The Journalist and the Sea

by BlueClaw

Chapter 1
Stranger Departures


The evening air was cool. The crickets sang their serenades according to the phases of the moon that shone palely in the dark indigo firmament, amidst a blanket of twinkling stars. The songs alternated between intermittence and perpetuity, contributing to the cacophony of night sounds.

Upon the pavement of a suburban street, Jimmy Malone paced with a purpose, brim pulled way low. From his neck hung a camera, between the lapels of his dark blue two-piece suit. He kept his gaze on what lay before him, ignoring the houses passing by his side. He was a reporter with a mission: to explore strange new locales, to seek out new stories and amazing events, to boldly go where no reporter had gone before.

How humbling it was that Jimmy - Ultimate Adventures Magazine’s top ace reporter and journalist (at least as he perceived it) - had been relegated to this menial purported story. To his great chagrin, after all his years of loyal service to the magazine, going even so far as to risk his life in a daring adventure on another world to bring back the story of the century, he had been granted no major breaks by his boss. Where was the appreciation for all his effort and enthusiasm for the profession?

Now the world knew of Eodon, all because of his diligence and life risking. Outrunning T-Rexes, cannibalistic savages, and ants the size of a bloodhound didn’t exactly aid one’s life expectancy. Granted, there had been some skepticism toward his admittedly outlandish tale at first, especially with no pictures of the insular valley, but noted archaeological experts like Johann Spector had backed up his story. He had a number of witnesses to support his claims, including Fritz, Spector’s German assistant. Then there was Rafkin, the kindly old professor who had stayed behind in the valley to study the amazing flora and fauna, and also to pave the way for relations between the inhabitants and the scientists who would inevitably come. That mankind would find a way into the Valley was a foregone conclusion. It was a matter of when.

As far as Jimmy was aware, Spector had disappeared for a while, taking with him the secrets of travel to Eodon via the corrupted moonstones. There were rumours that he had returned, only to be quickly snapped up into government employment in order to find more of the unusual stones and build a gateway to the valley. Further than that Jimmy did not know. The government was a master at shrouding things in an impenetrable cloak of secrecy when it wanted to.

Then there was the Avatar, who had also done a better disappearing act than Houdini could have ever done shortly after the conclusion of the riveting adventure. All attempts at finding that somewhat elusive character had failed miserably on Jimmy’s part, although he had been sent a letter threatening to make him eat his camera and notepad if he did not desist. Three guesses as to the identity of the sender of that amiable message.

All of that had transpired three years ago. Jimmy’s story had been top selling news for a number of months, gaining him many an interview with personages such as Letterman and O’Brien - he’d even been offered to star in a movie called ‘Savage Empire’ - but as with all great stories, it had faded into mediocrity with the inevitable passing of time, eventually winking out of existence entirely. The scientific community spoke only silence as to the progress of efforts in reaching Eodon. With the adventure’s novelty faded Jimmy’s fame and good fortune.

Hence the reason for him lurking about here in the lonely neighbourhood at cold night, instead of working in a top position in some lavish office in a one hundred storey skyscraper, with a fine-looking secretary and a close-at-hand coffee machine and all those other little luxuries of life.

How unfair life was. But then again, Jimmy preferred to get out and about. The thrill of hunting down a story and being in the very thick of danger to survive and tell the tale was an experience that could not be emulated in a musty old office, exotic secretaries or not. Jimmy had had his fair share of exotic women in his time, and most if not all of those capricious ladies would have cut his heart out as soon as look at him. They had been the type to wear furs, and not those found in fashion exhibitions.

Could Jimmy really be blamed for feeling just a little miffed over his predicament? Being assigned to a story in which some old man, who was well known to be a few strawberries short of a fruitcake, claimed to have seen ‘mysterious’ lights in the sky over a disco centre wasn’t exactly a gratifying gesture.

UFOs weren’t good press material these days, but…beggars couldn’t be choosers. Squinting ahead, Jimmy inhaled the cool night air through his nostrils, exhaling water vapour through his mouth. His nose was cold. The disco centre was a few blocks down.

He was passing by the entrance to a reserve, settled between two houses, when he froze. He recognized this place. It was the very same neighbourhood his good ‘friend’ the Avatar lived. One of the houses that bordered the reserve was most likely to be where the person in question resided. Perhaps he should check if anyone was home…

The cocky young reporter delayed his machination for an unexpected drop-in on an old ‘friend’ when nature called. Entering the reserve, he found a shadowy corner with a tree where he could furtively do his business. Zipping up, he turned toward the path out when something caught his eye.

Amidst the canopy of a row of tall trees, a bright blue orb of light flitted about, appearing one moment here and the next in an entirely different location, its attachment to one place always intermittent. It was small, luminous, and vaguely awe-inspiring. Was this the mysterious light that old codger had reported seeing?

Taking his camera, Jimmy crouched by the tree. One hand rested upon the trunk for support, but drew back in an instant upon feeling a certain warm wetness. Cursing under his breath, he wiped his hand on his pants and resolved to avoid contact with the tree, trying to find a suitable crouching position.

The small light was now descending slowly, its movements less erratic and unpredictable. It floated serenely, its glow luminous enough to challenge the moon. And it was coming toward him.

Jimmy’s throat dried mildly. A mix of fear and excited anticipation oozed into his rapidly beating heart.

“Where’s Mulder and Scully when you need ‘em?” Jimmy whispered to himself.

The camera began to shake in his hands. He could almost hear that eerie theme song.

The globe of light inexorably approached, coming to a halt above him and simply hovering there. Jimmy’s eyes narrowed. Now where had he seen that thing before?

“Once more ‘you’ of Earth address ‘I’ of Xorinite dimension.” said a matter-of-fact, crystalline voice that seemed to emanate from the glowing orb.

There was no mistaking that made mode of speech, coupled with this bright ball of light. Back in the Valley of Eodon, in the Urali swamp…the one named the Avatar had called the strange creature a wisp. What was it doing here?

“‘You’ are the manifestation called Jimmy.” the wisp said.

“Hi.” Jimmy replied uncertainly, waving languidly with one hand, rising to his feet to see the light sphere ‘eye-to-eye’, as it were.

“‘I’ of the Xorinite dimension have important information for the manifestation known as ‘Jimmy’.”

“Really?” Jimmy asked, now curious. He subconsciously checked his camera over without looking as he gazed at the luminous wisp, making sure the film was properly in place. If he could just take a few shots of this amazing beast, he would gain more publicity than the guy who had hoaxed the Loch Ness. For some reason, that didn’t ring too well.

“Affirmative. The manifestation known as ‘Avatar’ requests your assistance. ‘He’ resides on a celestial superset commonly referred to by its local bipedal manifestations as ‘Britannia’.” the wisp explained.

“Britannia? Never heard of it.” That was the truth. But then again, maybe that would explain the Avatar’s unusual familiarity with the moonstone. If the valiant hero had been gone all this time, the wisp’s information was now making sense of the abrupt disappearance.

“Britannia can be easily accessed in the same methodology as that utilized to enter the geographical superset known by the vocal term ‘Eodon’. ‘You’ must use the moonstone from the structural educational institution identified by the collective manifestations of this urban subset as the ‘Museum of Natural History’.”

Jimmy looked at the wisp incredulously. “Yeah, right. Like I’m going to go to the museum and ask the curator if I could borrow a moonstone to travel to a world millions of miles away in the deep vastness of space.” Jimmy said sarcastically. “Go figure.”

“Non sequitur. The planetary manifestation ‘Britannia’ is located in an entirely different dimension.” retorted the wisp.

“Whatever. The point is there is no way I can get to the moonstone legally.” he said, slightly piqued.

“In case of ‘Avatar’s’ plight, the consideration of ‘legality’ is an immaterial issue. The multiverse is under threat. The planetary subset ‘Earth’ will not be exempt from the repercussions caused by ‘your’ refusal to render assistance.”

“What do you expect me to do? The government took all the Museum’s moonstones away for their own designs! You think they of all people would let some urban museum keep a tool that could very possibly lead to a whole new world?” Jimmy said defensively. This wisp was beginning to annoy him with its righteous, logical facts. “I’m no hero besides!”

“Erroneous statement. The ‘Museum’ does retain one moonstone fragment, similar in constitution to the one that transported ‘you’ to Eodon.” the wisp countered smoothly. “‘You’ are strongly advised to utilize a means of transport to ‘museum’ and temporarily seize the moonstone in order to access Britannia. While moonstone is normally attuned to Eodon, for reasons unknown the moonstone destination has been reset for Britannia. ‘You’ may return the moonstone to ‘museum’ if ‘you’ so wish at the conclusion of the errand. Note, however, that the life-forms of Xorinia are not bound by constraints of morality and ethics. ‘We’ exist only for one purpose: to serve as a conduit for and gather information.”

“Hey, I couldn’t give a toss about you judging me on my deeds.” Jimmy growled. “I’m not gonna get arrested because of some half-witted adventure. I’ve got a career to work on!”

“That is ‘your’ prerogative.” the wisp answered impassively. “Information transference complete. This information is provided free of charge, as agreed in the initial terms of the arrangement with ‘Avatar’. In regards to an observation ‘I’ have made on ‘your’ lifestyle, it has become apparent that ‘your’ career is rapidly approaching an impasse.”

Jimmy spluttered indignantly. “You’re spying on me?” He scowled. “My career is doing just fine, thanks.”

“Contemporary evidence contradicts ‘your’ claim.” said the wisp. It appeared completely oblivious to the young reporter’s growing fit of pique. “Manifestations of Xorinia normally do not give advice without a clear gain, but in ‘your’ case ‘I’ will make an unprecedented exception. It is strongly advised that ‘you’ take this assignment, not only for the benefit of the multiverse, but for the improvement of ‘your’ career. It has become atrophic.”

“I’m gonna turn you into a sixty Watt light bulb in a minute if you don’t’ - ”

“Not that time is of the essence, both for the multiverse and ‘your’ career. Only a limited opportunity of action is available. Once that opportunity has passed, any attempted mitigation will be insufficient for the prevent of multiversal consequences of the most severe magnitude. ‘Your’ career will be a small issue compared to the unravelling of the space-time continuum.”

Did the wisp sound dry? Impossible! Wisps didn’t have a sense of humour.

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll consider it.” Jimmy grumbled, somewhat disgruntled.

“Excellent.” the wisp replied. It vibrated, preparing to ascend.

“Hey, wait a second!” Jimmy called out. The wisp froze, its glowing demeanour somehow expectant. “Can I take you picture?” He lifted his camera imploringly.

“Unorthodox request.” the wisp answered. “While beyond the parameters of usual informational trade, in order to maintain bartering balance a price will be necessary to take ‘my’ photographic image.”

“What do you want to know? Who shot JFK? Whether an alien craft really did crash at Roswell, New Mexico? How to make mouth-watering jam on toast? You name it, I’ll get it. Guaranteed.”

“This manifestation does not desire information pertinent to any of these events. In ‘your’ language, in order to indicate departure from set location, ‘I’ bid ‘farewell’.” The wisp began to rise.

“Oh, no you don’t, foo fighter! You’re saying cheese whether you want to or not!” Jimmy’s face assumed a grim set of determination as he lifted the camera to his eye, aiming for the escaping wisp.


The wisp intensified in brightness even as the shutter closed, and all Jimmy could do was stare in utter surprise as blinding white light bathed his vision. He cried out as he fell back, blinded. The darkness returned, but he couldn’t see a thing. His night vision was ruined.

The camera was still in his iron grip. Feeling it over like a worried mother would a wailing baby, he found no damage, to his great relief.

Jimmy chuckled to himself as his night vision slowly returned. “No one, man, beast or spirit, can elude the lightning fast snapshot of Jimmy, reporter extraordinaire.”

It was then that he smelled an acrid aroma, faint but present in the night air. Sniffing, he identified its source as the camera. His heart beat was swift, dire fear encroaching as his trembling hands fumbled with opening it. Where the roll of film was supposed to be, only ash remained. It fell and scattered, carrying away all of Jimmy’s dreams for an exclusive story on UFOs into oblivion.

“Blasted damn!” he cursed loudly, voice echoing over the reserve. That picture had been his closest chance to getting his biggest break all year.

Dogs began to bark as somebody shouted from their backyard with furious tirade of imprecations. “What are you bloody kids up to now at this time of night?! It’s 3:00am, bloody hell! Light fireworks, will you? I’ll fix you! Get him, Sam!” roared an unseen man over the fence, whom Jimmy imagined to be the size of a tank judging from the deep, truculent voice. If Jimmy had first been unperturbed by the man’s yells, what came next was quite the opposite. A gate opened in the shadowy dark, spewing forth one very angry pitbull terrier.

That was all the incentive the young reporter needed to jump up onto his feet and sprint out of the reserve, the baying dog snapping at his heels all the way.

The city lights cast a glum orange halo on the backstreets of the city, merely adding to Jimmy’s already foul mood. The dog had chased him for more than half a mile, finally relenting near the outskirts of the city. It had been a miserable evening all round.

He still could not believe that he had failed in getting a picture of that wisp. Just one would have been enough to get him back in his boss’s good books. Alas, that was not to be.

Now all he was stuck with was some ambiguous warning from a hardly credible sphere of light - of all things - about the multiverse unravelling if he did not go to an old comrade’s aid and other such rubbish. He’d made his contribution to saving the universe once already, and that had come very near costing his life. He did not intend to get embroiled in another world-saving adventure, good story or not. It just wasn’t worth it. It just wasn’t.

Jimmy kept on telling himself that while he walked through the desolate backstreets, headed for his apartment. It took all his willpower to suppress the urge to go to the museum, even just to take a look. The call to adventure was very tantalizing, despite the extreme danger. Jimmy was loath to admit it, even to himself, but he was bored. Earth was a boring place. He missed the old days in the Valley of the Lizards, where every minute was a life-or-death struggle. He half-expected a Tyrannosaurus Rex to leap from behind a truck parked nearby.

Jimmy sighed. Life wasn’t fair.

The tall buildings surrounded him, their darkened windows like empty eye sockets, infinitely sad, almost compassionate for the young reporter’s plight.

In the middle of the street, a manhole had been left open, flanked on all sides by barricades with black diagonal strips on yellow. It reminded him of a myrmidex hole, from which dozens of the ferocious ant-like creatures would burst to devour anything foreign. They had been amongst the most fearsome denizens of Eodon.

The thrill of adventure and battle was a sorry loss indeed. What could one do?

Jimmy jammed his hands into his pockets, set his eyes on the footpath, and doggedly embarked on the journey home. ‘Journey’…that so reminded him the Valley, the journey to the land of the mesas…

Shaking his head fiercely and growling in frustration, he pushed the quickly recurring memories out of his head. He would not be dragged into another adventure. Sure it was exciting and tempting and all…but he had an apartment to pay off, a fastidious boss to placate, and a beautiful girl named Vanessa that he had been dating for…No, wait, she had left him three days ago.

Jimmy cursed under his breath. He had never felt so alone. He strode through the streets for what seemed like hours. It must have already been midnight. Finally, he reached the first steps to his destination, lifting his head…only to find the Museum of Natural History stand before him.

How in the hell had he ended up here of all places?! He could not believe that subconsciously he had travelled all the way from the outskirts of the city to the museum without even noticing it until he was upon the very threshold. His apartment was on the other side of town! Was he really longing that much for otherworldly adventure?

Shrugging his shoulder, he decided to check out the place. He didn’t intend to steal anything…at least not yet. He would stick purely to reconnoitering tonight. He hoped.

The last time he’d visited this place would have been more than half a year ago. The current curator, an eternally irascible old fart named Professor Smythe, wasn’t exactly generous when it came to giving interesting story ideas for a struggling reporter. He was a rather big disincentive for coming here.

The main entrance was, of course, locked. Unfazed, Jimmy wound his way around the building into an adjacent alley, where the side entrance to what had once been Rafkin’s laboratory resided. No doubt it had been replaced to satiate the persnickety Professor Smythe - Jimmy didn’t think the museum had never managed to recover the original lab from Eodon.

To his surprise, a black van lay parked in the middle of the alley a short distance from the steel door. It was open. Sounds of equipment being moved and glass breaking could be heard, as if somebody were hastily rummaging through the lab with little care for the inventory.

Slowly, Jimmy crept over the threshold and into the corridor, sneaking over to the open door where the sounds were coming from. He peered through the crack where the hinges connected with the door and the wall. Inside the lab, three men garbed in furtive black, like ninjas with the exception of the head being unclothed, scoured the shelves and delved into unopened crates, throwing items down upon the floor in frustration.

Jimmy squinted. Burglars? What were they after? He wondered.

“It ain’t here, Leron!” one guy, a short but heavyset man with a face like a bull cried. “I’ve searched through this shelf three times already and I’m tellin’ you it ain’t here!”

“Keep looking, Sitch!” snapped the man called Leron, a lanky fellow who’s dark eyes shifted from side to side with suspicion, as if here were cynical of everything. “It’s here. It has to be.”

“It is. Trust me.” said the third man. He was tall, his narrow face bearded and his eyes set in a permanent squint. “I saw the old bastard hold it in his hands.”

“Maybe he took it home with him?” Sitch suggested hopefully.

Leron’s snort was derisive. “Wow. You know, Sitch, that’s the most intelligent brainstorm you’ve come up with all decade. You do the business proud.”

“No. He wouldn’t have.” the bearded man said. “Besides, if he did, it wouldn’t take too much effort to find out where the good professor lives and pay him a visit.”

“Indeed, Reizer.” Leron nodded approvingly.

Jimmy felt a nervous tingling in his stomach, a disquieting feeling that forewarned of imminent danger. He was always in the thick of it, it seemed. He had to call the police.

“Search the shelf.” Leron commanded, and all three interlopers turned their back to the doorway to rummage through the items lined upon the shelf.

Jimmy furtively sneaked past the doorway, treading carefully down the corridor and entering a nearby room on the parallel wall. He quietly closed the door behind him, plunging the room into near complete darkness. A flickering fluorescent lamp on a small desk in the corner provided the only light, dim at that, but it was enough to guide Jimmy to the phone mounted on the opposite wall. Picking up the receiver, his finger stabbed the numberpad for 911, but not before several failed attempts caused by both his frenetically wavering hand and the poor lightning.

Finally, to his great relief, the phone began to ring. Someone on the other line picked up. Jimmy didn’t give them time to speak.

“Hello! I’m calling from the Museum of Natural History! There are burglars here, men in black who’re…hello?” Jimmy looked at the receiver. The line was dead.

He heard a click behind him. He didn’t need to look to know a gun was being held to the back of his head.

“Put the receiver down.” a woman’s voice commanded, sweet and mellifluous but somehow no-nonsense in its tone.

Jimmy did not push the letter; even he was not that audacious. He complied with anxious alacrity. He could not help but feel a little apprehensive. After all, he’d never had a gun pointed at his head before. He’d had spears pointed at him, but never a gun.

“Hands on top of your head.” commanded the feminine voice.

Jimmy did so. Yet, even in the very midst of danger at the end of a gun barrel of some unseen captor, he couldn’t stop the insolent smile that came to his lips. “Sure thing, babe. Once we’ve sorted out this awful mess, you don’t suppose you and I could get together? Have lunch maybe and reconcile our differences? I know this real good downtown restaurant-”

“Shut up.” the unseen woman commanded, her tone harder.

Jimmy’s mouth snapped shut.

The lights turned on suddenly, momentarily dazzling his eyes.

“What’s this, Fiona?” demanded Reizer’s voice.

“A little boy who’s up way past his bed time and far from home.” Fiona said wryly.

“If you give me my milk and cookies I promise I’ll be good.” Jimmy replied humorously. He couldn’t help it; he always tried to make the best of a bad situation.

Obviously, his ‘hosts’ didn’t appreciate his attempt at good humor.

“Take him to the lab.” Reizer commanded. His footsteps on the tiled floor signalled his departure.

“Turn around slowly.” the woman called Fiona instructed icily, leaving no room for ambiguity.

“You got it, maestro.” Jimmy turned as ordered, but to his wry disappointment he found that the woman was turning with him, presumably keeping the gun beaded on his head. So much for seeing her face.

He felt the muzzle press upon the nape of his neck.


Jimmy was hastily frogmarched out of the room and into the lab the other intruders had been searching before. All three were waiting for him, darkly impatient looks on their faces. He was pushed to the back of the wall and ordered to turn around. His hands came down by his sides again.

Now he could get a good look at the stealthy woman who had captured him so easily. A smooth face, with high cheekbones and a cute little nose in the centre, slightly uplifted, regarded him. Startling green eyes watched him as one might a rabid, untamed animal. Short fiery red hair, cropped at the nape, framed her seemingly delicate features. Jimmy knew this girl was anything but delicate. His focus lay entirely on her now, oblivious to the other scowling persons in the room. She possessed a lithe, fit figure. She would have been beautiful if not for the predatory gleam in her eyes and that near tangible contempt that seemed to weigh him down with its sheer intensity. His appraisal was rudely disrupted before he could scrutinize her bosom - Jimmy prided himself as a connoisseur of the opposite sex (though he was quite far from it) - Leron’s gruff voice and scowling, malevolent mug confronting him.

“Who are you?”

“Jimmy Malone, reporter and journalist for Ultimate Adventures Magazine extraordinaire.” Jimmy replied smoothly, calm and composed. He even managed to throw in his trademark mischievous grin. Deep inside, however, his belly churned harder than a dam turbine.

“Wipe the stupid grin off your face.” Leron commanded.

Jimmy did so immediately. Even though this Leron fellow was rather brusque, he could tell that he had a cunning, insightful sophistication to him. He was no simple-minded adversary. As were Reizer and Fiona; their eyes practically radiated a reticent intelligent. Sitch, on the other hand, seemed to have the intelligence of a brick, judging from the way his eyes stared blankly at him. He was the brawn of the team. A simple thug. The brute reminded him of Darden. All he needed was an ankylosaurus to ride, some sabre-toothed tiger furs instead of that fine, tight-fitting black material, and voila…a Neanderthal Man in the flesh.

“What are you doing here?” Leron demanded, a hint of menace in his voice.

Jimmy stared at him evenly. “I could ask you the same question.”

Leron’s scowl deepened.

“Which testicle should I shoot off first?” Fiona asked condescendingly, lowering the gun barrel so that it lined up with Jimmy’s crotch.

“Hey, hey, easy, ma’am! I’ll talk! I’ll talk! No need to go around spaying anybody.” Jimmy blurted frantically, holding up his palms forward in a gesture of supplication. “Just lemme explain!”

“Please do so.” Leron rasped.

“Alright, here goes.” Jimmy took in a deep breath. “I was walking through the museum earlier in the afternoon when I tripped and got locked in a sarcophagus with a mummy. Can you believe how scary it is to be trapped in a dark cramped box with some five thousand year-old dead guy? Well, anyway, I managed to escape but found the place to be locked up. Past open hours. Then I came across you fine gentlemen.” Jimmy smiled half-heartedly.

Leron’s face was an epitome of contemptuous incredulity. “You persist in audacious duplicity. Your insolence will bring you pain. Sitch!”

Sitch smiled grimly to complement Jimmy’s own rapidly fading grin, snatching up a respectably large drill from an adjacent table.

He pulled the trigger for emphasis, the drill bit whirring malignantly.

“Should I drill him a new nostril, chief?” Sitch asked, his grin one of pure sadism.

Jimmy looked at the others imploringly. From Reizer he only found a mask of cold indifference, while Fiona’s comely visage betrayed feelings far from sympathy, but rather scorn. And the disturbing anticipation of his agonized screams.

Leron nodded. “Do so…with extreme prejudice.”

Sitch made to approach the ashen-faced reporter, but Reizer stopped him with a single word. “Wait. I think I remember this kid’s face from somewhere.” He frowned at Jimmy, as if trying to pin something on him. His eyes widened in sudden recognition. “You’re that reporter that went to the Valley!”

Leron gave a slight start, staring at Jimmy with redoubled suspicion. Fiona appeared to be re-appraising him, a touch more respectful. Sitch just looked at him blankly, testament to the bozo he was.

Jimmy’s eyes shifted from side to side slowly, nervous. “Yeah. You’ve heard of me?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.” Leron said. “A riveting adventure, I must say. Eodon is a place full of danger, it seems. A fine living specimen for study. Just think of the medicines we could extract from that place.”

“And the diamonds. Don’t forget the diamonds.” Sitch interjected anxiously.

Jimmy flashed his most ingratiating smile. From the dire look on the faces of his captors, it had come off a tad too insincere. “Glad you liked it. I live to impress.”

“You’ll be living to die soon if you cause us any trouble.” Fiona said menacing, putting on an incongruously beautiful, full-lipped smile.

Jimmy felt his heart throb, and not from fear. If only she weren’t so mean, he wouldn’t have minded trying a pass…

“We need that unique stone that took you to the Valley.” Leron said. “Where is it?” He enunciated every word.

Jimmy shrugged. “What makes you think I’d know? Last I heard, the government took most of them.”

“A likely story.” Leron eyed the others. “Reizer, Fiona. Keep searching the other rooms. Sitch, watch our guest closely.”

Sitch nodded. “Sure thing, chief.” he replied, his voice a deep rumble.

The other black-clads left the lab, leaving their burly accomplice to keep a vigil on Jimmy. His eyes were like hard, unforgiving stone, unintelligent but forewarning of lethality nonetheless. He had no weapons, but Jimmy held little doubt those meaty fists of his could reduce him to mashed potato in no time.

But behind the reporter on a cupboard lay a vase, etched over with strange, archaic hieroglyphics. Probably from ancient Egypt or Greece, if Jimmy recalled correctly from Rafkin’s lectures all those years ago. Perhaps it could be used as a weapon against this muscle-bound brute. Professor Smythe would kill him for what he was about to do - Rafkin would have too, no doubt - but there was so much broken on the floor already from the intruders’ hasty search that Jimmy could easily blame it on them once he escaped. If he escaped.

Slowly, he backed towards the vase. The idiot Sitch hadn’t noticed it. Neither had his shifty-eyed friends; they had all underestimated the resourcefulness of this plucky young reporter. All those months in the harsh, austere jungle had taught him a few things about survival.

His mind sought of ways to distract the bellicose brute. “So, do you like, uh, stuff?” he asked innocently.

Sitch grunted discontentedly. “I like to break the kneecaps of smart-mouthed punks like you in a real painful sort of way. Get me?” He punched his open palm for emphasis.

“Fair enough.” Jimmy replied. His hands were creeping behind his back, reaching for the vase.

Sitch’s eyes narrowed. “Hey, what are you doing?” He stepped toward Jimmy.

“This.” With an overhand throw, he hurled the vase at the brawny bouncer, and it smashed against his block-shaped head with a satisfying shatter.

