting it up with another merchant, one unfamiliar to the thief. He seems to be a short, older man. Looking at their lips, Therion doesn't make out much save idle business chatter. His sour wine comes, which he ignores.

A few minutes in, the card game in the next table seems to be closing up. Therion is about to just pocket his earnings. It wasn't anything much, but it was something. And he still had that stupid cat to find.

Mattias gets up with his merchant friend and they both seem ready to walk out. Therion picks up their names at least when they pass by. "Mattias" and "William."

Wait, Mattias?

Where had he heard that name before?

Well, it's not like it's an uncommon name either. But he did look familiar to the thief before even having come to this town.

So I've seen him before maybe. Big deal. Merchants and thieves travel along similar routes, much like how wolves follow prey across landscapes in the wild.

Paying for his drink, Therion goes to follow, not far behind the two merchants. They make turns and return to the southern market area. It seems to be a stand the local merchant owns. Therion stands by a rack of exotic rugs as he watches the merchant seemingly close up shop. The Mattias figure is still chatting up with him, but his back is turned to the thief.

If you asked the thief why he trailed this merchant, his quick answer would probably be to steal. The two merchants seemed well off enough to be a viable target. His gut recognized something ill about the man innately, even though he didn't even remember anything meaningful from the name and appearance. Therion hadn't gotten much of a glance at any of his wares even.

Something about him just … smells off.

Normally, that would put just about any thief off. But master thieves earn a title with risk others don't take. A scent of trouble could mean one of great reward.

He hadn't learned his lesson at all from the Ravus manor.

As William closes up shop, the two begin to move again. This time, they go towards where the residences seem to be. Rows of houses away from the piers are built on more solid ground along the coast, up to the canal where Middlesea opens up to the Grand Delta.

They keep talking about some expensive good. Maybe there's a stash they have...

When they enter, Therion sidles along the side of the walls to the window looking into the house. It is conveniently ajar. Peeping slightly, he uses mainly his ears to spy.

"... old times sake?"

"You practically were running out of there on me! Like when we did that big sale in Victor's Hollow. Remember that? You stiffed me! Now I know that, but I stayed mum about the whole thing, you know."

"Haha, I see what you're doing, Mattias. You need that medicine bad for the archbishop. But I'm not budging on my price! I wasn't kidding when I said I risked a lot to get the zinger."

"..."

The William merchant finishes unloading his stock for the day. It seems to be his house. The other merchant sort of stands still there. His locks hide his face from the thief. He speaks next, but his voice drops significantly that Therion has to strain a bit to hear.

"William, you really won't change that price?"

He takes a step toward the shorter man. The merchant looks up to his colleague with a superficially sympathetic expression.

"I'm just getting by myself, Mattias! You know how it is-"

"Yes, I do."

In the next moment, Therion would have missed it if he even blinked. Something like a swipe of darkness came over the room. For a moment, Therion thought his brain was playing tricks on him. Something like a black flash, turning everything monochrome and inverting the darks and lights, overcame sight. A blue blossom, like that of fire, sparked momentarily and receded just as quickly. It all seemed to be sucked into William. All this happened within mere fractions of a second.

Therion, holding his breath, narrows his eyes after that flash. What was that?

Mattias speaks in a more normal volume now, "...Now, where is the medicine, William?"

William replies with a strange, low mutter of incoherent gibberish. Therion can't hear his reply, but he can see that the man's eyes are unnaturally wide, and his posture suddenly seemed to slouch.

"Thank you, William."

Mattias goes to rummage through the other merchant's things, pulling out a small cube box. He pockets that as William seems to blankly stare ahead at the space before him, not minding the thievery at all. Having gotten what he wanted, Mattias leans over to William and whispers something. Therion hears scant words, but he can easily put together what was said.

"You could have made it easier on yourself, yet you chose to defy me."

William's mouth opens and Therion shudders, his eyes widening. The short man's face seems to suddenly be shriveling up before his very eyes. His lips crack and split as his cheeks visibly sink in, as if his flesh were being eroded from within. His mouth gapes like a soundless scream. Most frightening of all was his eyes, which widen to be as large as the rims of teacups. The entire orb fills up with black, leaving his sockets filled with black entirely. Therion bites back his tongue as fear grabs his insides and makes them like ice. But something keeps his feet rooted and prevents him from running.

