Beginnings are rarely as important as soon-to-bes. At least not for the duration of the soon-to-be that is staring you in the face. One of the things you learn in this life is that the immediate problem is the one most likely to kill you. Dividing your attention be fatal, or worse. This particular soon-to-be would turn out to be an important beginning, but to the merchant city of Port Manto it appeared very much like a soon-to-end.
Port Manto, named after the colossal Rays that inhabit the warm waters off the coast, was the grandest naval port in the Southlands. It occupied the Manto peninsula, jutting out from the mouth of the Middle Sea and into the Verric Ocean with pride and defiance. It was the perfect last stop for outbound ships from the kingdoms of the Middle Sea, and was the first port any ship braving the ocean crossing would have seen for months. Port Manto is old — protected by its own commercial power and widely, if incorrectly, considered to be a de-facto city state. No navy had tried to threaten the city in twenty generations, and none had succeeded since long before that. There wasn't an experienced sailor who wouldn't recognise the grand towers of the upper districts as they pierced the horizon.
Port Manto doesn't attract only the most law abiding and altruistic of visitors; in fact it may be the most cosmopolitan and morally diverse city in the Middle Sea kingdoms. It is not unusual to see ships from nations at war with each other sharing the harbour. Most captains accept that any conflict within Manto waters or the city itself is simply going to be bad for business, never mind awfully messy. Those kinds of fights tend to happen well out of range of Port Manto's guns, where there is enough open sea that other ships can keep a wide berth. The mutually beneficial armistice enjoyed by Port Manto was not perfect, but it more or less worked, until they came.
One morning late in the year an unfamiliar ship broke the mists lingering on the water. First there was only a shadow against the grey and then a great prow emerged from the cold fog. It was followed by another, then another, then another. Invasion had come to Port Manto. A fleet that could rival any of the major naval powers blockaded the port and the stability that had held for centuries began to buckle under the pressure. Those ships were soon to be responsible for the most significant event in Port Manto's known history.
The lost often wound up here. Port Manto sees travel from every part of the northern kingdoms and far beyond and naturally collected strays with nowhere in particular to be. The shadier districts of the city are kept in order more by the gangs that profit from the black market as the City Watch. The less reputable districts are unusually cosmopolitan; more languages are spoken in the couple of square miles surrounding the docklands than probably anywhere else in the world. Nobody seemed out of place because — in some way — everyone was out of place.
Jotan fit right in.
Under the 'employ' of one of The Cobbles' (so called as the old streets were indeed cobbled) minor gangs Jotan had seen just about everything the port city's underbelly had to offer. The city however was on the whole far more interested in what you had to offer it. Jotan offered enough muscle and enough wit that he had never been short of dishonest work since his arrival; better still the honest work was relatively frequent too. A pair of strong arms were ever in demand; sometimes it helped not to think about the motives of your employer. For the most part Jotan was required to be intimidating — his unusual appearance and physical stature lent themselves to that vocation.
Jotan's superior was a somewhat vicious if not necessarily cruel man. He had been a mercenary, according to the rumours, and he seemed the type: ruthless, calculating and absolutely in it for the money. He approached every situation as a problem to be solved efficiently. Sometimes those problems were people and often the efficient approach was violence. Roun Maxin, a tall and sturdy man with his share of scars and a face incapable of a smile gave those orders with an unsettling lack of emotion. Roun reported to 'The Witch', a woman who's actual identity and magical prowess were a matter for debate. She was however the quite demonstrably alive head of a Port Manto criminal organisation and that alone was cause for a certain respect; few of the smaller gangs lasted very long.
A handful of rough looking individuals stood looking over the great wall that held The Cobbles above the docks proper. This side of the city rose up on a great hill that had centuries ago been shaped into tiers upon which the cities districts were built. The higher you went the more money you found and at the very top were the great towers of the Civic District.
"The Witch has a bad feeling about all this." Roun addressed the gang members present, his voice barely audible above the sea-wind. "She reckons there's a mage of some sort on one o' those ships, and a powerful one too." He nodded over the wall against which he leant, over which was a fourty foot drop to the docks proper. From the elevation of The Cobbles you could see for miles out into the open ocean; ocean currently swarming with warships.
"They've been out there two days, boss." Groenin, a relatively new member, spoke up.
"She says they're waiting for something, doesn't know what." Roun replied, squinting into the distance as if to spy on what might be happening.
"I don't like waiting for something bad to happen—"
"Neither does she," Roun interrupted "we've got a job to do and then we make ready to get out of here in a hurry."
"We never run from trouble, Roun." Jotan spoke up and a couple of the other's nodded in agreement.
"You're right, but this is different. Something has The Witch spooked and I've never seen that before. I don't really fancy our chances against an army, neither. No point dying just to delay a few soldiers reaching the moneyed districts anyway; the Watch are paid for that."
"So what's the job, Roun?" Jotan asked.