Sitch moaned piteously and crumpled to the floor. Amongst the pieces of broken pottery a black stone had fallen as well. Jimmy recognized it instantly. Its rough, scarred surface, faceted in some places and smooth in others, was a dead ringer for the same device that had first set him on the path to perilous danger. Of all places to hide such a valuable object, Jimmy had never though of the vase. His enemies had obviously not either.

Grabbing the moonstone, he hastily stuffed it into his blazer pocket. He couldn’t be sure if Sitch’s buddies had heard his demise, and he didn’t intend to stick around to find out. He had to get out of here with the stone intact. Whatever those people were up to, he was certain it meant no good for Eodon.

Stepping over Sitch’s body, he reached the doorway and surreptitiously poked his head into the corridor, peering down both ways. They were clear and dimly lit. The side entrance was unguarded, but Jimmy didn’t deem himself stupid enough to use such a blatantly obvious escape route. Foxy flame hair was probably waiting just around the corner, or something worse. There had to be a back exit, and he was determined enough to find it.

What were four thugs - make that three, subtracting the concussed Sitch - compared to hundreds of ravenous, merciless myrmidex? Only foxy flame hair looked truly deadly despite her beauteous features; she looked as if she were capable of decimating an entire myrmidex colony, Queen, drones, and all, single-handedly and with ease.

Creeping stealthily out of the room, he sneaked down the corridor, furtively passing other rooms, one of which he believed he saw the back of Reizer while he was rummaging through a wall-mounted storage cupboard.

He came into the main exhibit gallery, a massive chamber filled with both archaeological paleontological exhibits. Whether it was the nigh half-assembled skeleton of a T-Rex - Jimmy believed the skeleton didn’t do the thunderous beast a quarter of the justice it deserved - or a collection of ancient hieroglyphic tablets and a myriad of pottery, all of it was here in the vast array of precious artifacts. The skylight loomed far above him, the pale moonlight casting eerie shadows in the oppressive gloom.

All too abruptly, the giant fluorescent lights that hung suspended from the ceiling blazed to life, bathing the great chamber in startling bright luminosity. Jimmy ducked behind an upright sandstone tablet moments before bullets zipped through the position he had occupied, more peppering his unorthodox shield. A fragment splintered off and landed at Jimmy’s feet, covered in what he assumed to be very important runes.

“The professor ain’t gonna like this.” Jimmy groaned.

The volley ceased.

“You’ve pushed your luck too far, puppy.” Fiona’s sweet but undeniably contemptuous voice resonated from the other side of the chamber. “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to kill you now.”

Sorry? She didn’t sound the least bit sorry at all!

“What if I surrender?” Jimmy asked, trying to stall for time as he pressed his back against the tablet, desperately searching for a way out.

“Maybe you’ll just get run over by a truck.” Fiona’s voice replied sardonically.

“Tempting…but no.” Jimmy answered, smiling wryly.

Another fragment splintered as the volley began anew.

“Can’t we all just get along?” Jimmy groaned, but his voice was drowned out by the successive gunshots.

There was another pause as Fiona stopped to reload.

If there was ever a better time to say something absolutely asinine and moronic, now was the time to say it. “You’ll never take me alive!” Jimmy yelled. He’d always wanted to say that line. He’d heard it in a movie once. The fact that it didn’t make a lick of sense in this particular situation was irrelevant. At least to him it was.

Fiona’s laughter was mockingly sweet, almost inviting, like an invitation to kiss the deceptively beautiful lips of the Mistress of Death herself. “Believe me, it was never my intention.”

There was a click, signifying that she had finished reloading her pistol. Her footsteps padded slowly towards his hiding place, not unlike a cat stalking its harried prey.

“Ready or not, here I come!” she announced.

The footsteps hastened. It was then that Jimmy bolted, running low through the labyrinth of exhibits as a barrage of reports pursued him, vases and small-scale models of ancient structures shattering in the wanton destruction. He took cover behind the flank of a sarcophagus that leaned against the wall, desperately hushing his heavy breathing as he furtively peeked out.

Fiona was stalking through the exhibition chamber, in no apparent hurry. Judging from the way she looked around, he would have bet his life on it that she hadn’t seen where he had sought refuge. The disturbing thing was that his life really was at stake upon her unawareness of his location. She was a cunning lass. Full of surprises.

A plan began to formulate in Jimmy’s head even as his hunter drew nearer. He placed his weight against the sarcophagus, poised to push it on his relentless pursuer.

“Come out, puppy! I won’t hurt you…much.” Fiona called.

Jimmy scowled. It just wasn’t right for such a woman to have a pristine voice like that. It just wasn’t!

A quick peek and he saw her approaching within several paces, her footsteps growing louder with each smooth stride. With a groan he applied a might heave to the sarcophagus, and the sheer weight of it added to its momentum as it came crashing down on its intended target. Jimmy had the satisfaction of hearing a feminine cry of surprise, then turned to see Fiona pinned under the sarcophagus. The massive thing lay on her back. She thrashed her arms wildly, trying to reach for the pistol just beyond her reach. Her gloved fingertip touched the tip of the butt, but Jimmy quickly snatched it up.

“I’ll just be confiscating that. Little girls shouldn’t play with firearms. It’s dangerous, you know.” Jimmy said, flashing his most charming smile.

Fiona wasn’t one to be charmed. She stared up at him, her countenance quite murderous. “Damn you, you cocky, spineless, twig-armed wretch! You’ll pay for this! Just you wait!”

“You’re welcome to stop on by my office any time, ma’am.” Jimmy replied cheerfully, taking off his hat with a flourish before putting it back on again. “Until the next time. Cheerio!” He ran for the nearest exit.

“Leron! Reizer!” she screamed. “He’s here! Get him! Get him!”

Jimmy fled into a side corridor, bolting up a staircase. From his vantage point atop the balcony he saw a black figure dart into the foyer, most likely Leron from the looks of him.

He entered another corridor and ducked into a room, slamming shot the door behind him and locking it. He was in another lab, a small one this time. On a bench lay an assortment of equipment, including a lit Bunsen burner. Jimmy could smell burning gas. His eyes drifted to the floor, where to his great shock, he found a man sprawled supinely in the unnatural position of death, his blood staining the tiles. He wore a lab coat, now soiled with his sanguinity, but he wasn’t Professor Smythe. Kneeling beside the body, Jimmy thought him to be one of his assistants, or a university student from the youthful face that stared up at the ceiling vacantly.

It was then that Jimmy began to feel hate for those who had committed this vile act of murder, and there was little doubt in his mind as to who had done it. He rose more determined than ever to thwart their undefined machinations.

The lab was small, with only another door leading out, which happened to be securely locked. Cursing luridly, he resolved to summon help in another more orthodox fashion. A trolley with a plethora of jars containing unknown substances stood nearby. Some jars were labelled, and there was only one out of the pack that he wanted: gunpowder. Obviously, it had been part of the poor scientist’s experiment before he had been shot; a mortar and pestle lay on the bench with a mix of powdery sulphur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate.

He hoped he still remembered Rafkin’s weapon-making lessons back in Eodon correctly. Ripping a strip from the dead man’s coat, he uncorked the jar and stuffed the fabric in. It wasn’t impregnated with tar as was ideal, but the fuse should still be flammable enough to achieve the desired effect.

Handling his makeshift grenade with care borne of skepticism of its stability, he lit the fuse with the Bunsen burner and planted it by the storage room door, hastily seeking cover behind the trolley on the opposite side of the room. Muffled voices could be heard beyond the front door, both frantic and angry.

“Open the door, Malone!” Leron shouted. “Open it now!”

The door jerked from a furious kick, but the lock held fast.

The fuse burned down, and Jimmy covered his ears. The subsequent explosion ripped through the storage room door and a good portion of the wall, followed by successive smaller explosions as whatever had been stored inside - obviously very flammable - went up in a fiery eruption. The fire alarms wailed as the fire roared, and Jimmy rose on wobbly legs to survey the destruction he had sown. The entire storage room was engulfed in flames, debris lying scattered everywhere. To his great compunction, the scientist’s body had been badly burned in the explosion.

A bullet spat through the locked of the front door, destroying it completely, and Leron and Reizer burst in.

Jimmy had the gun he acquired from Fiona trained on them in an instant, while Rezier had one trained on him.

“What have you done, you fool?!” Leron exclaimed furiously, glaring at the fire. “You trying to screw us all by burning us to death?”

“If only to spite you.” Jimmy rasped coldly.

“Give us the moonstone and we’ll go. Refuse that, and we’ll all burn.” Reizer said coolly, unperturbed by the raging flames spreading scant paces away. “I…we are not afraid to die.”

Leron looked at his companion questioningly.

“You want it?” Jimmy said, taking the accursed black stone from his pocket with his free hand. “Go get it!” He threw it into the flames.

“No!” Leron cried in dismay.

Reizer winced. “A grave mistake, my friend.” he said menacingly.

His finger tightened on the trigger, within a hair of discharging the fatal lead bullet, but Leron’s horrified gasp brought his attention to the flames. Even Mr Stone Face’s eyes widened at what he saw.

A black hole of nothingness grew from the centre of the flames,the momentum of its swelling increasing with each second, rushing hungrily towards the three men in the room. While the two intruders gaped in awe, Jimmy merely watched in meek resignation. He knew fully that what was to come could not be avoided.

“Eodon here we come…” he muttered.

The blackness swallowed them.

Chapter 2
The Amulet and the Pirates


Jimmy could only see blackness, but he felt as if he were falling into some bottomless pit. The event lasted only a few moments, but despite his prior experience it was no less harrowing. A great jolt of vertigo and then all his senses were assaulted by a myriad of colours and smells. His eyes stung from the sudden brightness.

The molten sun blazed in a startlingly clear blue sky. The ambient heat quickly asserted its sweltering impact. Sweat began to seep from Jimmy’s pores in copious amounts as he rose on wobbly feet. Yet beneath his shoes he did not find himself sinking into soft grass. Instead, he found himself standing on the hard floor tiles of the lab. Then again, he shouldn’t have been surprised in the first place. Part of the lab had been teleported with him, nearly half the room minus the walls. The workbench had also come along for the ride, the burned body of the murdered scientist lying nearby. His original surroundings had been teleported with him, just like the first time.

Surrounding the displaced lab was a sparse cluster of palm trees that expanded outward for a number of paces before the yellow sands of a desert stretched toward the horizon. Jimmy frowned. Sweat already beaded his forehead. It wasn’t unusual to perspire prodigiously in a jungle, but a jungle was hot and humid. This place, on the other had, had absolutely nothing moist about it. It didn’t make sense. Eodon had no deserts.

Then the words of the wisp returned to him, ‘While the moonstone is normally attuned to Eodon, for reasons unknown the moonstone destination has been reset for Britannia.’

So this was Britannia? It didn’t seem like much of a hospitable place.

There was a groan, and Jimmy whipped around, pistol held out before him to dispose of any threatening foe. Leron sat on his haunches, shaking his head in dazed confusion. Nearby lay the scarred moonstone. Jimmy ran over and grabbed it immediately, just as Leron looked up and realized his situation.

“You!” he cried in outrage, but was concussed when the young reporter pistol whipped him to the side of the head. He hit the floor and did not stir.

Jimmy scanned his surroundings, desperately searching for Reizer. The gun trembled slightly in his hand. Suddenly, there was a gunshot, like the muffled popping of corn, and the weapon flew away in a shower of sparks only to land in a useless heap on the ground. Jimmy yelped and grabbed his hand in surprise, checking for injury.

Reizer stepped out from the line of palm trees, pointing a pistol at him.

“Mr Malone, please stay where you are and don’t do anything irrational. I wouldn’t want to kill you.” Reizer said, an epitome of stoicism despite their frightfully undefined predicament.

Jimmy smirked. “Why, Reizer, I never knew you cared.” he said wryly.

“I care for you about as much as I would care for an ant underfoot.” Reizer rebutted, vaguely contemptuous. “Under normal circumstances it would be more convenient to induce your expiration, but as you can surely see, these are not normal circumstances. Somehow, the moonstone has brought us to this unorthodox place.” He gestured with his free hand toward the palm tree copse they resided in and the pervasive desert beyond. “You, Mr Malone, are the only one with us that has any knowledge of how the stone works. You will help us escape this land and get back to the real world, wherever that may be.”

“Sorry, pal, but you’re asking the wrong guy. Professor Rafkin was the expert. I just happened to tag along for the ride.” Jimmy said. His faced darkened. “And he is far away from here.”

Reizer’s smile did not touch his eyes. “Yes, he is in lovely Eodon, researching the vast biodiversity of the flora and fauna, paving the way for other modern scientists, the pioneer of the exploration of a living prehistoric ecology. I read your story. Very interesting. You have a very haughty style.”

Jimmy shrugged. “I’ve never been complimented by a murderer before.”

Reizer’s glance flitted to the half-burned corpse of the scientist for a moment, then returned to Jimmy. “An unfortunate waste of talent, I must admit, but Leron, despite his indubitable intellectual capacity, is often impetuous. He wanted no witnesses. He died a clean death, let me assure you.”

Jimmy snorted repugnantly. “Shooting an innocent guy in the back is hardly what I’d call a clean death, paison.”

“We could stand here all day arguing over morality but it will still not change the fact that he is dead and we are stranded here. Now, begin spouting all you know about the nature of the moonstone.” Reizer visage became menacing. “Believe me, insignificant scum, I will blow a hole in both your kneecaps with abundant alacrity if you prove difficult, and you will still tell me what I want to know. That much you can trust me on.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Jimmy said. He squinted slightly. Over Reizer’s shoulder, he could see figures moving in the sparse scrub. A glint of metal shone from an aperture in the foliage. The newcomers were very possibly armed with swords. “Try me.” His jaw jutted forward defiantly.

“So be it.” Reizer sighed, pointing the gun at his knees. “Left or right?”

“Snitches! Dam bloody scurvy are spyin’ on us! Get ‘em, lads!” roared a furiously gruff voice from the scrub behind Reizer.

A score of disreputable looking men burst from the line of trees, dressed in a mollycoddle mismatched assortment of soiled shirts and breeches, heads capped by tied off scarves and unusual triangular hats. They brandished strange languidly curved swords, either sabres or cutlasses. To Jimmy, the motley band looked like pirates come from Stevenson’s tale Treasure Island.

Reizer whirled around, squeezing off two shots. His marksmanship was infallible, it seemed, two of the scoundrels falling dead. But that left a good number more, and they ran over the warm corpses of their comrades with fiery bloodlust in their eyes, screaming pallid oath.

Jimmy didn’t stick around to see how Reizer would fair, instead turning and fleeing. The tiled floor sped by beneath his feet, until he found himself bolting through sand. He plunged into the palm trees and the sporadic brush, the cries of the pirates pursuing him. More popcorn shots manifested themselves in muffled reports, complemented by an agonized scream or pained yelp.

Jimmy ran, bursting out of the other side of the copse and heading into the dunes. The sounds of battle faded behind him, but he had all the impetus he required to run at maximum adrenaline this day. For some moments the desert appeared endless all around him, but as he surmounted an imminent dune, he spotted the next small expanse of palm trees spread before him a short distance ahead, and beyond that, an endlessly vast blue ocean that sparkled under the merciless.

He was on some desert coast. He could even hear the pounding of the breakers. Sprinting through the sand, he launched himself into the trees, crouching behind a rock camouflaged by a tangle of yellow bushes that tenaciously struggled to survive the sun’s unrelenting heat. Here to stopped to catch his breath - he was panting so heavily he could have put a dog to shame. The moonstone was still clenched in his fist.

Opening his palm slowly, he gazed at the mutilated fragment of stone. Its sometimes rough, sometimes smooth surface scattered the light oddly. He had been holding on to it so tightly that it had left an imprint in the soft skin of his palm.

He felt sticky all over. Placing the stone in his pants pocket, he removed his blazer and tie, dumping them on the sand. Even though it was shady here with the broad coverage of the leafy canopy above, it was still unbearably hot. After undoing several of the top buttons of his shirt, he surreptitiously rose and cautiously glanced around him. Patches of brown dirt mingled with the sand, where plants grew. The vicinity was packed with palm trees, weeds, and long-leafed plants, enough camouflage to provide a suitable hiding spot for a few moments of reset.

“Mother MacRae, why’d I get into this again?” Jimmy berated himself in a hushed, hoarse whisper. “Damn worthless wisps and their trouble-making!”

A bush three paces in front of him rustled. He tensed, preparing for a fracas. A ragged man burst out of the foliage, hands held out in a gesture of supplication, limping the distance between the bush and Jimmy in an instant. The fellow grabbed him by the shirt, pulling him to a face that was swollen and bruised enough to look as if it had been used for left hook practice. His hair was matted and wet with both water and blood, his tortured visage moist with sweat.

“Please, thou must help me! They’re after me!” the man blurted, panting hard, whether from exertion or injury Jimmy could not discern.

Jimmy grabbed his hands and pried them off his shirt, eager to get some distance away from this raving lunatic. “Hey, pal, I’m trying to save my own skin. I’ve got pirates with peglegs after me! You’ll give us both away if you don’t pipe down!”

The man’s eyes widened. “Thou dost not understand! They want it from me! They kidnapped me and tortured me for days, but I never told them anything! Nothing!”

“Who wants what?” Jimmy demanded impatiently.

“Silverbeard and his mess of swabs, boy! They beat me to a pulp, they did!” the man cried pathetically, eyes darting form side to side as if expecting attack from every quarter.

Jimmy rolled his eyes. “Great. First there’s Blackbeard. Then there’s Bluebeard, followed by Yellowbeard. Now it’s Silverbeard.” He sighed. “What’s next, Rainbowbeard? Can’t get much more cliché than that.” He frowned for a second. “I am right in making the assumption that this Silverbeard is a pirate?”

The man nodded his head frantically. “The worst of the lot, lad, almost as bad as the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet or even Capt’n Hawkins!” He paused to wipe some blood trickling down his lip. His teeth were smeared with it. “Thou must take it for me to Lord British! Thou must keep it safe! If Silverbeard gets it, the whole realm of Britannia is doomed!”

“Like I haven’t heard that before. What is it?” Jimmy interrogated.

“Take it, my boy!” the man said breathlessly, stuffing a tarnished bronze amulet into his hand and forcing it closed. “They beat me, poked me with hot embers, they did, but I never said a word! Oh, no, I was too strong for them.” The fellow’s words became increasingly strained as they blurted out from his dry lips. More blood was seeping from his mouth as he babbled on, oblivious to everything else. “They searched me, they did, the scoundrels, but old Bill Tolibar was far too smart for them! I hid it in the hollow heel of my boot, I did! They never thought to look there of all places! Ha, ha…old Bill, old me was too smart. Too smart - oooh!”

He doubled over, retching in pain. Jimmy stepped back and found his light blue shirt smeared with blood. A lot of it. The man vomited up blood, falling to his knees and grasping his stomach. His tattered shirt and hands were soaked with crimson.

“Owww…I think Blackeye stabbed a little too deep…” he groaned, then collapsed completely. He did not move again.

Jimmy did not have to be a coroner to know the man was dead. He opened his hand to look at the amulet given to him, but approaching voices dissuaded him and he went low, watching for the hunters.

“…saw him go this way, ye bloody swab! The one with the hat!” a gruff voice said self-assuredly.

It was then that Jimmy realized that he had been wearing his hat all this time. He’d forgotten all about it. At least it was providing him good protection the sun.

“Ain’t that where the designer went a-running?” another asked.

“Aye, I’d say so, the worthless scurvy! Hawkins take the scum! Silverbeard will flay our hides if we don’t find ‘im and his lil’ trinket, and those spies too! And to top it off, there’s that swab with the beard that Blackeye’s been hollerin’ ‘about! I ‘nary know from where they comes from, but they look outlandish, to be sure!”

“By Hawkins they did! But the bearded one I’m gravely a-feared of! Call me a coward if you will, but a man with a weapon like that which can drop a man dead in a second…devil’s bane and dead sea turtles, I ain’t facin’ demonspawn like that!” said the other.

Jimmy strained to hear what they were saying. A bearded man? He presumed they were talking about Reizer. Shaking off the rising disappointment at his nemesis’s obvious escape, he resolved to now elude these two piratical villains. Crawling behind the curved trunk of a palm tree so that he was concealed by the surrounding plants, he awaited the arrival of his hunters.

They tramped in, two apt epitomes of the scoundrel physique, armed with cutlasses at the belt, wearing striped shirts with dirt and other such unsavoury refuse. They started at the sight of Tolibar’s dead body sprawled prone on the ground, blood pooling around him.

“Oh, fish guts! Moby Dick be damned! It be the designer!” the first cried, dismayed at the sight of the dead man.

“Blackeye ain’t goin’ to be liking this!” said his companion.

The first pirate looked at him quizzically. “Blackeye? It be Silverbeard I’m a-fearin’!” He glared hard at the body. “Check him!”

They ruffled through Tolibar’s ragged clothes, showing little respect for the dead. Upon finding nothing, both men spat enough imprecations to put a drunken rap artist to shame, rising to their feet again.

“Find Blackeye!” said the first pirate.

The other paled. “I ain’t tellin’ him this! Last time I brought him bad news, he cut me little finger off and ate it before me eyes!” He held the maimed hand out, which had only three digits and a thumb remaining. “He said he’d eat me liver next if I brought him any more bad news!” The fellow was starting to get frantic.

The first’s cutlass whipped out of his scabbard with a metallic rasp, the honed point touching the man’s Adam’s apple with precision, drawing a minuscule drop of blood. “You go tell him now, or I’ll tell him about that time a few days back when you drank his rum rations! You know how Blackeye loves his rum. He’ll do far worse than eat your liver, I promise you.”

The poor pirate drew back with a nervous gulp, wiping the blood from his throat and nodding reluctantly. “Aye, Seth, I’ll go, but I spit on your mother’s grave and curse your ale! Damn you!”

“Start marching.” the pirate called Seth commanded pompously, waving with the cutlass towards the desert back beyond the small copse of trees they were within.

The other went, mumbling oaths under his breath all the way. Seth watched him go, then relaxed when he was sure of his departure. It was in the brute’s moment of complacence that Jimmy struck. The rock glanced off the side of his head, but not before leaving a horrible gash across his temple. Seth went down with a groan, collapsing beside Tolibar’s cadaver.

Jimmy stepped over to his body, grabbing his sword and his belt. He buckled it around his waist, sheathing the blade. He smirked as he realized this was the second fool who had fallen to his deadly overarm throw. Sitch was probably still concussed. Maybe instead of this lousy reporter outfit he could try out for the national shotput team or something…He dismissed the moronic idea in an instant, turning to the task at hand.

He had to get out of this desert alive and find help. Now he had two objects of supposed worth two separate factions were willing to spill blood for: the moonstone and the damned amulet. Correction, both were damned. With Reizer and Silverbeard’s band of bozos hot on his heels, his life expectancy certainly couldn’t expect an optimistic appraisal. At least he was armed with a weapon, although it didn’t beat a pistol…that didn’t change the fact that he was still high and dry.

Reaching into his pocket and drawing out the amulet, he studied the trinket. It was a round bronze thing, with a cheap-looking, badly faceted green gem that adorned the centre. The bronze outer rim was beaten and partially corroded, especially around strange indecipherable runes etched in the alloy, as if somebody had tried to erase them from existence. Perhaps they held the key to the true intrinsic worth of the amulet. Perhaps it had been Tolibar who had attempted to destroy it…

It didn’t matter now. Jimmy was stuck with it. All he had to do was survive long enough to discern its secrets. Easier said than done.

Hanging the amulet around his neck, he head out of the isolated foliage cluster, aiming for the coast. There was no telling how soon the other pirate would be back with friends, or where Reizer was right now.

The sun beat down hard, sucking the moisture from his skin, but Jimmy waded through the infinite sands, determined to find some sign of civilization before either the heat or his enemies got him. Neither would be a pleasant end. The copse quickly grew smaller in the distance, leaving a clear view of the wide-spreading landscape of sand. He was the only trekking across this vast yellow blanket.

Yet despite this lonesome isolation, he could not help but feel he was being watched. The invisible eyes pursued him all the way, if nothing else did.

Chapter 3
Allegiances and Agendas


Leron awoke, eyes dazzled by the flickering firelight of a campfire. His head was pounding. Above the dark firmament was pinpricked with twinkling stars, and two glowing moons slowly chased each other across the sky. He shook his head, then regretted it as the pain redoubled.

His confusion evaporated when he was roughly hauled up onto his feet by two brawny men none too gently, who proceeded to drag him over to a figure partially revealed in the dancing shadows cast by the fire. His holders had the look of…pirates. It was crazy, but then again, it wasn’t. It was the stone that had brought him to this wasteland, he suddenly realized. The wretched reporter had struck him over the head with his own pistol and left him for these unsavoury ruffians. Rage and the desire for vengeance boiled in his belly, but it was re-channelled toward his captors when they roughly threw him onto the ground before the silhouetted man.

Spitting sand, Leron tried to lift himself up again, but one of the thugs beat him over the head with a clenched fist, growling, “Grovel for the First Mate’s jollies, swab!”

Suppressing a particularly lurid oath, Leron dared to look up from his annoyingly submissive position in the sand, casting a murderous glare at the dappled man seated complacently before the campfire. While he couldn’t make out his features, he could hear a sickening munching sound and smacking of lips, as if someone were ravenously devouring a meal with no attention to table manners whatsoever.

Barbarians. Leron though conceitedly.

“Here ye go, First Mate, sir!” one pirate said, a cruel-looking rogue with a scar running across his forehead. Yet, despite his ferocity, his voice trembled with barely perceptible fear. He touched his forelock in a sign of respect. Anxious respect.

The man of the shadows leaned forward, the flickering flames illuminating his wicked face in an ominous red-yellow cast. He was a swarthy-skinned man. His fleshy lips were smeared with crimson and grease, and his right eye was covered by a black patch. An obtrusively crooked nose dominated the centre of a pernicious face, one that looked to have been broken more than once.

For a time, he ignored Leron and the two ruffians, who stood apprehensively nonplussed. His solitary eye was focused on the piece of meat impaled on a stick, which he bit into voraciously. Leron frowned. The piece of meat looked like a liver. A human liver.

It took all of his composure not to throw up his last meal. Eating human livers! What backward hell had he descended into?

Finally, the man finished his morsel, perfunctorily tossing it over his shoulder and bearing down his innately malicious gaze on Leron.

“So, this is one of the spies?” he asked. Despite his ruffian-like demeanour, he spoke mellifluously and with a cultured complexity that surprised Leron.

“Aye, First Mate, ‘tis he! We gots him, we did! Found him dozing in the sun, but not on sand, sir!” the other pirate nodded frantically.

Leron snorted. Dozing indeed.