William's shriveled body collapses backward in an inelegant, twisted position. It is a grotesque image, with his fingers and joints arched inward, similar to how a bug dies curled up. The darkness leaves his eyes, and they return to normal size, utterly blank. A bit of drool and snot drips from his nose and open mouth. There is the slightest vestigial twitch from his extremities before his last breath issues out, a death rattle.

The thief sees the corner of Mattias' mouth curl upward in a partial smile.

Therion feels his legs turn to jelly at that chilling expression.

Holy crap, he killed him. What the hell was that...?! What am I- Goddammit, I have no luck...! Gotta get outta here before-

As he scrambles to get away, he finally takes a small breath. He held his breath the entire time without noticing. A wooziness strikes his head momentarily and his hand reaches out to still himself.

There is a clattering sound as he pushes the ajar window.

Mattias immediately turns his head at the noise. Luckily for the thief, he doesn't see much of his figure as he scrambles to escape back to the main street.

Breath heaving, Therion weaves in and out of the alleyways and ducks by a merchant's stand once he arrives back to the area of mild crowds. Damn, he should have run earlier. That merchant was dangerous. His instinct was right. That was... dark magic. But it seemed to be on an entirely different level from what Primrose used.

Catching his breath, Therion spends a few minutes looking over his shoulder to keep an eye out for the sandy-haired merchant. Seeing no one of such, he sighs.

Fine, I'll take a hint... I'll find the stupid cat.

In the Caves of Maiya, the party of seven traipse with slight caution through the dank and dark place. The pirates kept torches here to light their way, but these needed periodic replacement. A simple gust of salty sea air or a rise in the humidity could smother these flames easily. Many of them were left unlit a few minutes into the caverns.

Ophilia keeps her staff lit as they walk. Cyrus and Alfyn survey their surroundings with roving eyes whilst H'aanit, Primrose, and Olberic keep their weapons at the ready. Linde and Hägen prowl and skulk alongside the party. Tressa gives directions next to Ophilia, taking a close look at all the splits in the ways.

"Aha, yeah, this pool I remember, yep... Definitely the right way."

Tressa was not lying when she said she knew the cavern well. Unfortunately, parts of the cave had become different as a result of erosion and other natural occurrences. The fishery pools remained, but some of the usual marking stalagmites and old signs were gone. She had to remain confident in herself though, lest the others find out she led them completely astray.

"Fascinating..." Cyrus rubs his chin, utterly engrossed in some rock formation, "Worn entirely smooth almost..."

"Tis not worn. There be'en a layer of slime atop," H'aanit points out, "The sea bringen algae and wetness that doth clingeth."

"Hey, there's some neat lichen!" Alfyn happily plucks a few samples into his satchel.

"Are we far from … er, where the pirates are?" Ophilia looks to the merchant girl.

"Hmm... They should be at the deepest part... That'a way!" Tressa points dramatically.

"Does this cave ever flood?" Primrose looks down at the puddles in the rock surface.

"Uh, not often! Maybe every full moon or so?"

"Hmm... Then we best be swift. Tis a full moon tonight," Olberic says with supreme calm steeling his nerves.

"Oh, don't worry, all that happens is we'll have to wade through the water a bit! It's not like everything goes under!" Tressa gives an optimistic thumbs up.

As they follow the merchant's directions, they hear a loud snore erupt through the drip-drip of the cave ambience. Tressa's eyes widen and she grins.

"Sounds like it was a success!"

Following the sound of the snore, the party arrives to a small set of carved stairs. The fires here are lit, and there are remnants of things like barrels and crates. Up the shallow steps, past a wall of sheltering stalactites and stalagmites, there is drunken chatter coupled with slurring and loud snoring. Towards the back of the cavern is where the cave opens out to sea. The looming shape of the pirate's moored vessel sways quietly.

"Kinickety-kinackety, clickety-clackety..."

"Huh?"

Tressa hushes Alfyn. They hear more drunken sea shanties.

"Hooleroo loot, that's what we do! Toot n' take, the weak quake, strong... s-strong ain't fake!"

"Eyy, there was a laddy who went all maddy on the headman of the town~ Went he did and stole the hold, took it all right down."

"Ey, ey, Seamus, it's s'posed to go... er... wazzit again?"

"Crickedy-crackety, tiippity-tappity, where's it all go? It's us!"

"Yeah! The pirates!"

"Hey, cheers to that!"

"... They sound like a mighty fun bunch," Prim says in a low voice with a smile.

"There sound to still be around four who are still rather lucid..." Olberic mutters.

"Perhaps there wasn't enough of the draught to go around," Cyrus whispers, "Shall we proceed nonetheless?"

"Oy... tryna keep it down, ye lot! I... I gotta..." A loud huck and a spit, "Git some sleep, ya nuts!"

There's some more cussing and slurring and then the sound of some bodies hitting the sack. Some drunken giggles ensue and half-asleep slurring before it sounds quiet once more. Tressa, being the smallest, peeps out a little at the elevated rocky cavern.

There are about ten pirates in inelegant sleeping positions about the cavern. They rest among sacks of stolen grains, straw, even just thin, fraying sheets. The emptied cask of wine is tipped out on the middle of the floor.

"Coast's clear!" Tressa makes an 'ok' sign with her hand, "Let's go!"

"I reckon we're tying them up, right?" Alfyn follows Tressa as they move up into the hideout area.

"We haven more permanent options if the need doth arisen," H'aanit nods.

"I'd rather have them taken to a constable than needing to murder anyone...!" Ophilia squeaks.

"Of course, of course," Primrose says with slight mockery as she follows with a smile, "Everyone take heed of the pure sister here."

Olberic and Alfyn get to tying up some of the pirates, as does H'aanit. Linde and Hägen watch over the ones still sleeping. Ophilia, Cyrus, Tressa, and Primrose rifle through the looted goods.

"Goodness, there must be several years of stolen wares here...!" Cyrus exclaims.

"Shh!" Tressa hisses, "Don't be too loud! I don't know how long they'll be asleep with your yapping!"

Cyrus claps his trap shut and goes to peruse some of the closed sacks and containers. Besides the usual valuables of jewelry and coinage, there are barrels and crates of food. One crate reveals several legs of cured hams. Another barrel has salted fish. Some of the food was stolen without care and is thus spoiling.

In a strike of prodigious luck, Cyrus opens an old sack with some wares like a brass candelabra, household metal plates, a jewelry box... These appear to be things one might find a normal home, rather than some vault.

What was it that young man told him about the raid?

"They say 'e was missin' a few books or two."

Cyrus rifles through the sack for anything that resembles papers or books. Then he opens any containers he finds when there are no books to be found. Among the jewelry and small treasures in the boxes, he finds things like family pictures, little notes, and other shards of people's lives.

What barbarity... to rob such normal, hard-working people and have utterly no remorse, despite seeing their lives? They simply sit here on their treasures for the fun of it... There's more here than they can ever even use! Cyrus feels the slightest taste of bile rise to the back of his throat.

At last, he cracks open a nondescript table chest. Inside is nothing more than a small booklet, like one for notes, and a bundle of correspondence parchment. The name on the inner cover is Harold. The scholar's heart leaps with joy.

"EUREKA!"

All heads turn to the scholar and his loud shout, which echoes through the caves. It is followed by a loud snore from one of the pirates as they scratch themselves and stir. Tressa lets out a sigh of relief. Linde goes and gives Cyrus a look of reproach.

"Oh..." Cyrus covers his mouth, "Forgive the outburst of joy, haha. I had forgotten myself..."

"Alright, almost done with these guys..." Alfyn goes to tie up one of the last pirates.

Olberic sees a twitch from the seemingly sleeping body and shouts out a warning too late, "ALFYN, GET AWAY!"

The apothecary feels pain on his abdomen. His body had pulled back slightly, but not begun to move fast enough. The tubby pirate, Makk, having successfully feigned sleep, slashes Alfyn deeply on his side with his short sword.

"AGH-!" Alfyn yelps as his blood stains the cave floor. Makk makes another move to run him through while he retained the element of surprise.

"NO!" Prim half screams.