“There was this weird sort of floor tile arrangement, like marble, but not quite, wagers I. Tables too, sort o’ like those labs those mage types work in! I thinks that would be a safe bet, aye.”

“You’re not paid to think anything, Merrison. You’re just paid to stove in skulls that I tell you to stove in at a moment’s notice.” the First Mate said, smiling condescendingly.

“Aye, First Mate!” replied the pirate, again touching his forelock with a shaky hand. “Yer word is law.”

“Of course.” The First Mate’s single bloodshot eye never left Leron’s face. “What about the other two spies?”

“There was the tall one with the beard who killed a good power of us, and the lanky one who lifted the amulet off Tolibar’s carcass. Both got away.”

Leron’s eyes widened slightly. Reizer and Malone had managed to escape.

The First Mate gave a displeased hiss. “I’ve already heard this bilge from the herald. He’ll be heralding no more, I’m afraid. His liver made an excellent dish.” He grinned wickedly, showing jagged yellow-stained teeth. The two pirates paled and stiffened. “A lesson for the both of you. Never bring ill tidings.”

“Blackeey, we swears we searched hard for ‘em! We swears! But they’re tricksy, I tells ya! Tricksy!”

The First Mate’s face darkened. “That’s First Mate to you, lubber brain. Only friend call me Blackeye. Since I have no friends, nobody may call me that.”

“Nobody but I!” roared a voice like a bear’s, and an officious looking old man with a long flowing silver beard stepped out from the darkness to stand beside the lazily seated Blackeye. “And I sure as fate ain’t no friend of yours, ye bloody maneater!”

Blackeye stiffened and reached into the shadows behind him, pulling out a bottle of rum. “Well met, Silverbeard.” he said, then took a draught, long and deep, the gulps obtrusively audible.

“That’s Captain Silverbeard to you, you snivelling, smooth-tongued cur!” the old man shouted, and with a kick shattered the bottle in Blackeye’s mouth, splattering shards of glass and rum everywhere. The First mate appeared only mildly dazed, holding little more than the broken neck of the bottle now.

“Aye, Captain.” he replied absently. Then his gaze assumed its previous malevolence, settling on Leron again.

“I ain’t in a pretty mood after today’s events. The designer’s cold stone dead, and the amulet lifted by some wet-nosed outlander who'’ taken to tramping off in the desert!” Silverbeard growled menacingly. His sabre slid out of its scabbard with an ominously smooth rasp, and he pointed it at Leron, blue eyes somehow red with vengeful rage. “Spies, says I! Well, we have on fish in the kettle, and he’ll talk, won’t he?” When Leron didn’t reply, Silverbeard bared his teeth. “WON’T HE?!”

Leron nodded hastily. This old timer wasn’t ripe for the nursing home just yet. Rather he had the look of a savage…well, pirate. How fitting.

“Who do you work for?” Silverbeard demanded.

Blackeye interjected first. “Captain, he is obviously the intractable sort and won’t talk unless appropriate ‘persuaded’. May I suggest-?”

“YOU MAY SUGGEST NOTHING OF THE SORT YOU TURTLE-BRAINED RUM SPONGE!!” Silverbeard roared, delivering such a might kick to Blackeye’s rump that the startled first mate actually bounced before jumping to his feet. “Get up, you miserable excuse for a seaman! I don’t pay you for just lying on your rear all day! You’re my First Mate, for the love of Hawkins, not some virgin landsman just come aboard with his belly full of rum and head stuffed with wool from a night of drinking and wenching!”

Blackeye gave his superior a distasteful look of chagrin. “Aye, Captain.” he said, trading the more profane words that had surely been at the tip of his tongue in for obsequious words.

“Now,” Silverbeard said, in a great huff, “who do you spy for?”

“I am no spy!” Leron protested. He tried to rise for a second time, but a pirate’s boot stomped on the small of his back, and with a pained cry he fell back into the sand. “It was the moonstone that brought me here! The moonstone did it! I had no intention of coming here!”
“You lie!” Blackeye spat, but Silverbeard merely frowned in deep internal consideration.

“Moonstone, eh? That’s mages’ business.” he said gruffly.

“Mages’ business?” Blackeye’s face tightened. “Now, Captain, you don’t go crossing mages. Even I’m not that ambitious to chance a life-time curse.”

“Bah! Curses my broadside turret! It’ll be just like that mage we jumped back at Dagger Isle. Got a fine lot of loot off him we did, pretty said to be sure.” Silverbeard snorted derisively.

“Aye, only after he slaughtered three quarters of our crew with lightning and fire!” Blackeye said incredulously.

“Fish entrails, so be it if he did! They were green-gilled fishermen from New Magincia anyway, and we know what comes from New Magincia. What can you expect?” The pirate captain’s tone was weighed down heavily with contempt. “The new boys we picked up at Buccaneer’s Den will do a power of a better job than them.”

Blackeye shrugged. “In any case, it doesn’t matter.” he said, now studying Leron assiduously. “This one is no mage. Look at his clothes. A strange, tight-fitting black material, not unlike the attire that spies don for their surreptitious missions. He denies the blatantly obvious!”

“Yeah, never mind the fact that black stands right out against yellow sand like a black tooth amidst white.” Silverbeard rebuffed sardonically.

Blackeye’s reply was thickly patronizing, “Spies don’t lurk about at daytime! They slink in at night! This one was just foolish enough to be caught sleeping, the complacent knave!”

Ignoring Blackeye, Silverbeard resumed the interrogation. “What is your name?” he demanded of Leron. “Who are you?”

“Leron.” replied the corporate agent. Below the surface of his seemingly calm exterior he seethed. Once he escaped he make all of these scum pay for lowering him to such a level. “From Chicago, if you want to be specific.”

“Chicago? Some foreign, faraway city-state, no doubt.” Blackeye speculated.

“No, by thunder! I don’t care who he is, I want to know who he works for! One of our rivals? Who is it, tell me, you scum, or you’ll wish your mother never kissed your father!” Silverbeard waved his sword madly. “Is it Captain Sirvus, Wilkins, Steeljaw, Verne, Scumpac? Talk, damn your flaccid tongue!” He didn’t even bother to wait for Leron’s reply. “Bah! Kill him, boys!”

“No, wait!” Leron cried as the two thugs dragged him onto his feet, virtually holding him up. “I can help you find the man with the amulet!”

Blackeey peered at him skeptically, while Silverbeard’s countenance of animalistic fury turned to one of calculation.


Leron reigned in his fear. He had gotten the old bastard’s attention. He wouldn’t lower himself to sounding desperate. The bargaining chip had come into his possession, and he was prepared to use it to better his situation.

“To begin with,” he said, an epitome of cool serenity, “the man’s name is Jimmy Malone. He is an enemy of mine that I have a great desire to kill.” That part was certainly true, especially since the son of a bitch had gotten him into this predicament in the first place. “He has something I want. He isn’t much of a warrior, but has his fair share of surprises. I know how he thinks.” The latter part was an outright lie. Truth to tell, he had only known the plucky young man for the few minutes or so he had interrogated him in the museum and what scarce articles he had read on him. But he needed as much leverage as he could gain to ensure his survival at the hands of these savages.

Silverbeard scowled. “So it would seem by your words, swab. Bet that as it may, I fail to see how keeping you alive would benefit me.”

Blackeye rolled his eye in exasperation.

Leron looked at the pirate captain as if he were as dense as a neutron star. The egocentric old codger was becoming senescent, he noted with an imperceptible sneer. “Captain,” the word tasted acrid in his mouth, “it would be a boon to you if you spared my pitiful life. I know well the features and mannerisms of your quarry; I can be of invaluable assistance in tracking him down.”

“To be sure you would.” Silverbeard leered. “I’m not such an infernal lubber after all.”

Leron was willing to dispute that, but not right now. Perhaps when the tables had turned and this dog was grovelling at his feet begging for mercy…

“Very well. I accept your allegiance.” Silverbeard said.

“Captain, before you do dismiss the person in question, one last interrogative.” Blackeye said. HE turned to Leron, eye vaguely promising a horrible demise should any falsehood be detected. “Who is the bearded one that kills like a daemon?”

“His name is Reizer.” Leron replied smoothly, despite his inquisitor’s unsettling gaze. “He is an ally of mine. As of right now, he is diligently hunting down Malone as the previously discussed plan dictates.” At least he hoped Reizer was. There was no ‘plan’. The original plan had flown apart like shit hitting a fan with the moonstone’s unanticipated teleportation. But Reizer was an efficient and reliable fellow, if a touch too reticent for Leron’s taste. IF anybody could hunt down the scum Malone, he could.

Silverbeard nodded curtly, cutting off Blackeye’s spluttered distrustful protests and choosing to accept Leron’s explanation. To the pirates holding the prisoner he said, “Take him to the stockade. If he so much as sneezes out of line, stuff ‘im in a cannon and fire toward the sea.”

The pirates chuckled and hauled Leron away, who allowed himself to be taken passively. But deep inside, he resolved to bide his time and wait for the right moment to strike. And when that moment came - and he sure as certain as the fires of hell would make sure it did - he would strike with extreme prejudice. All were going to pay dearly for these indignities.

Silverbeard paid no heed to Leron’s forcible departure. He was fuming. He had come so close, risked so much, and it had blown up in his face like a soup bubble. Tolibar hadn’t been easy to kidnap, and the retrieval of his amulet was of the utmost importance to his machinations. If only that idiot guard hadn’t gotten smashed on rum during watch, then Tolibar’s escape could have been stopped.

For a moment, Silverbeard considered venting his rage upon Blackeye. He had been the one to stab Tolibar during the crazed escape during the previous night, after all.

The First Mate stared at him now, face deceptively placid. Silverbeard knew well that beneath that ugly countenance lay a rabid animal of a man, worst than most other pirates, indicative by his occasional cannibalism and horrendous cruelty. Not for the first time he considered killing the cur. However, despite Blackeye’s considerabe vices, there was no denying his unusual intelligence and cunning. He needed men like him. Needed their intelligence at least. He had his doubts as to whether Blackeye was really native to this realm.

“I don’t trust that one, Captain.” Blackeye said, referring to Leron. “Personally, I think we should just kill him.”

“What? So ye can eat him?” Silverbeard retorted.

Blackeye scowled.

“If that piece of mangy swab filth can help me find this Malone cur, I’ll take the chance of treachery. A handsomer deal than that in such a situation one couldn’t look to find.” Silverbeard said.

Blackeye shrugged.

“I want that amulet!” Silverbeard snarled. “When we do track down the quarry, I want no mistakes this time.” He wagged a finger at Blackeye, but prudently made sure he didn’t wag it too close. One never knew when the First Mate could get hungry.

Blackeye arched the eyebrow above his good eye. “I still don’t see what’s so valuable about it. You can get maybe a couple crowns for it at most. Hardly enough to steer the crew clear of mutiny.”

Silverbeard allowed himself a malignant smile. Blackeye never ceased trying to discover the secret of his obsession with the amulet, the cunning wretch. “I told you, Blackeye, I’ll tell you when I deems it right to tell you.”

“No pressure at all, Captain.” Blackeye replied, slightly mocking. “Just watch out for mutiny, though. The crew doesn’t like being kept in the dark. You’d better hasten with your decision to ‘please explain’.”

“Mutiny, eh?!” Silverbeard roared, loud enough to make Blackeye start from sudden consternation. Then, like quicksilver, the fiery-tempered captain’s mood switched to a cooler, more calculating one. “Don’t worry, lubber. When we get the amulet, we’ll be reaping more gold than you can ever imagine!”

“Like I haven’t heard that before.” Blackeye said tiredly. Then his eyes narrowed, glimmering with greed. “Some sort of stash?”

Silverbeard smiled inscrutably. “You’ll find out. But don’t push, otherwise you’ll be eating your liver!”

Blackeye’s look was dubious. “Reaping a great deal of gold is a hard thing these days, what with all the competition out on the sea.”

“The other captains will fall before me in due time.” Silverbeard said pompously. “But as of now, I need the ship prepared. We’ll be settin’ a-sail early morning tomorrow. If this Malone lubber is smart, he’ll stick to the coast for the sparse trees growin’ nearby. Eventually, he’ll reach Vesper. We’ll be waiting for him.”

“What if he isn’t smart?”

“If he ain’t, then we’ll comb every square inch of that desert until I get that amulet.” Silverbeard growled, temper flared.

Blackeye wisely backed off. “Sure thing, Captain.” He touched his forelock.

A man stepped from the shadows, facing Silverbeard and giving a perfunctory salute. Vigil Pew was a lanky, gangly fellow, slightly bent and in his middle years. He prided himself on being the greatest set of deadlights on the Great Sea, able to spot a ship in the distance oft times before their own watchmen could spot them. Many a merchant and navy vessel had fallen because of his acute vision. The fact was he was almost as good as he thought he was.

“Ah, Vigil Pew. What is it?” Silverbeard demanded brusquely.

“I’m tellin’ ye, Capt’n, again I see the tip of a foremost stickin’ over the horizon! Earlier today, I saws it! We’re being followed, I’ll wager my rum on it!”

“I’ll take that wager.” Blackeye said, suddenly eager at the mention of rum.

“Bah, Vigil Pew, you’re being paranoid again.” Silverbeard said gruffly. Then again, it wouldn’t be wise to dismiss the purported claim of the credible pompous watchman. “Double bah, thrice spam, and a humbug!”

“What item you want to create?” Blackeye asked, amuse for some clandestine reason.

“What?” Silverbeard demanded in perplexity.

“Never mind.” replied the First Mate, eyes drifting to one side as he whistled innocently.

Silverbeard eyed him askance. “Yah, worthless whale lover…” He turned back to Vigil Pew, who stood impatiently waiting for orders. “Alright, Pew, there’s no need to be getting’ all anxious, ye seasick salt dog. Just to calm your nerves, tell Rael Paws to keep those broadside guns ready for a scrap in case we get jumped.”

“Aye, Capt’n!” replied Vigil Pew, giving another awkward salute. The scrawny watchman stalked off into the darkness.

Silverbaerd looked at Blackeye expectantly. “Well, what are you standing there for, lubber? Snap to it! Ready the ship, damn your eyes!” he barked.

“Amen, Captain.” Blackeye responded coolly, leaving the light of the campfire unhurried in the least.

Silverbeard scowled after him, angry gaze hot enough to turn the very sand to glass. Wretched cannibal.

The cool breeze blew through Captain Verne’s long, wavy hair as he peered through the telescope at the shore a great distance beyond. It was an enchanted spyglass, blessed by the mystic powers of a venerable mage who had been more than happy to help him and his truculent band. If one could be said to act with alacrity under duress. The dear old seer was all over Britannia now, separated into little pieces to make sure he didn’t talk.

Verne could see through a circle of vision a great campfire that positively glowed vermilion in the night, its pervasive halo revealing, at least partially, a formidable stockade with palisade, guns, and all. As he lowered the spyglass from his eye, he smiled a grim smile of satisfaction. It had taken many months to find his hated rival’s lair. Now here it was.

Sivlerbeard was an elusive cur, however ruthless he was. And he was more ruthless than most. Verne despised the man not only because he was such a steadfast competitor who had on more than one occasion beat them to many a fat merchant ship, but because he was so barbaric. Though none of his crew knew it - or at least he hoped they had not begun to suspect - something strange was happening to Verne. In his old age, he was becoming soft. Once a taxman in the service of Blackthorn, who had given considerable jurisdiction pertaining to the infliction of penalties on late-payers (subtracting fingers or selling a daughter into slavery for every day late to name a few), he had turned to a life of privacy, boarding ships and pillaging and raping for the next several decades, rising up through the ranks. Eventually, he had become captain after the previous one had been blown up in his sleep by a powder keg that had been placed under his bed, assuming command of the fearsome three-mast battleship Wave Raider.

The fact of the matter was that after years of terrorizing the seas, Verne was becoming soft. One might even say remorseful. After all these years, in excess of two hundred actually, he was still trying to puzzle out why he had turned to such a life of unspeakable butchery. He had been raised well enough as a boy back on his world of Ashtalaera. Perhaps it had been to vent his anger after the strange blue glowing door stole him away from his beloved home. Who could say? His hands were black with copious blood. But he still hoped for repentance. He had faith in the Eight Virtues set down by the legendary Avatar and Lord British. He was determined to get back on the road to piety. Just one more heist to satiate his increasing disgruntled crew, and he would leave this life of immorality forever.

His crew had good reason to be disgruntled. Of late, due to his sudden glimmer of altruism and morality, he had forbade his crew to raid towns or even scuttle ships. Their profit reaping had now been severely restricted to only demanding ‘modest’ travelling fares from passing vessels and assailing other pirate ships. By the crew’s reckoning, that wasn’t profitable at all. They were a savage lot, so what could one expect?

So Verne wanted to sweeten their mood a little before he left them to their devices. A little present. The biggest treasure hoard of all time. And he was certain Silverbeard was on the path to finding it.

“A mighty cosy hideout they’ve got.” commented the balding, round-faced man beside him after taking a look through the magical spyglass. His name was Mole, a brutish villain who relished his profession like no toher. His repulsive nature made him no friends, none but Blacktooth, and where Mole was, the swarthy-skinned and -toothed pirate would surely be lingering around the corner.

Verne had never seen a closer pair than them. Mole handed Blacktooth the spyglass, and the fellow agreed with a click of his tongue.

“Sly old bastard!” he said, looking through the spyglass. “Art thou sure he knows the way to the treasure?”

“Blacktooth, thou fool, don’t speak of it as if it’s just any ‘treasure’. Thou must make it sound reverent, like those pious oafs talk about the Virtues.” Mole berated him. “It’s the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet’s hoard, man!”

“Sorry.” Blacktooth said, although he sounded quite the opposite.

Verne’s face darkened. “Thou fools stop talking ‘bout the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet as if he were part of some bedtime story! He was the meanest, most dastardly, bloodthirsty cutthroat that ever sailed the Great Sea! Every honest seaman’s worst nightmare, he was, and every pirate not part of this pack, too!”

The two young pirates looked at him, tiredly expectant. They had herd this tale many times before.

Verne narrowed his eyes, voice taking an authoritative tone. “Thou lads art too young to appreciate and fear ‘im, since he sailed more than thirty years ago, and thou whelps art barely out of thy teens. Although I don’t know how a lad like thee of twenty could already be losing his hair, Mole, or why thine tooth is black for lack of brushing, Blacktooth.” he growled.

Both looked at him in embarrassment, then hung their heads in shame. That put the haughty whippersnappers in their place.

“It’s a hereditary thing.” Mole muttered, tears welling in his eyes.

“Ain’t my fault me da never told me to use Colgate.” Blacktooth grumbled reproachfully.

“Enough, thou scapegoating rum thieves!” Verne roared, then got a hold of himself when the two underlings actually jumped out of surprised fear. His tone was still scathing when he continued, though, “Thou fools think the Shade Capt’n as some sort of dandy gentlemen? No, by thunder, he wasn’t! He was every bit as mean as Hawkins himself, and then some. He had more than fifteen ships under his command, for Principle’s sake!” He caught his tongue. He couldn’t let his tongue slip his growing devoutness in the Virtues, lest his minions become surreptitious. He rolled on before they could have a chance to comment, “No, sirree, they didn’t call him Capt’n of the Shade Fleet for nothing! He sank more ships than thou curs wilt ever run away from! Idiot stoneheads!” Thou must have the smarts of a cannonball not to see how deadly he was. He had seventeen of the meanest pirate captains under his command, and they weren’t selected for etiquette, let me assure ye! His ‘lieutenants’, he called ‘em.”

Mole smiled insolently at this. “Aye, Silverbeard was one of ‘em, if I do remember.” he dared to say.

A low growl escaped Verne’s throat. Mole did remember the story well, curse his liver! The fundamental reason for his enmity for Silverbeard was that many decades ago, perhaps more than forty and five years ago, Verne had been offered a place in the Shade Capt’n’s Circle of Lieutenants, but the thieving bastard Silverbeard had swiped it from him in a dazzling cutlass duel on the deck of the dreaded Capt’n’s flagship, the Sanguine Serpent. Verne had been lucky to escape alive that day, and had left in shame.

“That’s right.” Verne admitted grudgingly. He plowed on despite Mole’s smug smile of victory. “Together, under the Capt’n’s leadership, they amassed a legendary amount of loot! More than fifteen years of terrorizing the sea, and they had gotten more loot than any pirate in history. “We’re talkin’ gold, nuggets, bars, gems, jewels, even items of arcane nature.” He let the pint sink in for emphasis. Even though the youthful pirates knew roughly the manifest of the Shade Fleet’s hoard, their eyes still glistened with avarice after countless retellings. “But their was dissention and disgruntlement among many lieutenants. They got too greedy, they did, thinking they should’ve gotten a juicier share. The Shade Fleet usually worked in different parts of the ocean, sometimes in ones, pairs, even threes, for a broader range of pickings and to avoid the navy. Only rarely did the fleet work in total numbers, and only on the greatest heists. They’d meet at a designated place, which always changed, at a set time in the evening, to coalesce their plunder. The Shade Capt’n was a crafty one, for he kept the lieutenants together for a power of years and squeezed every copper out of them they had pillaged, but even he couldn’t keep such a group of greedy swabs, each with their own interests, together indefinitely. So it came one day that a band of the lieutenants got together and jived of betrayal.

“But the Capt’n was no fool. He sniffed the winds of treachery and saw the eddies of chicanery, and so he sailed to a faraway island, south of here a power of sea miles, with all the loot the fleet had amassed in a lifetime of blood and murder. He brought two ships with him, there was so much, and only the ship captain he trust most. Yet it still was a wonder they did not sink. They buried it deep in a cave…him, the captain, and five others. Took ‘em days, it did. But before they could get back aboard, the five died. A pit of snakes, the Shade Capt’n and his trusted lieutenant, who I’ll call Benzy for now, said. Then, when they sailed away, Benzy’s ships inexplicably blew its hull and sank to the bottom like a rock. The Shade Capt’n wanted no witnesses, regardless of how trustworthy they were.

“And so a short time after, perhaps two weeks or so, one of the lieutenants called a meeting. ‘Twas said they communicated over the vast distances with magic orbs, though we’ll never know. It was north of the Isle of the Avatar they met, but they were to be betrayed. Some of the lieutenants leaked the bearing of the moot to one of Lord British’s top men, Geoffery I believe his name was, and a fleet of thirty ships was sent to smash the pirates. It was a vicious free-for-all, pirate turning on pirates, ships sinking port and starboard. A number of the lieutenants died, their ships sent to the bottom of the sea, and a few more managed to escape. That was the end of the Shade Fleet.” Verne leaned forward, eyeing the young pirates. “And where be the surviving lieutenants now? Dead, most of ‘em, slain by each other’s hand in the following years. As for the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet, no one knows what happened to him. Some say he died in the fighting. Others say he still sails the Sanguine Serpent on the Great Sea, and merchant sailors still see his dreaded Red Roger over the horizon. No one can believably say. He always kept a black hood on his face so no one could get a good eye on him.”

“What dost thou think?” Blacktooth asked curiously.

“Me?” Verne asked, surprised at the question. Blacktooth was looking unusually thoughtful, as was Mole. Verne snorted derisively at the rumours. “That old coot is long dead, and rightfully so. Let him rot in peace! But I reckon Silverbeard knows where he stashed his hoard. At least the island. By thunder, he was probably the one who betrayed him.” Well, he couldn’t actually prove the last statement. He didn’t have an iota of credible evidence, only bitter hatred and contempt.

Mole sighed in frustration. “Why waste time following him when we can just rush in and blast that stockade to dust, then take Silverbeard and torture the location out of him?” he demanded impatiently.

Blacktooth somehow blanched despite his dark complexion. “And go up against Rael Paws’ boomers? I’d sooner take on a sea serpent with a baby’s rattle!”

“Paws ain’t that good.” Mole said disparagingly.

“Aye, only as good as the best gunner in the Great Sea!” Blacktooth cried.

Verne scowled. Had one first been introduced to their childish bickering, he would have thought them sworn enemies. But they truly were the best of friends, as Verner had noted in his months of commanding them, and despite the seriousness of their arguments - they sometimes would curse each other’s mother - they always made up later on. They had been known to share drinks, loot, even wenches. Then he noticed how far they had descended into arguing.

“…ah, go bed a goat, thou bullox lout!” Mole snapped.

“I’m gonna use thy head for a bowling ball, ingrate!” Blacktooth growled.

“Prepare to drink bilge, scum!”

“SILENCE!” Verne yelled.

Instant silence he received. Eyeing them both in immense irritation, he spat on the deck.

“Thou bloody damn fools! Thou dost think I’m going to spoil the clandestine nature of this mission just at thy whim, Mole? No, by clouds and rain, I most certainly ain’t! I wouldn’t go up against Silverbeard’s Sea Critter if they had toddlers manning those guns instead of Rael Paws! Stealth is needed here, and we’ll only break it when the time is right.”

“Like when they’ve found the treasure, right?” Blacktooth asked.

“Yes, Blacktooth. Thou mayest beat that rock in an IQ test after all.” Verne smiled mockingly.

Blacktooth beamed at the compliment. Mole muttered something under his breath that Verne thought he was better off not hearing.

“Now, enough of jiving. Get to work preparing the ship to set sail at sunrise! That’s when Silverbeard will leave, I’ll wager my captaincy on it.” Verne barked.

Mole and Blacktooth went off, their most recent argument already forgotten and replaced with yet another.

“What’s with Rael Paws’ last name? He from Paws or what?” Blactooth asked.

“No, that ain’t right. It’s ‘cause he’s got hands like paws. How else would he be able to hand those big guns?” Mole nodded sagely.

“Seagull leavings! That’s the biggest crock of midden I’ve heard since the legend of Mondain!” Blacktooth said.

“Mondain did live, thou idiot! Dost thou not read history?!”

Their perpetually arguing voices faded into the night, leaving the breeze to blow.


Chapter 4
Stranger Reuinions

The blazing sun baked the sands, which glowed yellow and stung the eyes with their sheer brightness. The heat was unbearable, and Jimmy was in the very midst of it, out in the open desert, the coast on his left and an endless expanse of sand on his right. Had he any more moisture left in his body, he would have been drenched in sweat.

He stumbled about awkwardly, desperately scanning what lay ahead for any sign of another grove of trees, or freshwater. Anything that could give him reprieve from this unfairly austere hell. He had been journeying across the sands, following the southward winding coast, for the whole freezing night and most of this sweltering morning. The amulet was hot against his skin, under his ragged soiled and torn blue shirt. His pants were not much better, ripped near the ankles and splattered with mud and sand. It was strangely ironic that out of all his attire only his hat had managed to remain in good condition. It still sat firmly upon his head.