In the half second it took Makk to reposition his blade to stab, H'aanit had nocked an arrow and sent it flying. The pirate deftly retracts his hand as the projectile sails between him and the apothecary with hairline precision, missing his fingers by mere centimeters. Alfyn falls back on his bum, clutching his bloody side.

"Ugh..."

"Grrowf!" Hägen leaps for Makk, along with Linde. The tubby pirate is deceptively slow and he dodges the beasts, landing near one of his colleagues.

"The jig's up, Mikk! We gotta take care'o these rats!" He snarls under his mustache.

His taller, thinner partner, also feigning sleep, rolls over and hops to his feet, brandishing a saber, "Ain't nothin' to it, Makk!"

"They were awake all along!?" Ophilia grips her staff as she hurries to Alfyn's side.

"Well, not 'xactly, sister," Makk grins, "But ya sea lubbers 're so slow we sleep faster!"

"We still outnumber you by quite a few," Primrose feels the handle of her dagger, "I'll gladly pay you back tenfold for what you did to Alfyn."

"Che! Mikk, sound the others!"

Mikk blows a loud whistle with his fingers. Almost immediately, there is the sound of trampling, rowdy pirates from the direction of the back of the cavern, where the ship is moored.

"There were more on the ship!" Olberic makes a 'tsk' sound and goes to charge with his weapon at the duo, "If we take the leaders out, the rest will follow!"

"Ophilia! Take care of Alfyn!" Primrose calls over to the cleric as she runs in to join the fray.

The back-up bunch of pirates waste no time, having come armed with their scimitars and daggers. They get onto the elevated cavern through a prepared route and instantly go to swarm the party. There are around ten of them, including their two leaders. They do not outnumber the party by many in numbers, but it is nonetheless a factor to take into account.

"Oh dear, oh DEAR!" Cyrus fortuitously slips backward, avoiding the swipe of a knife aimed at his head. Linde comes to his rescue and assaults the pirate by mauling his face. A comrade comes running to slash the big cat, only for Hägen to tackle him to the ground.

"Hold fast, mateys! These land-lubbers ain't got nothin' on us!"

Makk's inspiring speech to his crew is cut short by a near miss of another of H'aanit's shots. He growls at the huntress, who merely stares back with daggers in her taciturn eyes. But he's not so distracted that he lets Primrose get the jump on him. The tubby pirate grapples his blade against the dancer's dagger. Primrose has to back off before long, as Mikk is never far behind his partner. The two take turns in a sort of three-way dance against her, allowing for few openings between the pirate duo. With their combined strength, even the flexible dancer is slowly pushed back.

"Hehehe! You'd make a good wench!" Mikk laughs, "Put down the sword, lady, an' git me an ale!"

Primrose feels her anger bubble. These chauvinists had already hurt Alfyn. The tendril of temptation from her dark magic reaches for her as it senses her ire, calling for her to utilize its destructive power once more. But she resists giving into her rage this time. There was a cleric in their midst... and she unfortunately wasn't alone.

"I'll gladly give you a mouthful of your own blood...!" Primrose snarls and pushes back.

Joining their battle is Olberic, who savagely slams aside intermediary pirates. With the flat of his blade, he whacks hard at Mikk, who is midstride with his blade. The mercenary finds an unwelcome surprise in that the wiry man is not as weak as he seems. The strike budged him about a step, but that was all. At the very least, he evened the scales.

"Oy, we was havin' a talk with the lassy!"

"That is too bad!" Olberic bellows nonetheless, "Your reign of terror on this place ends today!"

"Umph!" The slightest bit of anxiety shows on the pirate pair's faces. Primrose takes this with a smile.

Meanwhile, a burst of ice throws several pirates out from the elevated stone, onto the waters below. They yelp at the cold spikes that luckily don't cause any fatal injuries. Tressa looks in awe at Cyrus with his spellbook. He is suddenly a much different person than the rambler before.

"Ice, pierce them through!"

"Aaagh!" The pirates cry out at the magic. If not at that, then they're either being mauled by the beasts or assaulted by the huntress, who is a whirlwind of savagery with her hand axes.

"B-be careful, guys!" Alfyn hollers before wincing himself.

"Please, do hold still!" Ophilia chides, chanting some healing magic through her glowing staff.