Jimmy was exhausted. He held the cutlass he had swiped off the unconscious Seth in one hand. Its dully gleaming blade was blemished with dried blood, and not human blood either. It was part of the reason he had not been able to rest for so many hours. Near dawn, he had come across a small but very welcome oasis nestled in a copse of palm trees, where he had decided to wait out the ferocity of the sun and set out again at dusk. But his well-made spur-of-the-moment plan had been cruelly reduced to tatters with the arrival of a giant scorpion, at least half again the size of an average myrmidex drone, and every bit as mean.

The battle had been a fierce one, only Jimmy’s nimbleness saving him from its poisonous stinger and massive claws. The blood on his sword was the creature’s; he had managed to drive it off, but only just.

So now he found himself here, in the middle of nowhere, mouth as desiccated as an ancient Kotl corpse, his once fair skin red and burned by the unforgiving sun, the relentless heat sapping his strength like a leech. What other perils roamed the sands of this loathsome desert he did not know, nor did he want to. The eyes still seemed to follow him, even out here in this yellow sea. Sometimes, when looking over his shoulder, face contorting with the pain of the blistered skin on his neck, he thought he could see a diminutive black figure in the distance, just peaking over the horizon, shimmering in the excessive heat. It would all too quickly disappear again, for hours on end, and reappear spontaneously. Jimmy could not say whether it was real or a mirage. Who could say, in his state?

Cresting a mound of sand, he looked ahead, and saw only more desert. Even a mirage would be welcome to spoil the monotony of this place. It was driving him mad, the pounding of the waves on the shore only an umber of metres to his left. Mad that he could not gorge himself on it, drink in its cool, tongue-caressing taste. A taste laced copiously with salt. Being poisoned by the scorpion would have been a kinder fate.

He started to descend, but his feet failed him and he pitched forward, tumbling down the side of the mound and coming to reset at the base. he groaned and tried to rise, but suddenly the sand fell beneath him and into a dark hole he was swallowed, to be caught in a funnel-shaped web, staring down into the black maw. He was stuck prone to the web, arms, legs, and torso firmly adhered to the thick silky strands. He struggled, but it did little but serve to entangle him more in the thinner, finer strands.

This place was noticeably cooler, though he could barely see from the corner of one eye by craning his neck the blazing daylight through the egress. It was also rather eerie, and a foul air was present. The air of decay…of death. His muddled, half-cooked brain finally registered the familiarity of this place. It was not unlike the traps of desert spiders back on Earth, or the deadly funnel-web spiders of Australia. His heart fluttered at the thought. If judging from the size of the creatures he had already faced here, it wouldn’t be illogical to assume that this was the lair of an oversized spider.

And that was exactly what it was. Heralded by the vibrations in the funnel-web, a great black spider, midway between the size of a bloodhound and a pony, crawled over the desiccated husks of unrecognizable prey, some very possibly humans.

“Welcome to my parlour…” Jimmy’s voice trailed off as he spotted his cutlass a few feet down, stuck in the web like he. He tried to reach for it, but his arm was restricted. “Damn…”

The web vibrated more rigorously as the spider hungrily drew near, mandibles clicking in a sickening sound of viscous wetness. Its green eyes stared into his, all eight of them. Jimmy felt a chill run down his pine at the thought of being devoured by this…thing.

The mandibles clicked moistly, the spider preparing to lunge like a black widow upon a helplessly trapped fly, then a hooping, whooshing sound took precedence, not unlike a twirling nunchukus or spinning lassoo, and to Jimmy’s absolute wonder a boomerang flew by his head uncomfortably close and severed off one of the arachnid’s legs.

The creature screeched as green slime spewed from the cleanly amputated limb, nearly tumbling back into the hole. The boomerang returned to its unseen owner, and a spear followed, plunging into the spider’s abdomen and bursting it in a putrid shower of slime and entrails. This time it did fall, crashing to the shadow-obscured bottom. It thrashed for several moments after, the web vibrating with its agonized movements, then it lay still.

The boomerang flew again, cutting through the webbing that held Jimmy with precision. When he though he would fall deeper into the hole, something grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. A mighty hand pulled him out and into the light once more, and he found himself face to face with a very ugly visage indeed. A demonic, crimson leather-skinned face, drawn taut over a snarling countenance made of angular cheek bones and a lantern jaw. Deep set eyes almost glowed yellow, malevolently perhaps. The snarling rictus possessed six-inch fangs and serrated teeth.

“Well, hello, handsome…” Jimmy croaked, throat parched from both thirst and fear. For a moment, he thought he would have rather been taken by the spider than this monstrosity.

The creature placed him gently on the sand, where he promptly sat, legs too weak to support him any longer. The beast, which he could only call a demon, loomed above him, nearly seven feet tall. The muscles of its chest, arms, and legs practically bulged under that red leathery skin, rippling like snakes with even the slightest movement. On each finger was a vicious looking claw. Atop its head, a pair of horns only emphasized its demonic appearance.

“To greet you, wanderer.” the creature spoke, an inherently low growl. It was then that Jimmy realized that the snarling rictus was supposed to be a smile, of all things. “To see you are hurt. To want to help. To ask if you need drink?”

“Coffee wouldn’t be bad.” Jimmy said wryly, in a hoarse whisper. Every word grated his throat like rusty barbed wire.

“Cof-fee?” The creature actually looked confused. “To not understand. To give you water instead. To hope it will suffice.” It handed him a waterskin.

“Oh, you bet it will, pal. Muchos gracias.” Jimmy took the waterskin, gulping down the deliciously warm liquid to the dregs, savouring every millilitre. Water had never tasted so good. And to think he had once thought it tasteless, only for the whusses who couldn’t hold their liquor. He’d never avoid his eight glasses a day again.

Handing back the drained waterskin, Jimmy nodded his thanks. He was still thirsty, although his throat was nowhere near as parched as it was before.

“Hey, buddy, where’s civilization around here? My butt’s starting to barbecue.” Jimmy said.

“Vesper is not far. To be league or so away. To carry you there, as you are too weak to travel on foot. To not be good to lie in such sun.”

“You betcha, unless of course you want the tan of the century.”

The creature picked him up with little exertion and began the trek across the sands, seemingly unaffected by the sun’s sweltering heat. Jimmy was exhausted to the extent that he found his eyes inexorably closing, and so he fell into a deep, uneasy sleep, forgetting his troubles for the time being, only to have them manifest themselves in the form of undefined, murky nightmares.

Silverbeard hawked and spat, his spray hitting one of the deckhands instead as the rushing wind diverted its intended course. The deckhand didn’t complain, instead casting a fearful glance at the old sea tyrant’s back and quietly shuffling off to find work elsewhere.

The Sea Critter was cutting through the water fast, the wind powering her sails. The coast was some distance off to starboard, barely seen by the naked eye to avoid shoals and more importantly to prevent the alerting of their quarry. Vigil Pew had reported sighting a lumbering, tall figure tramping on the coast a few hours back, very possibly a wingless gargoyle.

Silverbeard spat again, this time making it over the gunwale. Those gargoyle scum were a pernicious plague, having infested Vesper with their vile collective presence. The Avatar should have killed them when he had the chance more than a century-and-a-half ago, and cut the throat of that monster Draxi-what’s-his-face to sweeten the deal.

He half-turned to see the helmsman working diligently at the wheel, a not-so-intelligent man in his middle years named Morgan who was at the very least proficient at the sailing of a ship. Silverbeard trusted him enough to use him as shark fodder should the need ever arise, much like the rest of his worthless crew.

“How much longer to Vesper?” Silverbeard barked.

“Ohh, abouts maybe three hours, I’d say.” replied Morgan in an annoyingly whining voice. “I wouldn’t recommend flying the Jolly Roger, though, not for a doubloon once we get into port. You know how old British has been steppin’ up with the sea guard and all.”

“Of course I do, ye timber-headed lubber!” Silverbeard roared, incensed as usual at what he took to be a personal slight. “What do you think I am? Anchor-brained?! You’d think I had my eyes in a place where the sun don’t shine by your kettle of jive! Knave!”

“Easy, Capt’n, no offence.” Morgan said, nervously meek. “You know old Morgan’s a little scummy with his tongue and stone-witted to be sure.”

“Aye.” Silverbeard snorted gruffly.

“We would o’ passed our quarry by now, sir, that I can say with as much surety as sayin’ the sun will set this dusk.” Morgan rolled on, eager to change the subject.

“You’d better hope so.” Silverbeard growled ominously.

The old sea tyrant stepped off the foredeck to catch Vigil Pew climbing down the rigging as quick and spry as a spider, jumping down onto the deck barefoot. Silverbeard prepared to blast the watchman for trying to sneak out of his duties, but sly Pew gave him a very knowing look and blurted, “Don’t ye worry, Capt’n, old Pew ain’t trying to sneak outta his daily work for a sip of rum. I gots some good news, do I! Or bad news, depending on how you take it.”

“Well, out with it, swab!” Silverbeard barked.

“I got another look at our shadow, sir!”

Silverbeard looked at him incredulously, then glanced at the vessel’s shadow that skimmed smoothly across the surface of the water. He looked back at Vigil Pew, glaring now. “Aye, I can get a look at our shadow too! IDIOT! Bother me again with this load of flotsam, will you? I’ll-”

“No, no, nay, Capt’n! Not that shadow!” Pew said all too rapidly, eyes darting about nervously and holding his hands out in a placating gesture. “The shadow behind us!” He thrust his thumb over his shoulder, pointing at the broad sea behind them. Seeing that Silverbeard still wasn’t registering, and growing more irascible as a result, Pew took a more direct approach, “The ship I’ve been seein’ lately! I swear on my mother’s grave, Capt’n, it’s there! Just beyond any average lubber’s sight, but old Pew’s deadlights are the best in the business, by thunder’s report.”

Silverbeard hissed and snorted simultaneously, a remarkable trick of his. “Bah! Ye never had a mother!”

Pew appeared sullen, but his countenance quickly changed to an ingratiating one when the old pirate flashed anger. “I still can’t tell who’s a followin’ us. They be a cowardly bunch, not to show ‘em selves in the open all right and honourably.”

Silverbeard arched a gray eyebrow at him dubiously. “Honour? Since when did you turn to piety?” He fondled the hilt of his cutlass.

Pew frowned. “There’s pirate’s honour, sir, and pirate’s virtue.”

“Ha!” Silverbeard laughed scornfully. “Pirate’s virtue indeed! Ye’ve been with me nigh ten years terrorizing the honest sailors of the Great Sea, and all of a sudden ye begin spouting this bilge scum? Yer getting’ soft in yer old age, dog! Focus on what you have to do and steer hard to port to clear the shoals of faith and piety, the scourge of Britannia!”

Pew nodded dramatically, anxious to mollify his commanding officer’s incessantly foul mood. “Right you are, sir! Duty is duty!”

“As for the scum that be following us, you keep a good weather eyeball out for trouble, you hear? ‘Cause if I wake up tomorrow and find a Britannian galleon ahoying through my cabin window, I’ll skin ye from the neck down, ye yellowbellied bilge sponge!”

“Aye, aye, Captain!” Pew replied all too quickly, bobbing his head in nervous obeisance and briskly departing Silverbeard’s proximity.

Next Silverbeard confronted his chief gunner, Rael Paws. The big man before him was named Rael Paws for good reason; his massive hands were as large as a tiger’s, powerful enough to break a thick neck like a sun-dried twig. He was formidably muscled, his face square and lantern-jawed. Yet his hazel eyes were always wide and gave the impression that he was not always there in whole. He was a few masts short of a schooner, that was for certain, but there was no denying his nearly flawless marksmanship with a cannon, and his volatile brutality drove the other gunners beyond their limits.

“Paws, we’ll be sighting Vesper soon. I want you with torch in hand and guns primed!” Silverbeard barked.

Rael Paws looked up from aligning a cannon in a hole cut into the gunwale, as if startled. “Oh, rightio, sir! Big boomers will be primed and ready to go BOOM by that time fer sure!” he blabbered anxiously, in a voice that spoke volumes about his doubtful sanity.

“Ye just make sure of that, or else…” Silverbeard drew a finger across his throat.

Rael scrunched up his face as if caught in a snit. “I think me cannonballs need a little more spit and polish…” He leaned over to the cannon, patting it affectionately and crooning to it like a fretful mother, “Thou dost be calm, little baby, and thou wilt see more action than thou wilt ever crave for, even more than that time when thou didst make three merchant ships in a row go BOOOM!”

Silverbeard grumbled something rather lurid. He remembered that time. Those three merchant ships had gone BOOOM before they had even been able to board and confiscate their cargo, all thanks to the overzealous Rael and his damn ‘boomers’, as he so colloquially put them.

Leaving the gunner to his ‘children’, who was now softly singing a lullaby to them, Silverbeard paced across the mid-deck, brusquely pushing through deckhands and fear-eyed underlings, making a determined beeline for the main mast of the three-mast ship.

There was tied a most dishevelled, ragged fellow. Leron.

His bruised face still stared at Silverbeard with noble-like contempt. The man’s will was like well-tempered iron; he had been worked over by some of Silverbeard’s more idle boys, just for fun, but the prisoner had not been broken. Yet. Right now, he had had rotten fruit, bilge water, and leavings thrown at him to provide further humiliation, his visage stained and sullied with filth. He reeked.

“Well, well, well, Mister Leron. How goes it?” Silverbeard asked with feigned congeniality.

Leron’s lips curled back in a hateful snarl. “You piratical scum, you think I’m going to be of any use to you like this, mistreated the way I am?” the shifty-eyed man snapped.

Silverbeard’s left hook sent his face snapping to the right with an explosion of breath from the cheeks. He looked back, the purest hatred flaming in his eyes. Silverbeard grabbed him by the chin roughly so that he could not open his mouth, pushing the cur’s head to the mast.

“You listen here, otherworlder, if that is your real origin!” Silverbeard roared just inches from Leron’s face. The man was not so easily cowed. He didn’t even blink, the hatred still there. “You’re the scum, not I! Just get that through your turtle shell thick skull! With a jerk, Silverbeard let go and stepped back.

Leron spat, missing the pirate’s face by inches. “Savage! On my world, I possess weapons and forces undreamed of! You have made a grave mistake by doing this…this injustice to me!”

Silverbeard was unusually cold when he responded. “On the contrary, otherworlder, it is you who have made a grave mistake.” The cutlass whipped out of his scabbard, pointing at Leron’s eyes. “You will learn the virtue of Humility, younker.”

On deck, Leron’s scream split the air, lasting loud and long.

The first thing to greet Jimmy’s eyes in a long time was a kind, smiling face of considerable years. An aged man stared down at him, wearing white robes reminiscent of an ancient healer. Jimmy was wrapped snugly in a cot, blankets laid upon him tightly almost to the point of constriction. The room he was in was surprisingly cooler than what appeared of the desert through the nearby window. He felt tired, but strangely enough, his skin no longer burned and his once seemingly unquenchable thirst was thoroughly placated.

“Good afternoon, patient.” said the healer amicably. “I am Hothame. Thou art a strong lad to survive such a merciless desert, and doubly foolish to be trekking through such a place alone and ill prepared. It was only by luck that I found thee.”

“Kap-Lem?” Jimmy repeated, bewildered.

“The wingless gargoyle who rescued thee from the giant spider. A good, brave fellow that one. A shame his kind have met with such racial hatred after enduring so much…” The healer sighed.

Gargoyle? In retrospect, his saviour did look like a gargoyle, albeit sans the wings.

“Where…am I?” Jimmy asked.

“In Vesper, son. Mining town on the southern coast of the desert.” Hothame said, still smiling. “Thou wert in somewhat poor condition when thou first came here a few hours ago, but thanks to my considerable healing abilities, all thou dost need is a few days rest.” He didn’t sound like he was boasting either.

“You healed me?” Jimmy exclaimed, incredulously looking at the grandfather clock across the room. It was only 3:00pm. Back home, it would’ve taken a week at least to recover from the ordeal he had just emerged from. “So fast? How in the name of Pulitzer did you do that?”

“Don’t be fooled by my age, son. Magic only grows stronger with the passing years. Coupled with several healing potions, thine burns and other injuries were quickly mended.”

“Magic? You mean like…Houdini?”

Hothame frowned. “I know not of this Houdini, who from thine reverent tone sounds to have been a powerful mage, but my arcane abilities do draw source from magical ether, yes.” He smiled again. “Perhaps not on par with Nicodemus or Rudyom, but still…their calling did not reside in healing magic, anyway.” He paused to think for a moment. “Now may I ask what is thy name, pray tell?”

“Jimmy. Jimmy Malone.” Jimmy replied. “Reporter extraordinaire for Ultimate Adventures Magazine.”

“Pleased to meet thine acquaintance, Master Malone.” Hothame nodded his head.

“Yeah, I guess I owe you my thanks.” Jimmy said uncertainly, loosening his blanket and sitting up. “I think you’re like a normal GP, only of this Britannia place. I suppose that means you want payment for services. I don’t have any cash on me right now, so do you, uh, accept credit cards?”

“Credit cards?” Hothame appeared perplexed.

“Oh…primitive medieval realm, that’s right…no ATMs…” Jimmy said, embarrassed.

“Do not worry if thou canst not pay me now. I can always wait.” Hothame said reassuringly. “But right now…I must know why thou wert out in the desert in that manner.”

“It’s a long and very ugly story.” Jimmy said. “I got sucked into this land by something called a moongate…you know it?”

The healer’s eyes widened. “That would explain thy outlandish clothes, and the strange way thou dost speak!”

It was then that Jimmy realized that he no longer wore his original clothes, but a blue tunic and a pair of brown trousers. “The amulet? The moonstone? Where are they?” he demanded, suddenly worried.

“They are on the end table beside thee.” said Hothame.

To Jimmy’s great relief, they both were, the tarnished amulet and the mutilated moonstone.

“I’m afraid thy clothes were too sullied to be clean, so I had them burned.” Hothame’s curious gaze settled on the moonstone. “So that is what a moonstone looks like. Strangely scarred, for such a thing to be purported to be so smooth…”

“Careful around that thing.” Jimmy said. “It’s real volatile; tends to send you to places when you least expect or want to go.”

“I can imagine.” Hothame’s gaze returned to Jimmy. “Please continue, Master Malone.”

And so Jimmy did, telling of how he had obtained the moonstone and then the amulet, and was pursued across the desert by agents in black and Silverbeard’s pirates, till the part where he was saved from the spider’s maw by Kap-Lem. At the conclusion of the tale, a concerned frown creased the healer’s already wrinkled face.

“This does not bode well. Silverbeard is well-known to be among the most ruthless of pirates, and has in fact been terrorizing this region for the past several weeks. Of these men in black, I know naught.”

“They are from my world. Two of the original four got sucked in with me.” Jimmy said.

“Hmm…” The healer clucked in deep deliberation. “Thou art in serious trouble, my friend. Pirates and mystery men only serve as ailments to thine help. Thou hast two items, one that each party lusts for. Whatever Silverbeard wants the amulet for, it cannot be good. Also, the moonstone…Thou must see our sovereign, Lord British. He is a great mage in his own right, and knows much of moonstones and moongates. It is even said he came to this realm via one. He, if anybody, can help thee find a way home. Also, it is absolutely imperative that he get that amulet, whatever its value. Silverbeard is an all too dangerous threat, known even by his eminence.” Hothame appeared stricken for a moment. “As a healer, it pains me to say this, but in the need for haste, thou must forego rest in order to reach Britain.” Upon seeing Jimmy’s confusion, he added, “’Tis our capital. As beautiful and opulent as it is, it will also offer thee safe haven from those dastardly scoundrels.

“It is fortunate that a navy ship from Britain is here. A warrior, the commander of the vessel, flies our sovereign’s colours. A boisterous but reliable fellow, who perhaps loves a little too much ale than is right and healthy. I have forgotten his name. Old age does that.” he added sheepishly. “He is in port from a pirate patrol, and usually loiters at the Peckish Santrap Inn if he’s not tramping about town for supplies and settling petty racial disputes. Kap-Lem will be back from market soon…I’ll get him to take thee.”

Stretching, Jimmy rose, preparing for another long, arduous day of adventure…or misadventure, as he was so wryly beginning to see it.

Reizer darted into an alley, nearly stumbling on his own feet, but more from fatigue. His throat burned for water. His skin itched as if a thousand fire ants crawled beneath biting with wanton rage. His muscles ached beyond comprehension. Any other man lacking his rigid self-discipline, selfless dedication to duty and quintessential diligence would have gone mad by now.

After spending all night and most of the morning wading through that hellish desert, following the coast and that wretched reporter, he had at last made it to this primitive settlement. He had gone through a testing ordeal to get here too…after dispersing with perhaps a dozen pirates in the displaced lab before running out of ammunition, he had fled into the desert, sticking doggedly onto Malone’s trail, bearing sweltering heat and terrible thirst. He had faced a fearsome giant scorpion too, but it had already been wounded from what appeared to be sword cuts, and so a few well-placed rocks had easily slain the creature.

Now he was here, in the thankfully cool shadow between two stone houses, in considerable discomfort…discomfort was a shameful understatement. This hell was certainly not the jungle paradise that was supposed to be Eodon, if Professor Rafkin’s and Malone’s reports were to be given any credence.

Reizer reminded himself: he had to find Malone. He was the only one that could even just vaguely possess a chance of getting him home. As for Leron, he was most probably prisoner of the pirates now, or dead. If an opportunity arose to save the cynical nimbus of a man, then Reizer would do so for the sake of the corporation’s dictates. But until that opportunity did come, he had to focus on Jimmy. That was his duty. Then again, he had to focus on his own survival. He was in bad shape. How was he supposed to carry out his duty if he could not function properly?

Breaking through a window with a brittle piece of timber lying nearby, he slipped into the household, careful not to cut himself on the glass shards. Fortunately, the two-room home was empty. He immediately went for a pitcher of freshwater, gulping it down to the last drop. Seeking out more water, he rummaged through the house, quaffing down the contents of waterskins and bottles of what he suspected to be light concoctions of alcohol. There were even three unusual yellow beverages in vials that resided on a shelf amidst books in a runic language he could not decipher. He found that the beverages had a strange, somehow satisfactorily appearing taste, and immediately after he felt better for having quaffed them. In fact, his painfully itchy skin grew less irritable, and upon looking in a mirror, to his amazement the red burns were slowly fading. Not entirely, but they had been mitigated.

It did not take a genius to realize that what he had just drunk was responsible for this partial recovery. The yellow beverages had some strange healing properties. This was no Eodon, but perhaps it did offer its own treasures for study and the inevitable exploitation.

Veins coursing with renewed strength, Reizer ransacked the rest of the house, as small as it was. In a chest he found two more vials filled with the precious yellow liquid and a few gold coins, what he guessed to be currency in this sadly primitive land. He also took a pack, which contained a knife and some rolls. IT was better than nothing. His pistol only had one spare clip left, and he only intended to use it for the most severe of circumstances. His proficient hand-to-hand combat skills would suffice for all other hostile encounters.

Dumping the vials and coins into the pack while sheathing the knife under his belt, he strapped the pack on and proceeded to slink back out of the house. He had a reporter to catch.

Donning the pack given to him by Hothame, Jimmy prepared to leave the healer’s establishment. It contained the camera and extra film the kind elder had managed to salvage from his clothes, as well as some additional provisions, like bread, cheese, a few portions of jerky, and fifteen gold ‘crowns’, as the currency was called here in Britannia. The amulet hung around his neck, while the moonstone rested safely in his pocket.

The wingless gargoyle Kap-Lem was waiting for him at the door. Bidding his farewells to Hothame, Jimmy followed the towering gargoyle out of the healer’s and into the blistering heat of the outside world. Jimmy winced; it was little better here than it was in the desert!

“How can they stand this heat?” Jimmy asked incredulously upon seeing the dozens of people walking the sandy gravel trails of the town, dressed in not much more than he was.

Kap-Lem was barechested and barelegged as usual, wearing only a loincloth, a pack and three spears slung across his firmly muscled back.

“To get used to it.” said the deep-throated gargoyle. “To believe they have to. To have no choice, since they work in such heat day after day.”

They paced through the streets of Vesper, coming to the crowded market at town centre. The people kept a wide berth from them, casting baleful glances, particularly at Kap-Lem.

Upon querying about this, the gargoyle replied, rather poignantly, “To be the racial intolerance of humakind toward the Gargish. To be disappointed at its presence even more than one hundred and sixty years after War of the False Prophet. Lord British calls all the realm’s citizens, both man and gargoyle, Britannians, but truth is very different. Gargoyle kind are almost segregated from rest of society, living either on Terfin or here. To not be welcome in this world. To be much like the nomadic gypsies.”

Jimmy scanned the ever-shifting crowd. All he saw were men, women, and children. “Gargoyles live in Vesper? I don’t see any.” he observed, a little confused.

Kap-Lem sighed, a mournful rasp of breath like rusty plates scraping across rock. “To mention that Vesper is separated into two parts, with the oasis being the border. Gargoyles live on the western side of oasis, called the West Side, while humans, Britannian,” he added bitterly, “live here on the eastern side of the oasis, the East Side. To have segregated themselves from each other, ostracized and alienated themselves from each other. Gargoyles can come here, but endure much racial hatred. Same for humans who go to West Side. To fear that Vesper may one day dissolve into civil war. To be very bad.”

“Righteous.” Jimmy agreed.

The crowd swelled and congested so that they had to shoulder their way through. A constant buzz of melded voices hung in the air as people clustered around stalls and vendors, the owners of which hawked their wares at the top of their lungs, eager to outdo their rivals. Only a few guards stood by in the purple-red tabard depicting a teardrop and an ankh in the background. They were armed with halberds and donned in plate and mail, watching the populace with lazy, desultory eyes.

Noting Jimmy’s observation of the armed men, Kap-Lem said, “To be official Britannian guard. Town guard. Royal Militia. They are from Minoc, the Town of Sacrifice. Things are so bad that West Side must have its own gargoyle guard.”

Out of the corner of one eye, Jimmy saw a flash of movement across the market between one of the stalls, a man in very familiar black. When he turned his head, the man was gone.

“To be something wrong?” Kap-Lem asked.

“No. Don’t worry.” Jimmy said, narrowing his eyes at the last confirmed position of the figure. “Let’s just hurry and get to that inn.”

“To understand.”

Reizer cursed as he ducked behind a barrel adjacent to a stall that sold rugs. Malone had almost spotted him. He needed a more inconspicuous fashion of clothing. Time to become in vogue. Rising carefully when he was sure the quarry was out of sight, he turned to the stall.

A salesman of comparable size stood there, dressed in weathered gray poncho with sand cloak and tight leather leggings to keep out itchy grit, who was trying to sell rugs. He wasn’t having very much success, judging by the way people avoided him. He would be a suitable donor of clothes for Reizer.