"YAAARGH!" A pirate lunges for the pair on the sidelines. There is a whizz through the air as a projectile strikes his face, momentarily causing him to stumble. It is not an arrow.

"Don't underestimate a merchant!" Tressa says, holding her slingshot and ignoring the jelly legs setting in amid the hectic fray. Cyrus sends a burst of flames to cover her from an incoming attack. Slowly, the pirates are being pushed back.

"Grr!" Makk surveys their losses, chewing his upper lip, "Ye blokes ain't worth squat!"

He barks some orders as he and Mikk put some distance between themselves and the dancer-warrior duo. The two pirate leaders make a dash to retreat back to their vessel amid the battle around them.

"Hey!" Primrose clicks her tongue as a pirate mate jumps in to over for the retreat. Olberic fends off a side swipe.

"We cannen not alloweth them to escapen...!"

The swift huntress kicks aside the riffraff and dives for pursuit. Linde pounces after her.

"H-H'aanit, be careful!" Ophilia calls out now as the huntress vanishes after the pair into the ship.

"I'm coming too!"

Before anyone can stop her, the wily Tressa slides under the swing of a pirate's blade and she makes a beeline after huntress. It's amazing how fast she can move with such a heavy pack!

The huntress finds herself chasing Mikk and Makk through a short, dim stone path along waterlogged ground. Behind her, another pair of human footsteps splash. To her surprise, Tressa speeds up beside her as they near the opening of the moored ship.

"Hey, I'm here to help!" The merchant gives her a grin.

"Hm, knowen your limits," H'aanit sighs. The ship begins to move, and the two girls scramble into the loading deck.

"They're making a break for the sea!"

"T'will not be for longe," H'aanit looks to Linde, "Leaden us up!"

Linde nods and runs forward into the dingy ship interior. As Tressa and H'aanit follow, they pick up on the odor of the musty pirates who'd been living and sleeping on the ship. Just as the ship breaks out of the cove, they arrive to the main deck of the vessel. Overhead, the dreary cave setting changes to open skies. Atop the sterncastle, where the steering is rigged, the two pirates finally see the rats who snuck aboard.

"Oy, Mikk! Dem lassies didn't give!"

"We can take a couple girlies and a cat, Makk, no problem!" Mikk grasps his sword in his teeth as he slides down a rope towards the two, "Ya keep an eye on the wheel!"

The skinnier pirate lands before the huntress and draws a second blade. He sneers before charging at H'aanit. The huntress stows her bow aside and takes out an axe, meeting his charge's edge.

"Linde, watchen Tressa!" H'aanit says as she swings.

"H-Hey, I can help!" Tressa says indignantly.

"Makk! Hard to port!" Mikk yells suddenly.

Makk, at the wheel, yanks and sends the spokes of the ship's steering wheel reeling. As the momentum of the huge vessel lurches to its side, H'aanit stumbles in her defense. Mikk, however, with agile sea legs, is not nearly as knocked off balance. He is used to this. Despite the time they had spent moored, a pirate never forgets his sea legs.

With a violent strike, he slashes at H'aanit, taking the huntress unawares. The blade cuts through the string holding her bow and quiver and she stumbles back from the chest wound. Mikk, relentless, goes and knocks her off her already weakened footing, landing her on her back.

"Ngh-!" The huntress barely makes a noise at the bloody injuries and scrambles to get back on her feet. The ship's movement makes that difficult.

Linde, unwilling to see her partner beat down, ignores her previous direction and lunges for Mikk with a fearsome growl. The pirate is slightly deterred by the beast's charge, but he lands a kick squarely on the large cat's jowl. Tressa wobbles a bit on the ship herself, watching with dismay at the battle. She eyes the bow and arrows now scattered on deck.

An unspeakable bravery seizes the young merchant as she grabs the bow and an arrow. While not as fast as H'aanit, some force of providence or another otherworldly omen was guiding her inexperienced hand. Sure, she was decent with a slingshot. A bow is an entirely different beast. H'aanit's bow, in particular, is heavy and the string is taut, requiring strong arms to handle. Many a male hunter in S'warkii could not even use it.

Yet, Tressa felt an uplifting feeling in the fractions of a second in which she handled the weapon. She was not able to draw the string very far back at all. Nonetheless, when she let loose the arrow, some miraculous wind of favorable fortune seems to carry the weapon forth, jamming it squarely into Mikk's hand. The pirate lets out a bloodcurdling yelp as blood runs down his pierced hand, making him drop one of his swords.

"AAARGH!" He glares murderously at the merchant girl from the corner of his eye, "YOU LITTLE BITCH!"

"T-That's what you get!" Tressa says confidently.

Before Mikk can go for her, H'aanit now kicks at his legs, and Linde bites down on his other arm. He yowls in pain as he stumbles, trying to get the big cat off his arm.

"Matey! Speak t'me!" Makk calls down from the steering.

"B-Blast it all, Makk!" Mikk curses as he manages to kick Linde off. Both his arms now seem pretty mangled, and he is barely holding to one sword even.

H'aanit stands, crouching to better balance in case of the ship's movements again. Linde is back on the offensive quick enough, and the two give the pirate the feeling of a predator closing in on prey. Sweat drips down his temple. They would likely pincer him before he could even reach the merchant girl.

"Give it up!" Tressa points to him triumphantly, "Turn this thing around and turn yourselves in!"

"Grr…!"

There is suddenly the sound of some clanking and then a loud BOOM. The ship jostles slightly. H'aanit resists the sway and looks quickly up towards the wheel. Makk is gone. Mikk begins to smile now.

"Ain't nowhere to turn us in if we sink the place!"

"What?!"

The pirate points now with triumph past the merchant, "Take a look for yourself!"

H'aanit and Tressa follow his direction to see Rippletide in the distance, with smoke rising. Another BOOM sounds and they realize it to be from below deck. They see a cannonball whiz from the ship's cannons straight over to the town, blasting part of the pier to smithereens.

Tressa pales at the destruction. She looks to Mikk with indignant fury, "You- You MONSTERS!"

"Hahaha!" Mikk merely laughs, "We told'ja! The strong take and the weak quake! Ye shoulda listened!"

H'aanit elbows him in the jaw, knocking him out cold. As she goes to tie him up, she barks to Tressa and Linde, "Stoppen the cannons."

Tressa snaps back into action at the huntress' words. She nods affirmatively, drops the heavy bow, and runs to descend below deck with the leopard. They enter the gun deck, where the portholes previously closed have now been open. In the light from the windows, they see Makk pop another ball into a cannon before closing the latch. He sees them arrive and merely grins before running further back into the ship. The cannon fuse crackles and there is another thunderous BOOM before Tressa could shout for him to stop.

"HEY!" Tressa cries out angrily as she dashes for the pirate.

Makk makes a small one-eighty turn, pulling out his bloody dagger as Tressa runs in at him, "Ye'll walk the plank, lassie!"

Even without his partner, he seems to have a great deal of zeal. The first strike he makes misses Tressa by mere millimeters as she does a slight matrix to avoid the edge of his knife. Linde leaps forward at him, which he sidesteps, having the big cat land amid a coil of rope by some of the cannonball heaps.

"Uh…" Tressa backs up as he swings this way and that at her. Her reflexes are pretty good, but this is not a wide space to run in. One of his cuts catches her by the shoulder, cutting a strap of her backpack and sending its contents scattering.

"Kya!" She falls backward and abandons her wares, scrambling for cover behind a cannon.

"Nowhere t'run, brat!"

Her heart pounding, Tressa looks for something, anything, to get out of this predicament as Makk starts stabbing around like a maniac. His blade scratches her and the metal of the cannon body as he gets closer.

Then she sees it. The wedge.

The cannon sits upon two pairs of wheels, allowing it to be pushed to the side and aimed from different portholes. When not being moved, its wheels have to be kept wedged so it doesn't sway about all over the place while the ship is moving.

With a kick, she dislodges the wedge. She pushes with all her might on the cannon. It starts to roll quickly and takes a surprised Makk with it as it slams into the opposite wall of the deck. Makk gives a loud scream as he's smashed out of one of the portholes. There is a subsequent splash as he falls overboard.

Tressa leans back, shaking, as she takes in a gulp of air. She doesn't notice the blood running down the various cuts on her body.

H'aanit arrives to the deck just as Linde sorts herself out of the knots of rope with annoyance. The huntress quickly goes to the merchant's side.