“Who will buy my rugs? Very, very good! Very, very cheap!” the salesman yelled. From the looks of it, the wares weren’t very good or cheap. They were coarse and frayed at the edges. “Made of giant rat hide! Very, very hygienic!” That explained why the people were avoiding him like the plague.

“Excuse me. I am interested in some fine, cheap rugs.” said Reizer, stepping before the salesman’s stall.

The salesman smiled like a shark. “Welcome, smart customer! These are only display designs! Please, step into my store.” He gestured at the entrance to a shabby stone building behind him. “Thou wilt be very, very pleased!” He clicked his fingers and a particularly savage, foam-mouthed dog appeared from under the stall, growling angrily. “Smittens, watch the stall.” The dog barked in reply, then leaped upon the stall and began to watch the passers-by like a diligent sentry, snapping at any who got too close, even ripping off the sleeve of one man with its own serrated teeth, the poor fellow yelping in surprise and fleeing. The salesman looked at Reizer and shrugged apologetically. “I trust the good people of Vesper in their Honesty and Honour not to steal from my stall, but still…one can never be too careful. Good boy, Smittens, good boy.” he said to the dog, who was now viciously mauling a glove it had torn off somebody’s hand.

Reizer followed the salesman into the dark and stuffy store. The shrewd-eyed fellow turned to him, still smiling broadly. “What dost thou want and how wilt thou pay?” he asked cheerfully, but his tone rang expectance.

“Give me your clothes and your boots in exchange for your life.” Reizer demanded coldly.

A hard, uncowed look entered the merchant’s dark eyes. “Thou canst not do that.”


A swift karate chop to the base of the neck and the merchant’s eyes rolled up into his head, and he crumpled to the floor. Taking his clothes and replacing his own conspicuous black garments with them, he dragged the unconscious and now naked man behind the counter and cut his throat for good measure. He couldn’t have any witnesses running around tainting his stealthy demeanour.

Leaving the store, Reizer found to his disgust that upon the rug stretched out on the stall where the dog had once sat now remained a very big and smelly piece of evidence of the canine’s flatulence. The dog itself was nowhere to be seen.

Hastily departing the scene in his new attire, he set his mind on the capture of Jimmy Malone. The kid himself would be no trouble to neutralize. It was the massive, red-skinned gargoyle-like creature he hung around that worried Reizer. He looked to be a formidable opponent, but where there was a will, there was a way. And there was always his pistol and the spare clip.

Leron glared angrily at the congregation of pirates at the gunwale of the ship. Still tied to the mast, he added the forcible shaving of his eyebrows to his ever-growing list of vengeance to repay Silverbeard. And he would repay him…with interest.

Thus far, they could see the town of Vesper in the distance, the docks at least, and were sailing in closer. Then they would raise the Jolly Roger and initiate a cannon attack once they were in good range for their gunner, the lumbering, half-mad and -brained Rael Paws, to have sure aim.

From what Leron had overheard from the inevitable drifting grapevine, Silverbeard had sent men by boat a few hours earlier to Vesper to meet up with spies and begin the search for Jimmy Malone. Then, perhaps twenty minutes before, he had sent three more pirates by skiff to reinforce the pirates that had already insinuated themselves into the town and had hopefully already located the reporter’s safe haven: Blackeye, Vigil Pew, and a round-faced, greedy-eyed man called White Dog. The only factor that enabled them to have even a chance at finding Malone was his visual identity. The wily old bastard Silverbeard had managed to get one of his lackeys, the narrow-faced Gidyon Foster who through some unfathomable means possessed an artistic flair, to paint a picture of Malone’s face based on Leron’s description - which had been forced out of him, of course, through threats of shaving off more than just his eyebrows.

After a set period of time, Paws would assail the town with cannonballs, just to cause chaos and prove their piratical reputation or some such rubbish…

Silverbeard’s biggest danger, it seemed, was a navy ship apparently docked at port, most likely for re-supply after a long patrol. Yet still the irascible, salty old bastard persisted in the desire of such a blatant attack, despite the fact that the opposing vessel was very possibly better armed than the Sea Critter.

Silverbeard did, however, have the element of surprise, a potent weapon in the hands of the cunning. And curse him Leron might, he grudgingly admitted that the seasoned sea tyrant was coming, at least when he wasn’t oblivious to the obvious as he sometimes was.

“Bah!” Leron spat hatefully, though no one was near enough to see it. At least he wasn’t being pelted with rotten fruit and dead bilge rats anymore.

He hoped this entire operation exploded in Silverbeard’s face. Then maybe he could escape from this one-sided deal.

Jimmy and Kap-Lem were leaving the marketplace, headed for the docks where the Peckish Sandtrap was supposed to be located. The crowd was at last thinning. Both moved with haste, as if a shadow of foreboding had draped over their souls. The sun still burned high in the cloudless sky, the heat having not abated the tiniest bit.

The incessant crunch of sand sounded beneath their feet as they strode past other people, all intent on their own destinations.

“We there yet?” Jimmy asked, tired and sweaty already, a touch on the complaining side.

“To be only a few more blocks.” Kap-Lem replied, smiling a grotesque smile of reassurance.

It was then that Jimmy heard the sand crunches behind them, approaching fast. Turning, he saw two sully-faced, grim-lipped men striding towards them with mean purpose in their eyes. Looking ahead, another man emerged from an alley, a cutlass at his thigh, stalking for them at twelve o’clock.

“Uh, Kappy, ol’ pal…” Jimmy said.

Kap-Lem saw them. He reached for one of the spears behind his back. The forward man drew his cutlass, breaking into a run. Jimmy looked over his shoulder. One of the two behind them took a crossbow from beneath his pockadot cloak, hefting it and taking a bead on Kap-Lem. Things started to go in slow motion. Jimmy could hear his heart beating as the forward man lifted his sword and lunged, each movement seeming to take thrice as long as it should have, bounding toward them at a speed not unlike the astronauts on the moon in ’69. Behind them, the man with the crossbow was aiming, while his companion drew a throwing knife, both ponderously slow. Even Kap-Lem’s movements were long and slow as he cocked back his arm to throw the spear. He wasn’t going to make it. Heartbeat quickening, Jimmy heard the buzz of the people around them, strangely muted in contrast to his pounding pulse and the crunching footsteps of their attackers. That, and a wild, out-of-place barking. The crossbow man’s finger was squeezing the trigger; his companion was readying an overarm knife throw; the forward man was almost in striking distance. The barking grew louder, echoing in sync with all other primary sounds.

Jimmy felt the sweat drip down his forehead. They were goners.

The barking reached an all new crescendo, and the slow motion shattered like a mirror when a savage, foam-mouthed dog leapt from the spreading crowd and landed on the crossbow man’s back, mauling the back of his head. With a cry, his shot went wide over Kap-Lem’s shoulder, taking the forward man in the chest instead. His eyes bulged and his cutlass swept by Jimmy’s head as he stumbled, tripping on the reporter’s outstretched foot. The third man’s dagger never left his hand, as Kap-Lem’s spear impaled him through the belly.

All three lay on the sand, dead, with the crossbow man’s head still being mauled by the crazy dog.

“Mother MacRae,” Jimmy gasped, adrenaline still pumping from the narrowly foiled ambush. “This is not good.”

Kap-Lem drew another spear, eyeing the crowd suspiciously. The crowd eyed them back, some people screaming at the sight of the dead and fleeing while others called out for the militia.

“To be your pirate friends?” Kap-Lem asked.

Jimmy nodded. Was that the gargoyle’s attempt at dry irony? “I’d hardly call them that, though.”

A shout rose from the crowd, and four more pirates burst out, swords drawn. The leader, an ugly-faced man with a black patch over one eye, pointed at Jimmy and yelled, “Seize him, fools, or your livers are mine!”

The men charged, one falling to Kap-Lems’ second spear. Tautly gripping the shaft of his last spear, Kap-Lem said simply, “We must flee.”

“No argument there, Kappy!” Jimmy exclaimed, turning tail and running after Kap-Lem, the pirates hot on their heels.

“Thar she blows, lads!” Silverbeard roared. To Morgan, who stood on the foredeck, he shouted, “Take us in by the wind! Turn port! Show starboard broadside, ye damn fool!” Looking up at the peak of the watchman’s basket, he yelled, “Aloft with the Jolly Roger, lubbers! Haste, lads! HASTE!”

The docked navy battleship was clearly visible as they came into the bay, as was Vesper’s port. The Sea Critter smoothly turned and flaunted its broadside to the town at Morgan’s injunction, and the Jolly Roger fluttered above in a provocative gesture of defiance.

“Let the honest swabs see that and choke on their salted pork!” Silverbeard spat. “Paws, FIRE!”

Rael Paws responded with alacrity, applying the burning brand to the cannon’s fuse. The resultant report was deafening, complemented a few moments later by an explosion of one of the shacks at the dock.

“I just love it when things go BOOOM!” Rael said with amoral, childish glee.

Silverbeard struck his fist on the gunwale. ‘What are lads? Peaceable pirates? No, by thunder, we ain’t! We’re the meanest bunch o’ dogs of the Great Sea! Of ALL seas! We laugh at the navy, we flaunt our Jolly Roger in legitimate port, and we spit in Lord British his majesty’s wine! So what are we doing? Blowing Vesper to smithereens, that’s what! FIRE!”

A cheer rose up from the crew, and with fervent spirits they set about reloading and priming the guns, another volley of balls raining upon the isolated mining town.

People screamed and ran this way and that as another plot of sand skyrocketed in a hideous billow of smoke, courtesy of a cannonball. In the midst of the hubbub, Reizer shoved his way through the anarchy, desperately scanning the milling masses of commoner scum for his quarry. A stall erupted into black smoke and flames, spraying fiery debris all over the place. One man went flying across the market place from one explosion, screaming as he crashed into the slate roof of a building.

Uppercutting a gangly beggar that stepped into his path, Reizer broke int oa jog, seeking to escape the market. The bulk of the cannonballs seemed to be falling upon the docks a few blocks down. Pikcing up speed, he leapt voer the mangled body of a woman caught in one of the less benign explosions.

Then, in a split-second gap between the chaotic throng, he spotted the gargoyle and more importantly Malone, fleeing for their lives from three men wielding cutlasses and a wild dog who tagged behind tenaciously.

Reizer loaded his pistol and followed.

Jimmy and Kap-Lem ran, staying ahead of the stir-crazed throng and explosions, and most critically, the three relentless, bloodthirsty pirates who were so intent on their destruction. Stone houses fled by as they bolted through the streets, taking sharp turns and slipping into and out of alleys. But always did the shouts of their pursuers follow them, and the awfully familiar barking.

“Slash ‘em, you ignoramuses!” yelled the voice of the patch-eyed leader. “Or I’ll slash you!”

“To be the inn ahead!” Kap-Lem said, pointing down the road at the dockside inn, sounding not the least bit tired from the life-or-death run.

Jimmy, on the other hand, was positively panting. He looked at the two-storey stone and wood inn like a haven, despite its peeling paint and less than aesthetic surroundings. It was a dockside inn, after all, but any place with a roof and four walls that could provide defence against the ruffians behind them Jimmy would gladly donate his inheritance to. Then he rmemebered he had no inheritance.

“Sprint! Sprint!” he cried. “We’re almost there!”

A few paces in front, sand and gravel exploded. Jimmy heedlessly crashed through the smoke, jumping over the shrouded crater and practically bounding toward the inn. With each sprint it grew larger and more tantalizing.

“Come on, old calves, don’t let me down!” he begged his tiring legs.

A short distance behind, Blackeye led his pirates in the charge. White Dog ran beside him, while the older Vigil Pew lagged a one-and-a-half pace back.

“Minons, keep at it! They’re heading for the inn! We’ll skewer them once they get there!” Blackeye shouted. Looking at the exhausted White Dog, he snapped, “Move, you lazy scum!”

“Aye - First Mate-” White Dog wheezed, pouring every iota of energy into his weary legs.

Vigil Pew was struggling behind, his formerly brandished sword now dipping as he gasped for breath. Blackeye glared over his shoulder at him, teeth bared.

“Faster, Pew, you damned slug, or that mutt snapping at your heels will get you!” Blackeye squinted with his good eye in confusion, seeing Vigil Pew running and totally oblivious to the vicious barking dog with foam frothing at the mouth closing in on him. “What in the name of the Destr-”

“First Mate! Look ahead! Warriors!” White Dog exclaimed, pointing frantically.

Forgetting about Pew, Blackeye looked ahead. Sure enough, a number of armed men, some freelance fighters and others in coats-of-arms, had formed up around the perimeter of the inn, and they were running right into the swordpoint. Their quarry was already behind their ring of weapons and armour.

“Damn! Curses!” Blackeye snarled.

A number of metres back, Vigil Pew stumbleda s he ran onward, waving his cutlass erratically. “Hold on, lads! Old Pew is almost with ye!” he shouted his assurances.

There was a sudden bark, and teeth sunk into his ankle. Howling in pain as he fell, he twisted to look back when he saw a savage canine ravaging his foot.

“Aaaigh! Foul beast! Leggo!” he cried, stabbing at the wanton hound’s flanks.

It yepled and released his ankle, but not before Pew’s swinging blade slashed its throat. With a whimper, it collapsed. Grimacing in pain, Vigil Pew crawled after his companions, who had frozen some distance up ahead in the face of an approaching band of fighters.

The ground resonated with thunder, and it wasn’t from the cannonfire out in the bay, which had recently ceased. Sand trembling, Pew desperately dragged himself across the street, crying out piteously, “Wait for old Pew, lads!”

The two pirates ahead turned, and even as far away from them as he was, he could see the shocked expression on their faces. The next moment, they broke and ran for the nearest alley.

“Don’t leave old Pew, ye scabrous dogs!” Vigil Pew screamed after them, shaking a feeble, sand-speckled fist. “A pox on your rum, deserters! Curse you!”

The thundering redoubled. Peering over his shoulder, his eyes widened at the sight of more than a dozen horsemen at hard gallop, bearing down on his heedlessly.

All Pew could do was scream in the half-moment before they trampled him, and then that was the end of the man with the finest set of deadlights on the Great Sea.

“The ship has set sail! Here she comes!” Morgan cried. “Orders?”

Silverbeard glared at the navy ship, the accursed standard of the Silver Serpent flying atop its main mast. The battleship lumbered out of port, starboard broadside facing the Sea Critter as it stood poised to attack.

“Bah! Paws, open fire upon that pathetic swabhouse of a vessel!” he barked.

“Aye, Captain! Right away, Capt’n!” Rael replied anxiously, shouting commands to reload the guns and striking any man who worked too slow for his hasty pace with a wooden, iron-knobbed cudgel across the back. “ I want the big boomers booming double-time, swabs!”

There was a thunderous report followed by a puff of smoke from a broadside cleft of the opposing vessel, and seconds later the water exploded perilously close to the starboard side of the Sea Critter, spraying Silverbeard with watery salt. Spitting out the foul-tasting liquid, his long silvery beard dripping wet, Silverbeard unleashed a lurid curse.

“Don’t show ‘em any compassion, boys! Butcher ‘em! BUTCHER!” he roared.

A cannonball tore a great rent in the main sail, landing a dozen or so fast beyond the port side, splashing water in a fearsome gout.

“Load ‘em up, you bloody fools! Load and BOOOM!” Rael roared.

“Uh, Capt’n…” Morgan called nervously from the wheel.

Silverbeard ran up to the foredeck, snarling angrily, “What?! Can’t ye see I’m busy enjoying the imminent scuttling of a wretched scurvy-carrying ship?!”

“Capt’n, that’s a four-mast battleship…six guns on both port and starboard sides.” Morgan said, apprehensively glancing at the fast approaching battleship. “We only have three on each side. We can’t take ‘em, surprise or no surprise.”

Silverbeard grumbled something non-complimentary, though he realized that his helmsman had a very good point. “Bah!” he spat. “Hopefully that swab Blackeye’s gotten the amulet thief! Or the amulet at least!” He inhaled deeply, another cannonball splashing close. “Hard about! Turn, you fool, TURN! We need to get away from that scum ship! Speed, lads! We’ve done what we came to do! Let’s go!” He shook his fist at the pursuing battleship. “Until next time, swab!”

A flurry of activity exploded on deck as the crew scurried about, trimming and adjusting sails to squeeze every knot out of the ship, spurred on by the barrage.

“Go! Go!” Foster cried from the centre of the mid-deck, lashing lagging men with a leather cord.

“Not without leaving ‘em a going-away present!” Rael exclaimed, lighting the fuse of a cannon even as the ship began its turn-tail revolution. “BOOOM!”

The cannon thundered and spat its deadly payload. Rael squinted in the distance and heard a faint crashing sound muffled by the wind, smiling and punching his meaty fist into the air. “Huzzah! Got their aft deck! Take that, ya bloody swabs!” he cheered. He instinctively ducked and covered his head when the navy ship returned the volley, one of the lead balls shattering the basket upon the main mast and the watchman in it in a shower of wood and body parts. “Touchy bastards…” Rael whimpered.

The Sea Critter pushed hard to escape the mouth of the bay, Morgan guiding the helm with years of experience behind him, not to mention the incentive of an angry battleship firing at aft. Silverbeard was by his side, hand across his brow as he observed the enemy ship. Even he appeared a little edgy.

“Come on, you fickle wench,” he grated at the Sea Critter, anxiously watching it sail out of the bay. To Morgan he snapped, “Set an easterly course and make sure we lose the conformist swabs! Stick to the coast, since we’re going to have to pick up Blackeye at dusk. That cur better have the amulet, or he’ll wish he lost both his eyes when he sees what punishment I’ve got cooked up for him!”

“Aye, Capt’n!” Morgan replied, sailing the ship to safety.

The battleship and Vesper shrank in the growing distance, sealing the vile pirates’ escape.

The riders halted their horses perilously close to the assembled warriors, much too close for Jimmy’s liking, who was surrounded by a ring of armed men along with Kap-Lem. The riders wore blue tabards with the familiar ankh crest as well as a five-pointed star in a circle.

“To be Royal Army men.” Kap-Lem said to Jimmy.

“Quiet.” One of the armed warriors on foot said to the gargoyle in a no-nonsense, hard stone tone. He was a big fellow with the tattoo of an entwined serpent on his forehead.

Kap-Lem gave slight obeisance, turning his attention to the event unfolding a few feet away.

The smoke had cleared, the pirate vessel having been apparently driven off by the navy battleship, which was now slowly returning to port, the men on deck throwing lines down onto the dock and preparing to drop anchor.

A tall, ruggedly handsome fighter in platemail, the ostensible leader of the warriors on foot, confronted the commander of the horseman, who was in the act of dismounting.

“Good day, Lieutenant Silmand.” said the fighter, snapping off a perfunctory salute and flashing a most charming, white-toothed smile indeed.

The horseman commander, the one called Silmand, nodded in return. “A good day for pirate thwarting indeed, Force Commander Dupre. I see thou hast been in yet another scrap. Unsurprising, really. Troubled follows thee around it seems, even without the Avatar’s palpable presence.”

Dupre’s grin grew wider. “That it does.”

Gesturing to their dishevelled surroundings, Silmand asked, “Please inform me, Force Commander, of what just happened here. My unit has just come in from highway patrol, after a pitched battle with trolls. Forgive my brusqueness. We’re all weary.”

“Forgiven.” Dupre said congenially. “Like thou didst say, it appears to be purely a piratical issue. We have the fugitives they were pursuing and are about to question them regarding the matter.” He pointed at Jimmy and Kap-Lem.

Jimmy squinted at the one called Dupre. There was something about him that tickled his memory. The ruggedly handsome face that could make the girls swoon, the mischievous eyes, the trimmed moustache…He knew that there was something about this guy. Dupre, Dupre, Du-pray…Dokray. That was it! There was no mistaking it! This valiant warrior of conspicuous prowess was none other than his old companion from Eodon, the wild and fire-blooded Dokray. But what was he doing here of all places, albeit looking a little more civilised. He did not appear to recognise Jimmy either.

Silmand nodded. “We ran one of the scrubbers down. An accident, but that’s one less scoundrel in the world. I’ll have my men search him and bring anything we find to thee.”

“Thank thee.” Dupre replied graciously. “Two others escaped, Lieutenant. I’ve had men go after them, but they ran as if from Balinor himself when they say thy cavalry charging toward them like a pack of centaurs on heat. I doubt we’ll catch them.”

Silmand allowed his weary face to split into a smile at Dupre’s creative use of similes. Thy lubricity doesn’t do thee justice. Thou hast many wild oats left to sow, and the Codex knows.”

“Aye, as dost thyself, I am sure.”

Silmand feigned a crestfallen countenance. “Nay. I am married.” Smiling lightly, he rolled on, “Getting back to the issue, there are another three deceased pirates back at the market outskirts. A number of dead townspeople, too, from the pirate ship’s pointless siege. Accursed blighters!” He spat with contempt.

“Fear not, Lieutenant. I intend to get to the heart of the matter before I set sail for Moonglow.” Dupre stared meaningfully at Jimmy and his gargoyle companion.

“Then I can rest assured that thou will solve this mystery.” Silmand sighed with exhaustion. “We will try to settle the populace and clean up this mess. A soldier’s work is never done. Virtue be with thee.” He returned to his horse, mounting.

“And with thee.” Dupre reciprocated as the lieutenant rode back down the street, leading his cavalry unit in its eternal, thankless task of law keeping.

The tall fighter turned to his men, sparing yet another curious glance for the two fugitives in his custody.

“Now, to business - ” he began, but a deep-throated bellowing interrupted.

The source, a rotund man in naval officer’s uniform, blue to be sure, strode up to Dupre in a huff, running pudgy fingers through the sparse crown of graying hair atop his barren head. “Dupre! Look what those scoundrels did to my ship! A pox on the blighters! They punched a hole through the aft dock, they did, and the cannonball came out the stern. Thank British it didn’t breach the hull beneath the waterline, or the Virtuosity would be no more! Lost a few crewmembers, though…”

Dupre nodded quickly, growing impatient. “I will consult thee on repairs and casualty lists in a few moments, Captain Regara, if thou wouldst just allow me to attend to something first.” To the burly fellow with the serpent tattoo, he gave an injunction, “Sir Vardu, please take our guests inside.” He gestured to the inn. “I will be with thee shortly.”

“Aye, Force Commander.” the burly man called Vardu said, turning to Jimmy and Kap-Lem. “move into the inn, now.” He didn’t draw his sword, but Jimmy didn’t think he needed to in order to reduce him to a lump of meat.

Jimmy and Kap-Lem obeyed, albeit in slight acquiescence, Vardu and two other warriors with silver serpents emblazoned on their surcoats following them closely.

“Hey, Kappy…do they have lawyers in Britannia?” Jimmy asked his gargoyle companion.

Kap-Lem’s look was a confused one. “Law-yer?” he repeated haltingly.


“silence.” Vardu’s hard voice grated again, a tad on the menacing side.

“You got it, maestro.” Jimmy replied cheerfully as he entered the doorway, crossing the threshold into the Peckish Santrap Inn.

The Peckish Santrap appeared to be a much more immaculate place than what it seemed from the outside. Considerably cooler too. The commons room was desolate, apparently having been reserved for the warriors outside the inn judging from the bedrolls here and there.

Vardu ordered Jimmy and Kap-Lem to sit down at a table, standing behind them and dismissing the two uniformed warriors. Several fighters who were dressed in various types of armour, from leather to ringmail and chain and back, occupied the commons, talking quietly amongst themselves. Some of them cast curious glances at the newcomers, but Vardu’s hard stare told them to come no closer. He held as much order with them as with those in his colours.

From across the room a stalwart warrior in scale and leather with a face halfway between solemnity and mirth came down the stairs, headed towards Vardu. One hand constantly rested upon the hilt of a longsword in a scabbard at his belt.

“Good morrow to thee, Sir Vardu!” called the fighter cheerfully. “I see thou hast dispatched the villains outside and brought us some visitors.” He eyed Jimmy and Kap-Lem with interest.

Vardu bowed respectfully. “Indeed, Sentri. That we have.”

“The Order of the Silver Serpent still has fangs, much like it did in the days I ruled the Hold. A long time ago…” Sentri looked wistful for a moment, then returned his gaze upon the newcomers. “Well, what have we here?”

“Dupre is about to begin the interrogation.” Vardu said.

The door to the inn swung open and Dupre stepped in, making a beeline for the table. In his gloved hand he held a scrunched up piece of parchment. Taking and straddling a chair, he waved his companions to take a seat. Sentri complied, but Vardu stoically remained standing. Shrugging imperceptibly, Dupre fixed his mischievous yet discerning gaze on Jimmy, somehow picking him out to be at the heart of all the day’s woes.

“So, who might thou be and what is thy relation to the pirates who assaulted town?” he asked, getting straight to the point.

Jimmy sighed, preparing another retelling of his dreadful adventure. “Look, it’s a real hairy tale - ”

“Hairy tale, eh?” Dupre cut him off, slapping his palm on the table. “I do so love a hairy tale over a round of ale or t wo.”

“Or three.” Sentri said, grinning.

“Aye, a glass wouldn’t hurt.”

“I’ll go get thee one.”

Sentri returned with a big mug of ale with the white froth on top, handing it to Dupre, who eagerly began to consume it. Vardu watched this event transpire stolidly. eyes revealing nothing.

“So,” Dupre said, after nearly draining half the contents of the mug, moustache now sodden with ale. “What’s the hairy tale?”

Jimmy allowed himself a light, lopsided smile. He guessed this was the leader of the ship detachment Hothame had mentioned. “Well, it all began…” He delved into the pedantic details, expanding more on his trials than what he had done so for the venerable old healer, explaining how he had ended up in Britannia because of the corrupt moonstone and pursuit of the corporate agents in black. He followed up with Bill Tolibar and the amulet, and Silverbeard’s desire to obtain the seemingly worthless trinket. Then came the trek through the desert, his rescue by Kap-Lem, the advice of Hothame to seek out the warriors of the inn, and finally the assault by the pirates on Vesper in a desperate attempt to get the amulet. By the end of the story, Dupre had drained three mugs of ale to the glass bottom. Yet despite his obvious lack of devotion to sobriety, his frown was a pensive one.

“Thou art a compatriot of the Avatar then?” Dupre said.

“Yep. From good ol’ Earth.” Jimmy replied. “You a friend?”

“Aye.” Both Dupre and Sentri nodded. “We are very good friends, having been on many adventures together.”

“Well, I’ve been on one. Damn riveting too.”

Dupre grinned. “The Avatar has that touch of attracting trouble, more so than the rest of us.”

“Though we do still have our fair share of quests.” Sentri added.

“I find it intriguing that thou hast come here by moongate. Canst I see the stone?” Dupre requested.

“Believe me, from what your bona fide heroic leader told me, it ain’t no average moongate.” jimmy said as he dug around his pocket and gave the moonstone to Dupre. “It’s a black, nasty thing. Has a bad tendency of expanding and swallowing up people and whole rooms.”

Dupre studied the scarred surface of the moonstone curiously in his callused palm. “Rather rough and…mutilated, as if some mad mage subjected it to some very bad experiments. This is unheard of. It is unlike Mr Nose’s Orb of Moons at all.” There was a faint flicker of recognition in his eyes. He scrutinised the object in question more assiduously. “There is something about this stone…I remember…blurs, hazy flashbacks…”

“Yeah! You were with us in the myrmidex caves when we trashed the dark moonstone!” Jimmy said excitedly, leaning closer. Upon seeing Dupre’s deepening frown, he added, “You went under the moniker of Dokray! You were a big guy with a hammer and blue face paint! Come on! Don’t tell me you can’t remember. Do you remember me at least?” Jimmy pointed to himself. “Your old pal, Jimmy Malone? We used to point out all the fine tribal chicks together at campfire!”

Dupre shook his head slowly, confused. “I am sorry. here is something, but…no. It’s gone.” Dupre sighed. “Probably just déjà vu. Oh, well, let’s get back onto the track.” He handed back the moonstone to a mildly crestfallen Jimmy, who stuffed it into his pocket. “This whole moonstone business can be resolved once we take thee to Lord British. He will know what to do. This Hothame was wise to suggest it. As for Silverbeard, well, it’ll be doubly safer if we take thee to the capital. He is a ruthless bandersnatch, that one, almost as bad as Hawkins himself. There’s no telling how valuable the amulet really is. Better if Lord Briitsh scrutinises it.”

“It could have powerful magical properties.” Sentri suggested.

Dupre nodded his agreement. “It was wise of thee to come to me.”

It turned out that Dupre was the leader of a band of ten warriors, four of which belonged to the Order of the Silver Serpent (the men with the entwined of silver serpent emblazoned on their white surcoats) and the other six who had once served in the Royal Militia but were now roaming the land on an eternal quest to uphold the Eight Virtues, the unusual faith of Britannia. These warriors were travelling on the sovereign-endorsed battleship Virtuosity across the seas, seeking pirates and other lawbreakers to vanquish. They had stopped at Vesper for resupply only a few days prior to Jimmy’s arrival.

“I wouldn’t have made it without my proficient gargoyle buddy, Kap-Lem, or Kappy, as I so love to call him.” Jimmy patted him on the brawny shoulder.

Kap-Lem’s eyes shifted from side to side, embarrassed.

Dupre nodded his approval. “That was some fine spearing work on those pirates, Kap-Lem.”

“To have studied under Bolesh Us-agra-lem, venerable master of combat and gargoyle elder.” said Kap-Lem.

“Kap-Lem itself means ‘Warrior of Spears’, does it not?” Sentri asked.

Kap-Lem looked surprised. “To say it does.”

“I’ve studied a little gargish literature in my spare time.” Sentri said, answering Dupre’s unasked question.

“Well, at any rate, here’s something that should interest thee, Jimmy.” Dupre said, spreading the ragged parchment across the table.

It was a painting of Jimmy’s face, and a very good one at that, made of water-based paints.

“Who did this? Michelangelo?” Jimmy demanded, bewildered. “Hey, I never knew I was that good-looking.”

“Silmand’s men found it on the horse-trampled pirate on the road outside.” Dupre said.

“It looks as if Silverbeard has a good idea of what thou dost look like, Jimmy.” Sentri said, scrutinising the picture closely. “Whoever did this was a remarkably deft artist. And look at the signature in the lower right corner.”

The men around the table strained to read the elegantly written word.

“Foster.” Jimmy read.

“Foster? Who in Virtue’s name is that?” Dupre demanded.

Vardu stirred from his self-imposed silence. “I can shed some light on that, Force Commander. Perhaps four years ago in the Town of Sacrifice, Minoc, there was an artist called Gidyon Foster, renowned for his portraits depicting famous persons and battles. He even made particularly good paintings of the ‘Warriors of Destiny’ and ‘The False Prophet’ adventures. However, he was an ambitious man, too much for his own good, and greatly outspoken in the Artist’s Guild. After the director of the guild ostracised him due to his scathing slander, Foster avenged himself by murdering one of the guild members and stealing several prized works of art, defecting to Silverbeard’s band of anarchists.”

“For a guy who’s holed in a big white castle most of the time, you sure do know a lot about the world.” said Jimmy.

Vardu looked at him, stony face expressionless. “Foster is one of the most wanted criminals in Britannia, and rightfully so.”

Jimmy shrugged. “Okay, okay, no need to get riled up. We’ll get the mean bastard yet, don’t you worry.”

“For this painting to have been so wonderfully done, Foster would either had to have seen Jimmy for a suitable amount of time or had a witness of some sort.” Sentri speculated, rubbing his chin.

“No way!” Jimmy protested vehemently. “They would’ve been lucky to get one good glimpse of me, and from far off too, unless -” Then he realised. “Unless they got Leron. The black clad guy. I concussed him at the lab in the desert. They must’ve captured him.”

“Hmm…” Dupre brooded. “So they know exactly who to look for. Let’s have a look at that amulet.”

Jimmy handed it over. The roguish warrior studied it in his hands, focusing chiefly on the nearly obscured runes in the rim.

enlightenment reveals Tat which is not sEn by Te eye seek Tat illumitation when to the horizon sun is nigh, upon cool brEze and morning dew, to discern That which is recognized by few

Dupre translated, “ ‘Enlightenment reveals that which is not seen by the eye, seek that illumination when to the horizon the sun is nigh, upon the cool breeze and morning dew, to discern that which is recognised by few.’ ”

“A bloody fine riddle.” Sentri said.

“I’ll say. Riddles give me a belly ache.” Dupre grumbled.

“Well, at least we don’t have any uber-daemons breathing down our necks this time round. Balinor anyone?” Sentri replied wryly.

“It ain’t that hard, once you mull over it in your head for a few seconds.” Jimmy interjected. “All we have to do is hang this here amulet on a branch at sunrise and see what happens. I’d guess the green jewel in the centre would have something to do with it.”

“By Jove, I believe the boy may be onto something!” Sentri said, now growing excited. “How didst thou solve that puzzle?”

“Haven’t any of you guys ever watched action-adventure films? It’s the oldest cliché in the book!” Noting their blank faces, Jimmy persevered. “ ‘ Raiders of the Lost Ark’ jog any memories? Come on…Indiana Jones with the braod rim hat, whip, and an ew girl each movie? No?” Jimmy looked at them all, horrified. “No, no, no…don’t tell me you don’t have T.V. here? Darn, this place is backward!”

The warriors were nonplussed at his consternation.

“Well, why don’t we try the amulet trick then tomorrow morning?” Sentri said, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

“As excitedly anticipatory as I am about it, I think we’d better postpone our explorations into the credibility of mind boggling riddles until a later, safer date.” Dupre said, more serious this time. ‘Pirates aren’t fool enough to come out into port with a fully armed battleship in dry dock just to show of their guns and shake up town society, even the most ruthless. They’re impulsive scoundrels, I admit, even impetuous and impudent, but they weren’t that whimsical. Silverbeard was serious; he wants that amulet a any cost, and I don’t believe for a second that he turned tail and fled just because we popped off a few return shots. HE had a rigid schedule to live up to. I wouldn’t be surprised if the scoundrels that escaped are en route to rendezvous with him right now. In the light of both the amulet and the moonstone, for Jimmy’s safety and the security of the realm we’ll be departing for Britain early morning tomorrow. Speed is of the essence, people. That should leave us enough time for repairs between now and then.”

“A sound plan.” Vardu stated flatly, but without a hint of mockery or dissent in his level tone.

Jimmy slapped his palms together and chafed them. “Alright! We’re all set and ready to rumble!” He paused to look questioningly at Kap-Lem. “You coming too?”

“To decline honourable offer, but I must return to Hothame.” Kap-Lem answered humbly. “To be his apprentice in the healing arts ever since I decided to study both fighting and herbal-arcane medical treatment. I must return.”

“I’m afraid that would be unwise.” Vardu told him unsympathetically. “It is too dangerous. Silverbeard’s minions have seen thee in the company of Jimmy Malone. They may be desperate and determined enough to torture thee to find his whereabouts if thou dost stay.”

A look of defiance flashed across the gargoyle’s imperturbable etched visage of hard planes and angles. It was ironic how the faces of these two warriors, gargoyle and human, were so alike yet so different.

“To be obliged by honour to protect Hothame! To believe pirates may come after him now because of my involvement in Jimmy’s rescue.” Kap-Lem protested heatedly.

Jimmy could not help but feel some compunction for the gargoyle’s predicament. Contritely, he spoke up in Kap-Lem’s defence,”Hey, you just listen here, Granite Face!” Now there were two rock faces, as Jimmy saw it: Reizer as Mr Stoneface - where the hell was he? - and Sir Vardue as Mr Granite Face. “Kap-Lem’s earned the right to make the decision for himself. He’s saved my life twice already, and risked his own far more than he should’ve, so back off!”

“The decision falls into the jurisdiction of the Britannian Royal Corp in such issues where the sovereignty of our realm is threatened.” Vardu said, not quite disparagingly, but without enough bite to make Jimmy wince.

Dupre watched them duke it out, amused. Well, he was amused until all faces at the table turned to him to make the final decision. Sighing and exhaling breath from puffed cheeks, he made his decision. “Kap-Lem stays with us.”

Kap-Lem’s claws tensely carved thumb-wide and thumb-deep gouges into the table as they curled back into his palm, a low growl emitting from the depths of his gullet.

“I’m sorry, Kap-Lem, but Vardu is right. We can’t risk thee falling into the hands of the enemy.” Dupre said, trying to sound as sympathetic as possible.

“And what of Hothame?” Kap-Lem rasped, palpably displeased with the decision-making outcome.

“I will assign the town guard to give him especial protection.” Sentri volunteered nobly, rising and leaving the inn.

Returning the amulet to Jimmy, Dupre stood as well. “I believe that’s settled then. Vardu, take them to their rooms. And for thy own safety, please don’t leave the premises.”

Kap-Lem stood defiantly. “To recover spears from dead pirates. To be back soon.” He stormed out.

At a glance from Dupre, Vardu followed after him.

“Well, I guess it’s just you and me, buddy.” Jimmy said, hanging the amulet around his neck. “What do you say about me trying to jog your memory over our past trip to Eodon?”

Dupre smiled. “As much as I dubiously enjoy reminiscing over memories I can’t remember, no, thank thee. I s till have duties to oversee.” He sighed raggedly, mumbling, “How I hate administration. Even mayor of Trinsic wasn’t this bad.”

“Hey, that’s fine with me. Maybe some time in the evening we could do it. I hear hypnosis is good at resurfacing old memories long buried. I’ll need a pocketwatch, though.”

“Well, the Avatar had a pocketwatch. But Shamino holds it now, and Virtues knows where he is. Probably chatting with some squirrels in the Deep Forest…”

Jimmy stared at him. “Shamino?” He scratched his chin in thought. “That sounds awfully like Shamuru. You remember him, Dupre? Dupre?”

The door to the inn swung shut.

Dupre breathed in the hot air. It was stuffy inside the inn. It wasn’t much better out here either. His polished armour felt heavy. Not surprising, since he was wearing a complete suit of plate and a broadsword at his belt. He longed for the light yet unnaturally protective mystic armour, as well as the super cutting edge lethality of the mystic sword. Alas, the Avatar and his Companions in their wisdom had deemed the enchanted accoutrements of archaic days too powerful to leave easily accessible and were thus kept locked away deep in a hidden dungeon somewhere beneath the castle of Lord British, in the labyrinth that snaked through impenetrable stone and earth.

The tangible, physical weight on his shoulders was not entirely unlike the relentless weight of his duties. So many on this month-long quest so far, enough to make him feel like a sponge twisted of all its water and left out in the sun to become dry and brittle.

The Virtuosity, her crew, and the platoon of warriors from the Silver Serpent Order, Jhelom, and various other locales had valiantly sunk two pirate ships after delivering Justice to their low-life crews - death. And it was not nearly as much as the scum deserved. But the wear and tear of patrol and battle had taken its toll of the vessel and the men, and hence their stay in Vesper. Then there was always the perpetual logistics problem.

How fitting it was that on their day of respite Captain Silverbeard, the most notorious pirate of the sea, their principle quarry, and a scoundrel who had managed to elude them for so long, had to show up now of all times. The fact that he was hellbent on capturing the one called Jimmy Malone - a young fellow who stirred up vague memories in Dupre’s head - only served to further complicate matters.

It was at times like these he really needed a drink. Never mind the fact he had already consumed three in the past half-hour.

Heading over to the docks, which were a mite less busy but for his own crews scurrying about due to the recent brazen attack, Dupre paced with a purpose.

Captain Regara was standing perilously close to the edge, hands clasped behind his back, dapper in his immaculate uniform. The old sea veteran was overseeing repairs to the Virtuosity pertaining to damage sustained from Silverbeard’s guns. Men hung from ropes, feverishly working to fix the gaping hole in the stern. A cluster of other seamen were engaged in concentrated activity on the aft deck, presumably repairing the hole there as well.

“Captain!” Dupre called, approaching him.

Regar whilred round, multiple chins and jowls wobbling. “Dupre, come at last! A foul thing to happen to a vessel as fine as her, dear maiden Virtuosity.” Regara said sadly, almost indignantly. He was usually a chipper man, unless it came to harm inflicted on his beloved ship or dealing with pirates. Then he came down hard and merciless, giving opposition not an inch and dishing out his own peculiar brand of vindictive justice. “Bloody villains were good with their guns! We were lucky it did not punch through the keel instead. It’s Rael Paws’ work, I’ll stake my pension on it! One of the best gunners on the high seas, I’m sorry to say.”

“Aye, Captain. A sad thing indeed. How go the repairs?” Dupre asked.

“Good speed, sir, good speed, at which I’m mighty pleased.” replied the huffing captain. “Damn pirates deserve naught but pox for their gross criminality, I say! They cost us more than some wooden timbers! Four men, we lost. Good ones, too. Samson, Filden, Terris, deckhands all, and our scullery maid, the young lad Tom! Poor lad.”

Dupre could only affix vague faces to the names of the deceased. He hadn’t mingled much with the crew, he hadn’t the time, but he still felt a stab of guilt at their tragic loss. They were loyal, honourable patriots, however menial their duties. We all fight the war of survival in our own way, down from the lowest servant to the most august noble. Dupre recalled the wise words of his sovereign, stated sagaciously many years ago.

“Any luck finding new crewmembers to replace them?” he asked.

“Well…” Regara began, scratching his fleshy chin as he delved into retrospect. “Lindu managed to find two men willing to be deckhands, being the bright, observant lass she is. Strong men, apparently out of work with the miner surplus in Vesper of late. But it still looks as if we’ll be one man short by tomorrow morning for deckhand duties, what with all the fear of pirates. Aye.” Regara started rocking on his heels. “Oh, and we have a new scullery maid too. A strange fellow, tall of stature with a beard and a look that takes in everything…makes me wonder why on Sosaria one as able-bodied as he would want to become a scullery maid of all things. Bein’ elbow-deep in washing water and grimy dishes ain’t my bottle of mead.”

Dupre shrugged, shoulder plates chafing with a metallic rasp. “Perhaps a man of higher station who now seeks out Humility. It isn’t a novel thing.” Dupre suggested. “Why, back in the days of the War of the False Prophet there was a fellow who had once been a lord with riches and a castle, but traded it all in for a life of raising sheep in New Magincia.”

Regara chuckled. “Listen to thyself. Thou hast lived hundreds of Britannian years for some arcane reason, and now thou art starting to tell stories like a venerable grandfather. Thou wilt have grey hairs soon, I shouldn’t wonder.”

A look of consternation crossed Dupre’s face. “Grey hairs? Where? Where?” he demanded anxiously, moving his head from side to side, running fingers through his hair.

Regara chortled. “Fear not, Dupre. Thou dost still have many years before thou art put out to pasture. It should be me thou shouldst be worried about.” He patted his ample belly. “I’m getting old. I think I’ll have one more grand sea voyage, sprinkled with some swashbuckling adventure here and there. Then I’ll retire. See my grandchildren grow. Most of my children have their own now, except that damn whippersnapper Clint, but he was always the rogue of the family…thinks he can take on the sea and all her perils by himself. Too smug for his own good, that one. Should settle down…” Regara trailed off into a string of muted grumbling.

“Well, in any case, keep thine eyes open. I doubt the journy to Britain will be an easy one.” Dupre said.

“Aye, sir.” 

Verne focused the magical spyglass on the horizon, enhancing the view of several plumes of smoke that rose from the general vicinity of Vesper. With the Wave Raider far enough out to sea to be out of sight of anything short of a mage’s scrying, the furtive captain had an excellent vantage point to witness the events that had unfolded. A vessel, small in the distance even with the spyglass, was hastily travelling back up the coast. It was the Sea Critter, Silverbeard’s ship.

What had the fool done? Ravage another town just to pass time? At times the barbarian’s mindless savagery mystified him. Putting the spyglass back in its leather case, Verne looked over his shoulder to bark at the helmsman, Smoothface.

“Turn about! Silverbeard’s coming this way!” he yelled. He wanted to be out of sight by the time his unwitting rival reached this position. “Turn, lubber! Turn as if your life depended on it!’ Technically, it did. All of their lives did, in one way or another.

Verne felt the ship moving into a circular revolution as Smoothface complied and gave a satisfied nod. Turning, he saw Mole and Blacktooth conversing near the hatch to belowdecks, loitering while the rest of the crew bust their guts adjusting the sails and keeping a lookout.

“Avast, you lazy scum!” Verne shouted, marching toward them furiously. He would not tolerate idleness on his ship. Indolence wasn’t a Virtue for good reason. Not that it mattered to these knaves of piratical alignment. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? This ain’t some gentlemen’s convocation! Yer here to work, not jive pointlessly!”

Mole gave the captain a petulant look. “But our jivin’ did have a point! Honest!” he whined.

“Honesty doesn’t suit ye, Mole.” Verne sneered. “Try again.”

Mole looked at him in bewilderment, but Blacktooth stepped up to the plate. “We were just fivin’ about how the pickings have been rather slim these days, that’s all. All thou dost let us do is tax ships now, and we haven’t even done that in weeks!”

“Tax…yeah, right.” Mole snorted derisively. “I couldn’t even pay a Den’s wench for basic services with that kind of gold.”

Verne glared at him incredulously. “Ha! What are you talking about, Mole? It wouldn’t matter if I gave ye a bloody king’s ransom, you still wouldn’t be able to afford a wench ‘cause ye would’ve squandered it all on grog! Idiot! Besides, you forget who saved your hide from that pimp’s lackeys back at Buccaneer’s Den nearly half a year ago, who were a fish tail bone’s breadth from burning your skulls into the next novelty collector’s tankards at the Fallen Virgin!” He smiled smugly. “Both of ye ungrateful louts!”

“Hey, it weren’t our fault that we wanted a discount on special services!” Blacktooth protested sullenly. “Those damn fickle winches charged too much by the minute! Someone should levy that market…scurvy-plagued rip-off merchants…”

“It weren’t my fault I wanted a discount. It weren’t my fault my da didn’t tell me to use Colgate. It weren’t my fault that I didn’t know that the beer in the chamberpot wasn’t actually beer.” Verne mimicked scornfully, performing a fair imitation of a whining two-summer old toddler. “No, it’s never your fault, Blacktooth. Heaven forfend! You make me sick with your pathetic whingeing. You call yourself a pirate?”

“Yeah, Blacktooth.” Mole said snidely.

“You’re not exempt neither, Mole, ye yellow-bellied rum oaf!” Verne snarled.

Mole’s mouth, twisted in the middle of a conceited grin, snapped shut and became an embarrassed, thin line.

“Now, I understand you fools have a problem with the way I run my ship and select my pickings.” Verne growled, eyeing both of them, daring them to speak out against him.

Blacktooth was audacious enough to do so. “Yeah, it appears right too just, it does. We’re becoming the cowards of the sea, by thunder!” The very idea was purely repugnant to the aspiring pirate.

“You question my tactics, eh?” Verne snorted arrogantly. “Think again, fools! What know you of the command of a pirate ship and a whole pack of scalliwags, not unlike yourselves, and profit-reaping on the high seas? It’s not for stoneheads like you, still young and so full of yourselves it’s a wonder you’ve not exploded into the pile of shit that ye are!”

The two young pirates exchanged perplexed glances.

“Now here’s my point that I’ve been trying to get through to you lubbers for the past Virt- Hawkins knows how many weeks, short ‘n sweet.” Verne had nearly let it slip again. He’d be more careful next time. “We do things my way, accordin’ to my timing and my gait of etiquette. Ye’ll keep silent, sober, and focused, an’ ye won’t question how I do me reaping until I give the word, then cry havoc!”

Both pirates stared at him blankly.

“Et-i-ket?” Blacktooth repeated, confused.

Nonplussed, Mole ran his fingers through the imaginary hair atop his bald pate and mumbled acquiescence. His friend followed in subsequent seconds.

“Fine, Capt’n. Thou art the boss, and we do what thou dost tell us to do.” Mole said, tone a disgruntled one. “Just be warned though…soft captains with secret plans often don’t live long enough to see retirement in a big lord’s mansion.

He stalked off to find work, Blacktooth trailing after him, still struggling to repeat and comprehend the word Verne had used in his short tirade.

Verne scowled, angry at the fact that no matter how daft and instinct-driven Mole might be, he had a very valid point. A pirate crew had rights, like other crews. By keeping them away from juicy targets for so long, he was no doubt inadvertently planting the seeds of resentment and mutiny. But this purported treasure that Silverbeard was after, that he was absolutely certain the old dog was after, would silence the whining fools and keep them debauching for many months to come. And it wasn’t just any treasure either. It was the entire hoard of the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet, feared be his name. He just needed to be quick about finding it, before the ravenous dogs all around him became truly mutinous. Then he’d be free…free for redemption. If such a thing could be achieved by one such as he.

“Touche,” he whispered to himself, turning to look to the horizon and the endless sea.


Chapter 5
Setting Sail

“Get ‘em aboard, swabs!” a deckhand rasped in a low, urgent whisper as the cluster of men at the gunwale hastened to hoist the smaller boat that floated lazily by the mother ship’s starboard side.

The night breeze was a cruel chill of bitterness, like some vindictive ice queen’s frigid breath. The conditions were typical of a late desert evening. The crew of the Sea Critter had seen many of them in their long-running mission in this mostly desolate region.

The firmament above was a deep and ominous purple, a blanket dome with a smattering of holes through which the stars scintillated and twinkled. Rubbing his uncomfortably cold nose, Silverbeard glowered as the men hurried about their task, some of whom were taking quick surreptitious peaks over their shoulders, to gauge their captain’s anger. And they knew very well that the old sea tyrant was far from happy with the way things were progressing.

With derrick and pulleys the sailors - or better yet pirates - hoisted up the fishing boat to a level height with the gunwale. Two shadowy figures sat inside, poised to leap over the edge.

“Get out!” whispered one of them in a disgustingly familiar voice of undeniably mellifluous composure.

The two men leapt smoothly from the boat onto the deck. Silverbeard grimaced at the sight of them. Blackeye and White Dog. Very ragged did they look, more than was usual even for a pirate. But the first thing to catch the captain’s eye was not their ruffled appearance, but the marked absence of others of the raiding party.

Blackeye, solitary dark orb shifting from side to side uncertainly, anticipated his question almost immediately. “Vigil Pew’s dead, Captain, as are the others.”

“And the amulet?” Silverbeard asked, voice dangerously soft in its state of expectance.

“We couldn’t get it, Capt’n. The feisty lad got away, he did.” White Dog answered.

His mistake.

“Rael!” Silverbeard shouted. “Bring Mr Wilson!”

White Dog visibly blanched, neck muscles becoming taut. The deck seemed to reverberate as the massive chief gunner stomped over to the scene, in his meaty hands a large silver cannon ball with a chain and manacle attached. On the smooth reflective surface of the ball was painted a crude smiley face with the words ‘Mr Wilson’ inscribed below.

“No! Please, Capt’n, it weren’t me fault! Lemme explain!” White Dog blurted frantically, sweaty face an epitome of supplication.

“Rael, you know what to do.” Silverbeard said, almost calmly, not a truculent emotion to be seen on his weathered visage. He simply ignored White Dog’s piteous pleas for mercy.

Rael grunted a reply and stalked toward White Dog, the chain and ball in hands only emphasising the menace of the situation.

“You don’t understand! The lad had help! A whole army confronted us, Capt’n, with daemons at their command and the very elements against us! Lord British himself was there at the helm! I swear!” White Dog exclaimed, sparing quick glances between Silverbeard and the ever approaching Rael. Blackeye prudently segregated himself from the poor fellow’s proximity. “We gave it our best, we did! Vigil, Sam, Gil, all of us! Back to back we was, surrounded by forty knights and a rabid goat -” White Dog backed away slowly as he blubbered on, his posterior hitting the gunwale. Yet still he tried to bend away from the gunner about to set upon him. “A bloody battle to be sure! We barely got out alive, and not before I bravely took the rear and slew every Companion of the Avatar single-handedly!”

With one large callused hand, Rael effortlessly picked him up by the scruff of his neck, attaching the manacle to his desperately flailing ankle. As he held the struggling pirate over the side, White Dog cried out, “We tried! Oh, on a pirate’s honour we did try! I swear on the beard of Minax!”

Rael let go. White Dog screamed as he fell, only to be silenced seconds later by a loud splash of finality.

Silverberad’s cruel gaze settled on Blackeye, who was whistling a nervous tune to himself and assiduously studying the filthy deck.

“Well, Blackeye. What do you have to say?” Silverbeard queried coldly.

Blackeye, scratching his head, startled as if surprised. Giving Silverbeard a vaguely baleful glare, he said, “This isn’t the end of the world, Captain.”

“It is for you.” Silverbeard growled. He cocked his head to Rael. “Get Mr Ramsay.”

As Rael turned to get the neat chained cannonball from storage, Blackeye vehemently - and perhaps a little rapidly - pressed his case. “Captain, please understand, just because w failed to obtain the amulet doesn’t mean your plans are in tatters. Why, I can even quote a very reputable seer by the name of Hawkwind, who once said, ‘Defeat can be more instructive than victory.’ ” he said, raising a finger in the matter of a scholar stating an actual fact to a student.

Silverbeard sneered. “You’re done, Blackeye. I’ll have no more of yer insidious lies. I should’ve done this a long time ago.”

Rael returned moments later empty-handed, looking quite apprehensive. “Er, chief, bad news. We already used Mr Ramsay on Lecherous Phil.” he reported dejectedly.