"Aren thou all right?"

"Uh… y-yeah…" Tressa makes a weak smile, "W-we did it! Uh, is the other one…"

"I hath him trussed up. Other ships seemeth to be comen now."

"Ah! We need to let them know we took out the pirates or they'll-"

Another sonorous boom is heard. This one is distant, though, and not originating from this ship. A loud THUD and crashing sound is heard above deck as the ship begins to rock violently. Linde growls in alarm.

"Whatten be …?!"

"They're shooting at us! They think this is still a pirate ship!"

Without further explanation, Tressa runs up back to the main deck, stumbling slightly. On the upper deck, where a tied-up Mikk is leaned against some barrels, pieces of the main mast and debris of the riggings litter the floor. The first shot luckily missed the ship body. Unfortunately, it also destroyed the flag mast, which would have been a handy way to signal the ship was overtaken. Looking around, Tressa spots two ships flying the Merchant Association flag. Another shot sounds, splashing the water dangerously close to the ship's bilge.

"HEY!" Tressa waves furiously to one of the hostile ships and shouts at the top of her lungs, "Don't shoot! Hold fire, please!"

Another shot is fired. The projectile sails overhead, too close for comfort, clipping a corner off the ship's sterncastle. Tressa whimpers, ducking down as the wood splinters. Tears like that of a frighten child's rise to her eyes. She swallows. They didn't hear her... Can she even reach them? The pirate ship was repaired in haste, but it hadn't seen sea travel in a long time... how long would they last if another shot...

The image of her father, the muscled merchant, flashes in her head. She can't lose to her fear ... not now! The ships should be getting closer... She had to keep trying.

Hurriedly, she picks up the longest piece of wooden debris she can find and carry. Tying the pirate flag onto it upside down, she waves it in hopes that the other merchants would figure something was amiss. There were some nautical merchant signals she picked up after doing business for so long by sea. At least one of them should be able to be recognized...

There is a distant holler and the two ships near, though no more shots are fired, thankfully. When they get close enough to board, Tressa is relieved to see some familiar faces from town. They seem confused what the heck she was doing there, and what happened overall.

"Tressa?"

"Hey! Thanks for not sinking us!" Tressa says, feeling the relief wash over her.

"Mind tellin' us what's goin' on that yer on a pirate's ship?" One of the merchants looks and espies Mikk, "Ack! Ya took care o' em?!"

H'aanit emerges with Linde from the lower deck. The merchants seem to have a billion questions for both her and Tressa.

"L-Let's get this thing towed in first, ok?" Tressa says with exasperation, "Oh, and how's the town by the way?! The pirates fired a coupla shots…"

One of her colleagues sucks in a breath between his teeth, "Ain't pretty. One o' the ships got hit pretty bad. The wharf office an' pier also got hit."

"Oughten we return to fetcheth the others as well," H'aanit says. She wipes her lips of some stray blood.

"Oh, right, in the Caves of Maiya…! Uh, one thing at a time… Let's get back to Rippletide and then go for them, okay?" Tressa's head was swimming after all the adrenaline and now this.

"Alright, alright… What in the hells happened, ya better tell us everythin', Tressa!"

"Wait, does this mean the pirates're done with?!" A giddy merchant says in realization.

"Cool it, cool it!" Tressa sighs, "I'll tell you guys everything once we aren't just floating out in the sea! C'mon, let's get back to town!"

"Yeah, an' maybe we'll hang one o' these sea dogs or two!"

H'aanit recognizes one of the ships' captains to be the Leon character who had greeted their group upon their arrival to Rippletide. He seems to be looking with an expression of admiration at Tressa, who is effectively commandeering the attention of the other merchants.

A seafarer among them seizes the wheel of the pirate ship and begins to steer it back to Rippletide's port, followed by the two other ships as escorts. H'aanit sits down on deck, assessing her and Linde's injuries whilst Tressa remembers all her backpack contents spilled downstairs.


The scientific name for sleepweed is taken from the real-life plant Gelsemium elegans. It's a poisonous flower used in anesthesia, so it's rather appropriate.

I apologize for being a day late with this chapter. There was a hurricane going through the area so my connection was iffy.