Silverbeard rolled his eyes and sighed loud enough to make it seem as if steam was being ejected from a furnace. “Bah, I’ll kill ‘im myself!” he snarled, reaching for the hilt of his cutlass, only to find it no longer there.

To his great chagrin, he saw that Blackeye had it in his hands, displaying it arrogantly before the awestruck men that surrounded them. The man even had the audacity to smile conceitedly!

Silverbeard hissed. He hadn’t even seen the man cross the distance between them to get the weapon. In fact, Silverbeard doubted whether he had even done so in the first place. He had performed similar arcane tricks before, albeit on rare occasions. That was part of the reason Silverbeard’s fear of the savage First Mate besides his intelligence. He possessed an inscrutable, equivocal ability about him. Any mysticism was enough to get Silverbeard’s hackles rising.

“You need me, Captain.” Blackeye said condescendingly. “You can’t deny it. Look how I bend these fools to my iron will.” He swung the sword in a lazy arc toward the nearby deckhands, who cringed frightfully. “I rule through fear and cunning. You rule through mindless brutality. Granted, that has its merits, but keep conducting things the way you are and you will eventually be deposed. I can keep the scum in line. I can help you find the amulet. Me.” He pointed to himself with the sword for emphasis. “You are nothing without me.”

Silverbeard felt the bile rise up in his throat. The rage was building. He was going to make this bastard pay for his temerity. Fists taut with fury, he prepared to lunge…then stopped. Reigning in his hate, he reduced the rage to a mere glare. As much as he despised admission, Blackeye was right. He did need him. For now anyway. Even with his own notorious reputation, Silverbeard doubted he could control the opportunistic scum that was his crew at his age. When he was younger, it had been easier than becoming a father to a plethora of bastard children but not now. He was no Captain of the Shade Fleet, armed with manipulative cunning brilliance and insight to rival a Lycaeum scholar.

“You stay, Blackeye, but no more livers for you!” Silverbeard growled.

Blackeye smiled unctuously, handing back the blade. Silverbeard took it as if it were a viper. He’d have to throw it overboard later. There was no telling what it was tainted with now.

“But if I can’t - no, won’t - kill you, I’ll have to kill somebody else in order to pay for this grievous failure.” Silverbeard rasped menacingly.

He knew just the person.

Leron’s stomach grumbled. His mouth was as dry as a desert. He himself was as dirty as some pathetic, nameless metropolitan beggar. But most importantly of all, he was starving.

Locked up for hours in this dark, dank, musty cramped storage room, with only a little sliver of moonlight from a cut in the thick wooden wall boards, he had been given next to nothing for sustenance. Except for the bowl of reeking brown mush and a grimy tankard filled to the brim with a suspicious ammonia-smelling yellow liquid. Leron wasn’t foolish enough or desperate enough to lower himself to consuming other people’s refuse.

These pirates had a cruel, sadistic sense of humour. His mistreatment at their hands only fuelled his hatred and determination to exact extreme retribution. At least he hadn’t been chained to the wall. Still, he was of little threat to anybody in his present severely weakened state. Every few hours or so four pirates would come - he had memorised their faces to the pore - evil smiles on their faces and cudgels in hand, proceeding to beat him to a pulp for their own vile amusement. He had tried to fight back, oh, how he had tried. On their first visit, he had even managed well…for the first few seconds. His martial arts skills had enabled him to floor one of the thugs with a snap-kick to the head. But numbers, the cramped dimensions of this room, and unfriendly-to-flesh bludgeoning weapons always overwhelmed. From then on, the scum always took vengeance with extreme prejudice, laughing scornfully with each of his pained cries.

Leron was resilient, however. Resilient and resolved enough to make them suffer for this. All of them. But now, his only concern was finding something to eat. He scoured through some soiled hay in a corner, frantically searching for some form of nourishment. Anything would do. His ragged hand sifted through the hay, fingers like a sieve, searching. To his humble delight he came across something solid. Snatching it from its concealment, he found in his hand one very mouldy piece of cheese. It would suffice.

Opening his mouth to bite into the savoured sustenance, his jaws suddenly gaped only wider when something bit his hand, a shriek escaping from his throat. A rat screeched and launched itself at the cheese, hissing menacingly with each attempted leap. Leron retaliated by repeatedly smashing it with his opposite fist.

“Back, you vicious beast! Back! My cheese! My cheese!” Leron cursed, and to his great humiliation realised that he possessed the voice of a ragged desperate.

Suddenly, the hay trembled as if something slithered beneath, and scores of rats exploded from their hiding place, assailing Leron with their sharp teeth and screeches. He fell back with a cry, part from surprise and part from pain, losing the cheese. The rats abandoned him and set upon the cheese in an instant, one ever-pulsating furry mass ravaging a lone, frugal morsel.

Leron regained his feet, lunging with antipathy, but before he could consummate his revenge the rats devoured their pilfered meal in entirety and fled into a hole in the wall.

“Get back here, you little bastards!” he snarled, kneeling to shove his fingers into the hole. “I’ll eat your offspring for this - argh!” His eyes bulged when an unseen rat bit his fingers. He drew his hand out like lightning, hissing in pain.

There was a click and the door swung open abruptly, admitting the big brute Leron had come to know well as the dreadfully psychotic Rael Paws. The gargantuan’s settled on the kneeling prisoner in an instant, dark eyes glazed over with the anticipation of inflicting pain.

Leron returned the stare, mustering every shred of defiance that still remained in his beaten body, gearing up for another hour of senseless fist absorption. Rael stepped ponderously over the rotting threshold, two nameless pirates he did not recognise squeezing by the bully’s substantial frame. Wordlessly they grabbed him and hauled him out of the cramped cellar and up onto the deck. Leron almost gasped for the sweet evening air, but controlled himself admirably, diligently inhaling with patience. He would not give these scum the pleasure of seeing him in the fullness of his pathetic state.

The ruffians dragged him to a small assemblage of pirates at the gunwale, the two nameless pirates holding his arms while Rael approached the man at the centre of the group.

Leron grimaced. It was Silverbeard. Who else was he to expect to call him up at this hour?

Silverbeard’s glare was hot enough to sear iron when he set his sights on the ragged prisoner brought before him. “You rat-faced, goat-bred, shark-kissing son of a nixie!” he snarled hatefully, his usual epitome of fury. “I’m goin’ to have your heart on a platter for his, or Greenbeard weren’t me forefather!”

Leron put the pieces together from the apprehensive looks on the other pirates’ faces, as well as the vile savage Blackeye’s apathetic expression. The deck mould had failed to capture Jimmy Malone.

“You’re using me as a scapegoat?” he demanded incredulously. “I gave you my help with alacrity!” Well, not exactly with alacrity. Perhaps more with acquiescence and the threat of a honed cutlass. “Now it’s your turn to uphold your part of the bargain!”

“We struck no bargain!” Silverbeard bellowed. “I nabbed ye fair and square, and you’ll do what I tell you with alacrity when I tell you!” The old pirate’s balled fists trembled with rage. “I lost a power of good men today. Somebody has to pay in blood for this failure and by Hawkins it might as well be you.” He waved his hand. “Ye’ll walk the plank!”

Leron was so rife with pique and perplexity that he actually laughed, a scornful croak. “The plank? Can’t you think of anything less cliché?”

Silverbeard gave him a stubbornly proud look. “We pirates live by clichés. We wouldn’t be proper pirates without ‘em! Now, enough red herrings. It’s time for you to feed the sharks! They’re hungry, I believe.”

“Red herrings?” Rael’s head perked up enthusiastically. “Mmmh! All this BOOMING is making me hungry!”

“No!” Leron cried, a touch too pitiful for his own liking. “You still need me! I can help you find Malone! I know what he looks like!”

Silverbeard snorted. “Pah! We still have his picture that you so generously helped us make. We have no need of you any longer.”

Blackeye winced. Scratching the scarf that capped his head, he looked about nervously. Leron smirked in spite of his own predicament. So the cold cannibal wasn’t entirely unflappable after all. “Er, Captain…”

Silverberad snorted irately. “What?!”

“We don’t have the portrait anymore.”

The silence that followed was deafening. Slowly did Silverbeard turn to regard the First Mate with an iciness that could have rivalled a glacier in the Alps. “You lost the portrait?” he repeated, enunciating every syllable, every consonant and vowel, to the letter of drawled, pedantic perfection.

“Well, not me precisely…” Blackeye drawled uncertainly. “It was Vigil Pew who had it, since he - had - the best deadlights of anybody on the Great Sea, better than a hawk’s, I’d say. When he was run down by the horses, he lost his life, so technically by logical surmise he lost the picture as well…” Suddenly, he broke into a coughing fit, seeming to croak something that sounded like ‘Foster’ in between ragged paroxysms.

Silverbeard sniffed. “Aaargh…” he exhaled slowly, barely reigning his anger. Shrugging his shoulders repetitively, a shudder of fury ran up his spine. Suddenly, it dissipated. “No matter. My brilliant resilience and resoluteness tells me that we can use Foster again to use our prisoner here to paint another picture of our quarry. Rael, bring Foster here!”

The grin of smug victory that had been forming on Leron’s face was cruelly swept off in the wake of astonishment. His bargaining chip was no longer in the palm of his hand now, instead having crumbled to dust. Despair seeped in. Foster had made an accurate portrait of Malone before. There was no reason he could not to so a second time.

Rael skittered off below deck to fetch Foster, who had taken up residence in the galley for some unfathomable reason. From what Leron had heard, the man was a glutton with a taste for murder and an artistic hand. Yet the thin, spry man that accompanied Rael on his return to the assemblage certainly didn’t look the glutton. Leron surmised that he had a fast metabolism.

Foster possessed a narrow, gentle face. One would never suspect him of being one of the most bloodthirsty pirates of the gang, or the brutal murderer of one of his own peers at an art institution, so Leron had gleaned from snatches of other pirates’ grapevine. He was always calm, reserved, even reticent. Much like Reizer. A keeper of secrets, some no doubt dark. Leron hated the man, and not for the leverage he held against him strictly per se. Anyone taciturn had something unsavoury to hide, and thus deserved contempt for it, as Leron perceived.

“Paint job.” Silverbeard said gruffly to the young pirate. “We need another picture of the amulet thief.

Foster glanced at Leron knowingly, nodding his head in understanding. “Aye, Captain. I’ll be able to do it, but I’ll need a few hours to make the proper paints. The cook used them for glaze, I’m sorry to say.” He shrugged apologetically.

“So that’s what that funny-tasting multi-coloured sauce on my prime roast was!” Rael said, enthralled.

Silverbeard’s cheeks puffed at the professed duration involved, but quickly regain his former composure, though it teetered on a razor’s edge as was indicative of his constant twitching, pinched countenance. “Very well, Foster! But ye do the job right, ye hear, or ye’ll be chimaera bait!” The captain glared at Rael Paws. “Put ‘im in the scullery cupboard for Foster’s easy access!”

Leron spat superciliously. “Scum! You think you can treat me like a farm pig? Think gain!” He struggled desperately against the grip of his captors, to no avail. “I’m above you! All of you! You’ll get it coming when you least expect it! I’ll wait for you outside your door! You dogs!”

Silverbeard looked at him as if he were a rat baring its teeth from behind a sewer grating.

“Still got airs, I see?” Silverbeard sneered. “Ye’ll learn.”

The punch to his stomach doubled Leron over, and the kick to his forehead flung him back onto the deck. He rolled over onto his aching stomach, the thugs laughing. While they chortled at his expanse, he felt something beneath his hand, what appeared to be a rusty iron nail. Concealing it up his sullied sleeves, he allowed himself to be unceremoniously hauled up without resistance by the none too gentle Rael.

“Take him away.” Silverbeard growled.

As he was dragged away, Leron realised he now had an advantage, though a slim one. The iron nail. He did not know how useful it was, but he was sufficiently resourceful to tap its full potential, he was sure.

Silverbeard would die, but Foster would have to die first.

Foster accompanied Rael to the galley on the deck below, the monster of a man carrying the ragged prisoner over his shoulder with little difficulty. The former artist smirked at him contemptuously. At least the haughty worm gave him the opportunity to flex his artist’s flair, a talent that was not quite unnoticeable. He hadn’t had such chances since more than four years ago, when he murdered his poor protégé Jillian. She had had potential. A terrible waste of both a talented and beautiful woman, but she had found out about his plot to steal the bastard director Relganor’s prized paintings. A quick knife across her throat from behind, the blade she hadn’t even seen coming, and it had all been over. And besides that, he had to admit there was a certain thrill to be gained from killing people. Innocent people. Especially women.

As he followed Rael down the stairs into the stuffy depths of the ship, he resolved to one day return to Minoc and pay his old friend Relganor a visit. The scum thought he was lord just because he was a descendant of Selganor, the guild master who had helped the Avatar during the War of the False Prophet. What that dog needed was to be taken down a few rungs. No, he needed to be taken down the whole ladder, and beneath the ground for good measure. He would gain vengeance one day. Sweet, savoury vengeance was one thing Foster looked forward to. That, and painting.

The galley was a dirty, unkempt place. Grimy pots and pans lay strewn about; tainted buckets of water with soiled towels dunked in rested in various incongruous places. One cauldron boiled next to a table, the questionable brown liquid bubbling and seething within. The chef, a low-life with a stubble-face to fival a porcupine who was even grimier than all his unclean utensils coalesced into a gestalt, lay with his head on a bench in a puddle of rum. It was typical of him. The scum didn’t know left from right, let alone how to cook a decent meal. Foster would have rather eaten from a cesspit than dine on the dubious ‘cuisines’ the chef had prepared in his time.

The small door - or rather, hatch - to the scullery cupboard resided a short number of paces behind the table adjacent to the cauldron. That table was Foster’s work desk. His base of operations was located in the galley only because of the easy access to foods and substances from which could be derived a myriad of chemicals to make colour pigments. The rumours about him being a glutton were utter falsehoods spun by those who knew him not at all, which was everyone aboard the grimy tug. The chef didn’t mind him using his foods for such purposes; he was asleep half the time besides.

“You’re not putting me in there!” howled the prisoner as Rael jerked open the hatch and shoved him into the small two-by-two pace cupboard, a consequent shattering of crockery being heard along with a pained cry. “Scum! You will rue the day you crossed me!” Rael crouched in order to crawl into the cupboard. The sounds of struggle grew more frantic. There was the sharp crack of a punch and the fracas abruptly ended. The rattle of chains signified the prisoner being bound, then Rael crawled back out and closed the hatch.

Dusting off his meaty hands, the brutish gunner casually strode out of the galley, whistling some lurid tune, but not before leaving the key to the chains on the work table. Foster watched until he was gone, then closed and locked the door after him. He would need privacy.

Turning his back to the work desk, he took a seat and prepared to make the pigments. He did not know what had happened to the first portrait he had made from the prisoner’s description, but he did not really care. So long as he got to paint. Letting the rhythm of the bubbling cauldron and the stertorous snores of the chef soothe him, he settled down to work.

Leron’s head rang. Rael must have hit him hard, curse the man. Now here he was, chained to a pole in a dark and cramped cupboard, forced to sit on broken crockery that stabbed into his buttocks. But despite the indignities he had suffered, at least he was alone. Only a sliver of yellow light glowed from a gap between the jamb and the hatch, not enough to illuminate.

Two loops of chain across his chest held him tightly to the pole, with a large rusty iron lock holding the loop together. Even in the dark as he was, he knew its location. His arms still had some degree of movement. Rael had been careless.

With one hand he gently slid the nail out of his sleeve, then struggled to raise it to the lock. After a few attempts, he managed to get it into the lock. Twisting the surrogate lockpick this way and that, he heard a satisfying click. Gently shrugging off the chains so as not to make a clamour, Leron leaned forward, wincing whenever the crockery beneath stabbed him. To his delight, the hatch was unlocked. He opened it just a crack - fortunately, it did not squeak - peering through the gap. Foster was seated at a table six paces ahead, his back to the cupboard, assiduously working on something unseen. Leron smiled in spite of his immense discomfort. The man was in perfect position to be silently murdered like some hapless sheep.

Stealthily, Leron opened the door, crawling out and standing tall without a sound. As a professional corporate agent who stole secrets from other corporations for a living, he was masterfully trained in the arts of stealth, martial arts, and black-hearted murder. Perhaps not as well as Reizer, but that was beside the point. His skills were more than enough to dispose of this human garbage.

Picking up a kitchen knife lying conveniently on the floor, partly due to the incognizant cook’s persistent indolence, he crept up on Foster from behind, surreptitious and absolutely furtive. The next process was done with swift methodical efficiency. One hand grabbed the pirate’s hair and pulled it back, the other sliding the knife across his throat, cutting it open with a single cruel slash. Foster couldn’t even cry out, giving a watery gurgle as his head slumped into a tray of multi-coloured liquid, his copious blood mixing in with the pigments in sanguine swirls.

There was a groan from the other side of the room. Leron started as his eyes settled on the sleeping form of a stubble-faced brute with a chef’s hat, whose face lay prone on a dirty bench. Leron cursed himself. How could he have noticed the man before? He prided himself on his exceptional ability to take in all of his surroundings in an instant. His suffering at the hands of these ruffians must have been taking its toll on him.

But Mudder, I don’t wanna be an avatar when I grow up. The Eight Virtues are all rot…” the man mumbled in his sleep.

For a moment, Leron considered killing him too. Then another idea came to his head, one more diabolical and cunning, along with a smug smile that formed on his dry, cracked lips. He could frame him with poor Foster’s murder. It wouldn’t be an outlandish possibility, taking into account these pirates’ treacherous, fickle mentalities. Granted, Leron could do a runner and evade the guards - but he couldn’t swim over God-knew-how-many kilometres of sea. His shape was just too battered. By sticking to his current plan, he gave himself decidedly more leverage with Foster gone and he would virtually clear himself of this murder.

Leron, gratified with the ingenuity of his plan, crept on over to the sleep pirate, planting the crimson-caked blade next to him. Washing the congealing blood of his hands in one of the buckets of dirty water, he surreptitiously snatched a half-eaten, mouldy muffin lying on a bench and sneaked back to his cupboard, closing the door after him.

Foster, the deft painter and former member of the renowned Artist’s Guild in Minoc, lay dead at his work table, throat cut. He hadn’t even seen the blade coming.

The first face to greet Jimmy atop the gangplank was Lindu’s beaming, blithe countenance.

“Ready to gain some sea legs, outlander?” the warrioress asked him, poking him in the ribs painfully.

Jimmy winced and gave an exaggerated groan, though Lindu could poke hard. “Hey, easy. I’m your fragile charge, remember? You have to get me to Britain n one piece, remember?” he said, feigning indignation.

Lindu grinned mischievously. “Correction. We have to get what thou dost carry to Britain in one piece, not necessarily thyself.”

Jimmy chuckled. “Well, no need to be pedantic.”

Now this was an enjoyable morning. Besides the sweltering heat, he had the salty breeze from the sea to offer at least some respite from the sun’s intensity. That night’s sleep had been the most refreshing one he had had in a long, long time...and most certainly one he had needed to escape the previous day’s stressful events. Lindu being the first face to behold aboard ship was only an added bonus, for it was a beautiful one indeed. She was a startling woman, both in terms of looks and character, as Jimmy had found out the previous evening after waking up at midnight to pilfer some booze from the bar. He had met her in the commons, and to his briskly growing delight had found her to be a most jovial, enjoyable and mischievous person. They had become fast friends after only a few words.

That was not to say Jimmy did not admire her impressive physique, ample bosom, and pristine face. But he saw her differently from other women he had pursued in the past. He found her strangely refreshing somehow, as if they were bonded by kinship. Here he was perfectly happy with a purely platonic relationship, for some unfathomable reason.

Lindu led an interesting life. Lean and strong, the sword at her hip was not just for show. She was as skilled with it as any fencing master was with a foil, if not better. From what she had told him and even had the courtesy to demonstrate, she was proficient with most forms of the blade, but had an especial affinity for the four-foot double-edge sword. The warrioress was a former veteran of the Royal Militia, and had regaled with many a riveting tale of adventure and battle against trolls and bandits, dragons and evil sorcerers. Not unlike a fairy tale, only Jimmy did not have an iota of doubt in her words. He’d been exposed to a jungle full of prehistoric creatures and shamanistic voodoo. Why not dungeons and dragons this time?

With Lindu he smelled adventure and a good story, both of which he needed. He had been so caught up in the action in the past day or so he had forgotten completely about taking photos of this arcane realm. He still had a workable camera and film in his backpack. He’d have to start taking snapshots soon. He didn’t want to come back empty-handed.

For his own protection, he had been given a leather vest and leggings to wear over his usual clothes, as well as a dagger. It beat itchy bark armour at the very least. Jimmy had always wondered how those Nahuatla guards could withstand such skin-irritating attire. Even gambeson or cloth could not phase out the constant chafing that after a while made the skin tingle as if ablaze.

“This looks pretty snazzy.” Jimmy said, surveying the deck and the crew and soldiers who scurried about it, anxiously getting everything in order for the battleship’s departure. “I always wanted to be like Popeye the Sailorman.”

The heavy setting of feet brought the young reporter’s attention to Sir Vardu, still staid and reserved as always. The knight of Serpent’s Hold observed everything, as if sceptical of those things he deemed dubious. Jimmy still found it hard to believe that Lindu and he were twins, though they looked and acted nothing alike. One was a sharp contrast to the other. Where Vardu was stony, no-nonsense and stolid, Lindu was cheerful, carefree and slightly risque. Vardu was a dull, grave nimbus, while Lindu was the shining sun.

“Welcome aboard, brother.” Lindu greeted.

Jimmy looked around ostentatiously. “Did the jovial factor just drop?”

Lindu laughed at that. Vardu looked at him questioningly.

“Is the crew aboard?” Vardu asked solemnly.

Lindu shook her head. “Most of the crew and our contingent, but a few of our fighters are still absent.” Then she grinned. “Probably waking up after a little carousing with the tavern maids.”

“Wha-hey! Vardu buddy!” Jimmy exclaimed, smiling broadly and giving the sombre knight a very knowing look indeed. “So that’s why you’re late this morning. Getting a little reow, reow, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more, eh?” He winked at him, making a double clicking sound with his tongue against the back of his molars.

Vardu’s expression never changed from its stolid setting, but his tone did acerbity proud. “Unlike thee, Master Malone, I can keep my breeches on at the sight of a woman with an ample bosom.” He stomped off, neither angry nor placid. He always seemed to stomp.

“I can see why.” Jimmy grumbled. “Any woman would get disinterested by the time he took all that armour off.”

Lindu laughed, but her face abruptly grew pained. “He wasn’t always like that.” She now appeared uncharacteristically saddened.

“Something happened?” Jimmy asked, curious.

Lindu shrugged as if trying to shake off some cumbersome weight. “Thou wilt have to ask him about it.”

Jimmy winced and grimaced. “Better not then. He looks as if he could bite a brick in two.” Looking after the retreating back of the knight, he winced again. “Sometimes I don’t think a bullet could stop him.”

He saw a familiar, brawny red-skinned figure stalk up the gangplank, carved demonic visage scowling at nothing. Jimmy waved, but Kap-Lem ignored him and strode toward the below decks stairwing, spears and backpack slung across his muscular, riveted back.

Jimmy was worried about the gargoyle. Ever since last night and his acquiescence to join them on the sea voyage to Britain, he absolutely refused to talk to him. He had quite literally ostracised him, giving him a cold shoulder and menacing scowl - maybe it was just inherently menacing due to the hellish nature of his face - whenever he came within ten feet. Jimmy did not stand for alienation, but he could not help but feel he was at least partially responsible for Kap-Lem being dragged along for the ride. The gargoyle was fanatically loyal to old Hothame for some reason, and did not appreciate being torn away from his tutor and obligatory protectee. Jimmy just hoped he could resolve his difference with his saviour before the chasm grew too wide.

He was about to follow the gargoyle when an imperious shadow fell across the deck, growing larger as whatever flying beast above dived in to alight on the ship. Jimmy looked up and gasped; Lindu and the crew did too, sans the gasping, hardly perturbed at what they saw in the least. The thing that landed was another gargoyle, red-skinned with an impressive wingspan. Muscular and burly, visage possessing the stereotypical menacing cast that was trademark to such monsters, the creature was at least a head taller than Kap-Lem. Donned in a thick plate armour vest, it had a serrated greatsword at its hip. Even Kap-Lem stopped at the landing, genuinely surprised.

“Graldesh,” Lindu whispered in Jimmy’s ear. “Our resident winged gargoyle from Terfin. A fine warrior and adventurer. He has been to many of the dungeons in the quest for the eradication of evil.”

“Sounds like a swell guy.” Jimmy said.

Sentri approached the winged gargoyle from the foredeck, Captain Regara blathering something at his heel. Silencing the garrulous captain with a raised and callused hand, the warrior grinned at Graldesh and bowed his head in greeting. “Good morrow, Graldesh. Glad thou couldst make it.” he said.

“To apologise for lack of punctuality, Second Commander.” Graldesh replied sheepishly, if a gargoyle could be said to be sheepish with such a demonic countenance. “But to be meditating at the Shrine of Sacrifice. To be there since all of yesterday.”

Sentri nodded. Kap-Lem, still watching, flashed sudden anger and briskly disappeared down the stairway, gait conveying disgust.

Graldesh raised a brow ridge. “To ask what another of my kind is doing aboard?”

“Thou missed some action yesterday.” Sentri replied.

Graldesh looked crestfallen. “To be ashamed I was not present at my post. To be dishonoured. To request penance.”

Sentri chuckled. “No, devotion to the Virtues is not something that warrants dishonour. It was only a minor skirmish. Alcor will tell thee the story.” He gestured to a short but broad bull of a man with a beard like a devil’s dressed in mail from head to toe who stood next to the capstan. “I must go rouse our fearless leader. I fear a hangover may have incapacitated him again like that time in Minoc.” He patted Graldesh on the shoulder as he departed, headed for the gangplank.

Jimmy watched the warrior descend the plank, sighing. “Kap-Lem’s acting weird. Everything’s weird here.”

“Thou art the one out of place, not us, outlander.” Lindu said, a tad too testily.

“Chalk it up to stress.” Jimmy answered, giving a wry smile. “It’s not everyday you get jumped by both greedy corporate agents and bloodthirsty pirates who’ll stop at nothing till they have your liver on a stick for lunch.” He fingered the moonstone in his pocket, its surface one of asperity. The amulet still hung on his neck against his chest, eerily cold despite the heat. It was always cold.

He was out of place. Everything here felt alien to him, but it was he who was the true alien. Silently he wondered how the people of Britannia, very obviously humankind like himself, had come to this strange world. he knew how it had occurred in Eodon, with the Kotl - immensely intelligent reptilian beings - bringing human ancestors from Earth for the role of dependants, but here it was a mystery. If the tribes of Eodon could not remember their origins - hell, even the Sakkhra, the direct descendants of the Kotl, could not remember their origins, possessing only legends that gave the most vague of hints - then Jimmy seriously doubted the people here would have any better luck. Perhaps they had always been here, and this was simply Earth of a different reality. Or maybe it had something to do with that multi-regionalist theory. Or maybe he had simply imbibed something he shouldn’t have and was merely dreaming all of this up. One could only speculate.

“Fear not. I will teach thee the protocols and customs of Britannia, so that thou dost not make too much of an ass of thyself.” Lindu interrupted his musing, a big playful grin splitting her face.

Jimmy smiled, though it only exuded partial happiness this time. “Sure. Whatever you think is necessary.”

Something dark had spoiled his mood, spontaneous and insidious. He was not the only alien here besides.

Where was Reizer?

Sentri marched through the commons room, now empty of the band of warriors and crew who had taken up most of the rooms in the inn. It was immaculate, as he had ordered the men to leave it. But they were men of honour and discipline, and he would have bet his life with alacrity that they would have cleaned up after themselves without the injunction.

He must have looked incongruous in full chain and leather armour, a two-handed sword nearly five feet in length strapped to his back. This place would have had its fair share of incongruous patrons in recent days, especially with all this action. The man at the bar, an old sailor turned tavernkeeper called Wimle, touched his forelock as a sign of respect. Sentri reciprocated with a nod, heading up the stairs. Coming into the corridor, he passed by a pretty young maid who curtsied rather humbly.

When he arrived at Dupre’s door, the first thing to catch his attention were the muffled noises coming from within. Pressing his ear curiously to the door, he could make out a soft, feminine giggling, as well as a deeper voice whose words he could not quite discern.

Sentri sighed. The man was so predictable. He could read him like a tome. I only punctuality had been a virtue. Raising his hand, he performed a series of knocks, five quick, two long. The sounds were surpassed by a sudden thud, as if something hit the floor, followed by a rustling of what was presumably cloth and blankets.

Without preamble, Sentri entered. The lecherous swine deserved it, after all. To his great amusement, he saw Dupre hopping on one foot at the side of a large bed, desperately trying to get his other leg into a pair of trousers. He had little else on but a loincloth. There was a mound under the blankets behind him. Something moved under there.

“Hast thou not heard of a little thing called privacy?” Dupre demanded, indignant.

Sentri smiled provocatively. “’Tis time to go.”

“What? Already?!” Dupre cried, feigning consternation. He had managed to get the other leg through, and was now bending to pick up an article of clothing from the floor, smiling innocently. “I didn’t realize. Slept in late. I was busy that last night. Paperwork, thou knowest.”

“Ah, yes.” Sentri said drily, noting as Dupre picked up a white blouse instead of the gambeson he had been looking for. “Just canst not get enough paperwork, canst we?”

“Of course not!” Dupre said vehemently, making it seem as if any other contrary notion was absurd. “Thou knowest how diligent I am when it comes to that sort of thing.”

“Aye, I do have an inkling.”

The mound moved again, emanating a girlish giggle. A head of golden hair popped from beneath the covers, just enough so the blue eyes could observe what was unfolding.

Sentri undertook a pretence of surprise. “Oh, I see thou didst have a secretary last night to help thee too. Good morrow to thee, Marissa!” Sentri said, bowing his head.

“Hello, Master Sentri.” the woman partially concealed beneath the blankets reciprocated cheerfully.

“Ah, secretaries. What couldst men do without them?” Dupre asked sagely. He had dropped he blouse and was now rummaging through a chest to find his attire, assiduously avoiding looking Sentri in the eye.

Sentri himself could barely suppress a light-hearted chuckle. Upon realising that Sentri wasn’t leaving, Dupre mustered the courage to look at him pointedly.

“Well?” he asked impatiently. “Thou hast done what thou didst come to do. This isn’t a carnival! Begone!”

Sentri gave mock obeisance with a salute, still smiling. “As thou dost command, noble warrior. I wilt see thee on the Virtuosity soon enough, I’m sure. Don’t fall into any beds in the meantime.”

Chuckling, he closed the door behind him, for the most part muting an imprecation directed at his back.

While centuries had passed with consecutive adventures in the company of his dear friend Dupre, some things never changed.

Leaning his elbows upon the gunwale, Jimmy watched the menagerie of activities on the docks, bored. Suppressing a yawn, he turned his head and tried to count the number of fishing boats leaving port for deeper waters. They all looked the same, even though up close each was unique in design, no matter how small the difference.

The morning was becoming uncomfortably hotter as the sun progressed with its brisk ascension. Jimmy habitually looked at the wrist of his right forearm, realising too late that he had not brought his watch. By his count, it had been at least ten minutes since Sentri had gone to rouse Dupre from slumber. A few more warriors had come aboard, including two particular men, a knight from Serpent’s Hold named Sir Pasar, and a freelance-turned-patriot called Travis.

The one known as Travis looked quite the rogue. He had all the characteristics that made the perfect epitome for a ribald-tongued, wickedly smiling vagabond who did not conform to the rules. Protected only by leather and scale beneath a surcoat so sullied it was impossible to tell what coat-of-arms he had once served under, if he had ever done so, the man looked as if conformity were anathema to him, despite his boisterous nature.

As for the knight, he was a direct opposite. Favouring cumbersome plate that was resplendent and pristine enough for Jimmy to see his own reflection in, Sir Pasar was a stickler for formality and etiquette, only half a notch lower than Vardu in terms of being too stolid. Whenever he walked, it seemed as if he were marching on parade. Left, left, left, right, left. At his belt was strapped a four-foot double-edged sword, buried in its nondescript hardleather scabbard to the hilt. He even went so far as to wear his nose-guarded conical helm, a shining silver-grey along with the rest of his armoured suit. It turned out that he was the lord of Serpent’s Hold, and despite his zero tolerance for insolence, he did allow himself at least some degree of pomposity. An illustrious blue cape flowed down from the shoulder plates nearly to the very base of the steel heels of his plate boots, a marker to all of his superior rank.

Jimmy didn’t like the man. He had only had to exchange a score of words with him before coming to the conclusion that Pasar saw him as an inconvenience. A burden that deserved only to be alienated from others. From the cold arrogance of the looming knight’s voice, Jimmy knew he would find no friendship wit the likes of him. Despite his unease, Lindu asssured him that Pasar, while pedantic and hard-lined at the best of times, was an extreme loyalist to Lord British’s realm and would perform above and beyond the call of duty to execute the venerable sovereign’s decree.

Presently, the pompous, pride-filled knight was on the mid-deck, discussing something with the gargoyle Graldesh while casting the occasional glance askance in Jimmy’s general direction. Jimmy gave the man his best frown, though it did little detriment to his vaguely supercilious demeanour.

Travis jived with Lindu not too far from Jimmy, and judging from their spontaneous laughter, the pair were exchanging some particularly ribald jests. For a moment, he considered joining them to alleviate his lonesome boredom. The thought was instantly disregarded when he spotted Kap-Lem coming up on deck from below. The wingless gargoyle swivelled his fearsome head from side to side as he surveyed his surroundings, nearly flinching when his fiery eyes swept over Graldesh. Growling something that Jimmy could not hear from this distance but was certainly derogatory, Kap-Lem stalked off with even, determined strides toward the stern of the ship, pointedly ignoring his winged compatriot.

Jimmy followed, seeing that the silent exchange had not gone entirely unnoticed by Graldesh and Pasar. Graldesh appeared - for want of a better word, distressed - while the knight frowned after the red-skinned perpetrator.

Jimmy passed them by heedless, pretending not to hear Pasar’s question - more like interrogative - about his intent, hastening to catch up to his friend. Kap-Lem stopped at the aft gunwale, grasping the wooden railing with his claws. Crew members prudently gave him a wide berth judging by the tension in his formidable back muscles.

“Hey, Kappy!” Jimmy called, forcing cheer into his voice. “How goes?”

Kap-Lem gave him a perfunctory glance before returning to his view of the busy bay and the town of Vesper in the background.

The youthful reporter leaned against the gunwale beside him, smiling boisterously. “Cat got your tongue?”

“To ask you to go away.” Kap-Lem said softly, a low rumble of disgruntlement that could not quite mask all acerbity.

Jimmy gave a largely feigned, pained expression. “Hey, buddy? What’s a matter? You don’t like me anymore?” He certainly hoped that was not the case. The demonic creature had saved his life, after all. He would have hated any ill feelings to fester between them for whatever reason.

“To start to find you obnoxious. To tell you to begone before you are thrown overboard.” Kap-Lem replied, betraying a hint of menace.

Jimmy took a prudent step back. Obnoxious? Well, it wasn’t the first time he’d been called that. All reporters were stereotyped as obnoxious, for some unfathomable reason. He didn’t understand it. He was really a great guy. The aspiring journalist became uncharacteristically sombre when he answered.

“Look, I’m sorry for getting you dragged into this. I didn’t mean to. Honest. It just happened.” Jimmy said, looking at the side of Kap-Lem’s chiselled face with square sincerity. The gargoyle affected not to look back. “I’m sure Sentri will post the necessary guards to protect old Hothame. He ain’t the epitome of duplicity. He’s a trustworthy, heroic sort of guy.” Jimmy scratched his head. Kap-Lem exhaled, a steamy rasp of frustration. “Believe me, I’ve interviewed a menagerie of bona fide heroes in my time. Sentri’s a natural.” Perhaps that was just slightly stepping into the realm of hyperbole. Then again, he had interviewed the Avatar, who was most definitely a hero, albeit an unorthodox one at times.

This time Kap-Lem did look at him, and Jimmy took another step back, surprised at the fire in the beast’s eyes. “To see you do not understand what honour and obligation is. To have never grasped the concept of life-debt.” he rasped, breath hot and dripping with sarcasm. “To be disappointed.”

“How many times do I have to say sorry?” Jimmy demanded, a little heat entering his own tone.

Kap-Lem growled and hunched his shoulders of meat and muscle, and for a moment Jimmy feared he meant to pounce. He gripped the hilt of his dagger, even though he knew very well he would not survive two seconds against the great frame of the gargoyle.

Fortunately, Kap-Lem’s glare diminished abruptly from a fierce blaze to a low tenacious smoulder, returning to his bitterly wistful vigil of the active harbour. “To owe Hothame a great debt. To be now bound by obligation to protect and serve him. To be anathema to be torn away from such a duty.”

Jimmy stared at him solemnly, trying to discern the various planes and angles of the monster’s face. “He must mean a lot to you then.”

Kap-Lem snorted, the sound of an angry hippo expelling air from its gaping nostrils. “To say you are perceptive.” His tone was laced with sarcasm. “To have not always been Hothame’s bondsman.” He tilted his horned head back slightly, peering at the cloudless sky. The sun did not seem to bother him. “To have once been a warrior in the legions of the Gargish, though to be a token force now. To have been born in too late an ageafter the War of the False Prophet,” he said, slightly acerbic, sniffing deeply. “To have been hot-blooded. To have hated all humans for what they had done to my kind. To have joined some score of years ago Lord Draxinusom’s Guard for Terfin’s sovereignty, and studied under the great veteran Bolesh Us-agra-lem, who even had the honour of meeting the Avatar in person. To have known of my hatred for those I deemed oppressors, and in his wisdom he sought to placate my odium. To have taught me the nature of the spear. To have cared for him almost as a parent. To have grown distraught at his untimely death at the hands of brigands. To have started humans more for that. To have then met Rukeb, whose name meant ‘Blood Storm’, a cruel gargoyle who, unlike me, was a young winged one. To have hated gargoyles more than I, and recruited me into his band of disgruntled kin. To have been called the Vas-Kel-Daralakesh, ‘The Avengers of the Blood’, a group dedicated to vigilantism and punishment of humans deemed deserving of such punishment, which was all of them, by our reckoning.” He sighed remorsefully. “To have left Terfin together to ‘settle’ in Britannia, so as to establish the base of our vengeance. To have together waylaid many brigands, rogues, and travellers…to have not matter who it was that we attacked, so long as they were human. To then have started taking venom to strengthen my body, at Rukeb’s behest. But to have been more weakened by it than strengthened…and to have been addicted to it.”

“This venom is like a drug?” Jimmy queried, trying to be as discreet as possible.

Kap-Lem nodded ruefully. “To be very. Silver serpent venom is not good. On one foray on an armed patrol of paladins, I was injured and collapsed. Too much venom over too long a time and my wound nearly killed me. My fellow ‘Blood’ abandoned me. But Hothame, who was with the paladins, saved me. To have used his herbs and esoteric reagents to heal my grievous wound and cure me of my addiction. To admire humans’ sense of compassion and amnesty. To stop hating from then and become a new entity To serve with Hothame ever since.”

“What about the Blood?” Jimmy asked.

Kap-Lem shrugged. “To be probably dead now, either from venom or violence. To not care. To have a new life. A new obligation. To wish to learn and heal now instead of kill. To serve and protect Hothame. To still learn ways of the spear, but to defend myself and Hothame. Not to maim and kill without purpose.”

“Don’t you ever get lonely?” Jimmy asked, beginning to fell a twang of sympathy for the monster.

“Sometimes. To be aloof from other gargoyles of town. To be disappointed that they do not deign to talk to me. To see my servitude to a human as contemptible and despicable. To have virtually banned me from other side of oasis under pain of severe beating.” Kap-Lem replied in monotone. He displayed no emotion; his voice was as smooth as a marble slate.

Jimmy frowned, then beamed optimistically. “Well, at least you’ve got Graldesh to talk to.”

Kap-Lem snorted repugnantly. “To rather talk to a rabid silver serpent.”

“Huh?” Jimmy said, nonplussed. He was about to open his mouth whn there was a small commotion over near the gangplank.

Sentri had come aboard, and Sir Pasar, puffed up like a bantam rooster inflated with hydrogen that it was a wonder he did not explode into the pile of midden that he was, had met him at the deck, vigorously consulting him on some matter that Jimmy made out to be something about logistics. He made the effort to approach while the preening fool blathered on in his accursed no-nonsense, pompous tone. Kap-Lem did not bother to accompany him, resuming his fruitless, vacant-eyed vigil.

“Alco has informed me that all rations have been loaded in the store hold, and that the spoiled rations have been summarily discarded. Remarkably efficient for a mere mercenary, I might add.” Pasar said in that deep, proud voice. “Oil, swords, powder, and cannonballs have also been fully catalogued and stored, appropriately segregated from any damp sections of the hold to ensure -”

“Might I add, Sir Pasar, that Alcor is no simple mercenary. He is the King’s man, a patriot. More than just an adventurer or money-rubbing freelancer.” Sentri cut in, adding every iota of pomposity to his tone that the Serpent’s Hold noble had levelled at him. “Just because a warrior isn’t among the prestigious ranks of a time-honoured order does not mean he is scum.”

Pasra’s eyes narrowed infinitesimally, face muscles tensing, then he nodded his head in obeisance. To Jimmy, it seemed more like acquiescence. “Of course, commander. Shall I resume with the report?” His brisk tone made it clear that he was keen on moving on from the slight reprimand. Likely, the man took a mere grimace as an onerous black mark on his immaculate record of service.

Sentri held up his hand in a gesture of placation upon seeing Jimmy approach, smiling amiably. “Ho, Master Malone. How fares thy morning?”

Pasar glanced at the journalist as if he were some bothersome gnat, not condescending to maintain it for more than two seconds before looking back to Sentri rather stonily.

“Well, I haven’t had to walk the plank yet.” Jimmy replied, giving his own lopsided grin and directing its full ludicrous intensity at Pasar.

The knight was assiduous in ignoring.

“Excellent. We can’t have our charge exposed to harm, can we?” Sentri said.

“Perish the thought.” Pasar interjected, though he sounded just a tad insincere.

“Ahoy! Dupre comes!” yelled Travis from across the deck.

All three turned their heads to see the tall warrior in shining plate ascend the gangplank. His usual boisterous countenance and mischievous smile were instead replaced with a disgruntled frown. Scanning the ship, he spotted the congregation and strode toward them briskly.

Sentri grinned. “What took thee so long? We were waiting at least fifteen minutes!”

Dupre scowled. “I had to give Marissa a farewell kiss.” he grumbled.

Pasar frowned at him, but did so discreetly.

“Wow. Must’ve been a long farewell kiss.” Jimmy said, then winked at the rugged warrior and made a double-clicking sound with his tongue against the back of his molars.

Dupre took a slight cautionary step back while Pasar turned his frown on Jimmy, this time blatantly overt.

“Riiight…” Dupre said uncertainly. He turned to Sentri, quickly changing the topic. “Are we ready to set sail?”

Sentri nodded. “Thou art the last to come aboard.” He coughed into his fist purposely.

Dupre sighed and rolled his eyes. Reaching into his belt pouch, he took out three gold coins, handing them to his companion. Sentri took them with alacrity, beaming.

“I swear I’ll wake up before everyone else one day. By Virtues, I will.” Dupre said in his exasperation.

Pasar had the beginnings of a scornful sneer on his face at the exchange, but quickly smoothed it over when Jimmy scrutinised him with a warning look.

“Well, then.” Dupre huffed ostentatiously. “There is nothing for it. Captain Regara!” he called. “Launch at will!”

The slightly rotund captain waved jovially from his post at the helm, gripping the wheel with his other hand. “About time, says I! Raise the anchor! Unfurl the sails, lads! Onward to Britain and the heart of our fair realm’s sovereignty!” He thrust his finger forward toward the open sea, scintillating blue waters deceptively calm and inviting.

As his deep, chipper voice took precedence in the background, Jimmy hastily found a place on deck where he would not obstruct the brisk activity of the crew aboard. The voluminous white sails dropped as men crawled over the rigging, the interlocked ropes as pervasive as webbing, puffing taut like a rooster would its chest as the winds took hold.

Slowly, the Virtuosity left port when the sailors raised anchor, drifting on the current and fuelled by the morning winds. The smaller vessels made way for the larger imperious ship, spreading away before its impending bow could crush them into a thousand pieces. Jimmy thought it was a risky business taking off with all the boats around, but Regara appeared deft with the wheel, guiding his vessel with all the tenderness a passionate husband would give to a wife, and the Virtuosity responded in kind, smoothly wending its way past the shoals and other perils to its integrity.

The breeze began to pick up as the slender battleship gained speed, leaving harbour entirely. His hair ruffled by the wind, Jimmy turned to gaze at the rapidly diminishing town of Vesper, where he had nearly been killed. He was glad to leave, but his sense of security was not completely appeased. He was uncomfortably aware of the fact that if they were waylaid out here in the endless ocean, there would be far fewer places left to hide, and certainly nowhere to run. He could only find solace in the hope that the wrriors aboard would be more than capable of defending him from the likes of Silverbeard and his lackeys. Otherwise, it would be one long swim back to Britain. And swimming was never his strong skill.

Looking over the gunwale, he grimaced at the passing blue water, roiling beneath the vessel’s momentum, coalescing into white crests as often as fluctuating troughs. Jimmy sincerely hoped they did not have sharks in Britannia. He hated sharks, though flake tasted good. It would be both ironic and poetically just if he ended up a meal for the maw of some ravenous Great White or Ocean Pointer.

“Sharks often accompany ships into deep sea.” Lindu said, appearing beside him. “I think they’ve learned that an excess of bodies is always the result of a pitched sea battle.”

Jimmy groaned and covered his forehead. “I thought dolphins were the only sea-dwellers to do that.” He fervently preferred the latter creature of the ocean following the vessel than the former. Pausing for but a moment, he mecurially changed his mind upon recalling a documentary where dolphins were toying with a hapless porpoise before terminating its miserable life.

Lindu smiled mischievously. “Dupre sometimes regales me with tales of how he and the Avatar were surrounded by sharks at the entrance of the tributary to the lake at the Isle of the Avatar. They were stuck in a skiff and fought off two scores of sharks, supposedly.”

“Sounds like a skewed tale.” Jimmy said glumly.

Lindu frowned at him as if he were daft. “The Avatar has faced far worse before.”

“Believe me, it’s exaggerated. I’m a reporter. I’m paid to exaggerate.”

Lindu shook her head in vehement disbelief. She was no longer smiling either. Jimmy wondered whether he had just said something blasphemous. “Thou hast not seen the Avatar in action.” she retorted, a little heat entering her voice.

Jimmy gave her the sort of patronising look a parent would give to a naïve child. “Wrong again, sis. Next time you see your Hero, ask about the Savage Empire. Back to back we were in that primordial jungle, pursued by jaguars, saber-toothed tigers, cannibals, and worse! Why, there was even this time in a dank, murderous swamp, cornered by a giant T-Rex and forced to use a flotilla of sea turtles to swim around it, who turned on us the instant we ran out of bait. It was a bloodbath, I can tell you…”

Lindu looked at him sceptically.

“It’s true!” Jimmy said defensively.

“I’ve heard better fibs from a broken down, depraved, debauched bard than thee.” she replied disparagingly. “Anyway, they could not have been an ounce as bad as the monsters we have here. Giant squids, ettins, nixies, lava lizards…thou dost name it, we have it. They surely would be more potent than thy ‘T-Rex’, whatever that may be.”

“What a shame then, Lindu, that most of these deadly creatures are extinct now.” said a deeper, inherently boisterous voice. It was the warrior Travis, stubble-face sporting an ironic half-grin, eyes twinkling with secrets bound to be of the risque sort. “The Avatar killed them all.”

“Pig’s swill!” Lindu protested. “I sighted a giant squid nigh three days ago barely a dozen paces to starboard, thrashing tentacles, snapping beak, and all.”

“No, Lindu.” Travis replied, shaking his head sagely. Then the grin widened. “Thou just made the mistake of looking in the mirror.”

Jimmy burst into laughter. Lindu scowled.

“I owe thee one for that.” she said acidly. Jimmy could not be sure who she meant that statement for, him or Travis? Perhaps both? Then she broke into a ravishing smile, as if nothing had occurred. She turned to the reporter. “I’ll get my laughs when thou art on thy back, spewing thy breakfast from sea sickness. It’s an acute syndrome among outlanders, I’ve heard.”

Jimmy snorted. “Well, you heard wrong. I don’t fall for such trademark sea voyage cliches. Nice try, but no cigar.” He smiled mockingly.

“We’ll see.” Lindu said ominously.

Travis chuckled wickedly.. “Boy, I think we’re in for it. Our resident warrioress is renowned for her vindictiveness. We’d better watch our backs on this voyage in the coming days.” He feigned a look of trepidation in Lindu’s direction.

“Travis! Lindu!” barked the short but burly warrior Alcor from across the deck. He had the look of reticence about him, a man who revealed little and spoke only when necessary, as if he were on a rigid budget of words. “It is time for sparring, not lying idly about. I have an itch to beat thee in a duel of blades, Lindu. Especially thee.”

Lindu nodded with a playfully condescending half smile, making her mouth appear lopsided and all the more astounding. “I see thy male pride is still wounded after I so skilfully conquered thee. Ready for another shameful beating?”

Alcor grunted. “We shall see. Do thy talking on the mat.” He descended the stairs that led to the lower decks, expecting the others to follow.

“Want to come watch valour in action?” Lindu asked Jimmy.

Jimmy smiled half-heartedly. “Thanks, but I’ve had enough valour for one lifetime. Maybe next time.” He shrugged.

“Fine.” Lindu said, expression neutral. “Fare thee well.”

Jimmy turned back to the sea, letting the fighters go their own way. He had had his fill of valour for one life. For several, actually. He might not be up against myrmidex or tribesmen with spears this time, but pirates and inconspicuous corporate agents were no less lethal in his opinion. He just hoped he wouldn’t regret the decision of not learning how to defend himself from all these warriors present. Otherwise he just might not be able to stop the unseen knife from penetrating his back.

For most of the day, it was all ocean, the smell of sea salt, and a cold wind despite the high molten sun. Some of the crew said it was because they were heading further south away from Sosaria’s equatorial zone, and the more suspicious few believed it to be a portent of bad fortune that would manifest itself sometime very soon. Jimmy did not like bad things. Especially imminent ones.

So to get his mind off his troubles, he spent his time exploring the deck of the ship, mingling with some of the salty sailors, and making an overall inquisitive nuisance of himself. But he was a reporter. That was his job. He resolved to write about his adventure, much like he had done in Eodon, so that if he got back - when he got back - he would have a good solid story for his boss. Otherwise he might find himself minus a job.

Though his notepad was a little crumpled from his ordeals so far, it was still usable enough to scribble his rapid shorthand notes in, notes that were so damn unintelligible that a stranger would have more success deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. Or Kotl ones for that matter. He took notes on what had happened to him so far, what he had seen, and what he had heard. He described what little he knew about the esoteric realm of Britannia, the moonstone, the pirates…everything. One thing he omitted though were the corporate agents. Publishing their illicit activities might earn him a three-inch sniper bullet through the eye. It could still earn him that if he did nothing either. He would have to think of a way to deal with that issue, but no now. He would save that onerous task for the future. Right now, Jimmy was satisfied with absorbing his alien surroundings. He had never been on a ship from Treasure Island before. Come to think of it, he had never liked Treasure Island that much. Too many pirates. Who could really blame him after experiencing their dispositions so far?

Jimmy even took some pictures, though he did so sparingly. If he ran out of film, he would have to resort to sketches. Not that he was a bad sketch artist or anything like that, as he’d done some good political satirical comics in the past - though all that had done was help accumulate death threats on his answering machine - but people were more inclined to believe real photographs than beautiful, outlandish sketches that could very well have been fabricated from someone’s wild imagination. Even getting people to place credence in the photos would be extraordinarily difficult. Frauds were abound these days.

After summoning the courage to climb up the main mast to view things from the watchman’s basket, Jimmy quickly scurried down, only to come face to face - face-to-chest more like it - with Mr No-nonsense, Sir Pasar. His eyes narrowed at the sight of Jimmy walking about unsupervised.

“What anarchy art thou up to, outlander?” he demanded coldly.

Jimmy smiled, making a leg that dripped with insincerity. “Nothing much. I could ask you the same question.” He gave him an exaggerated scowl of suspicion.

Pasar stiffened, fitfully piqued as if he perceived his honour to be at risk of compromise. “Thou dost dare to level thy innuendo at me, intruder?” he growled menacingly. “Thou art the one who does not belong here! I am doing my duty as commanded by Lord Br -”

“A likely story!” Jimmy cut him off, putting every ounce of Columbo in his voice. “Where were you on the night of the 24th of the 3rd, 1988?”

Pasar blabbered something, but Jimmy rolled right on, pushing a finger against his armoured torso.

“Don’t deny it! You think you’ve evaded the long arm of the law, but I tell you, I’m onto you, sonny-jim, alias John, alias Johnny, alias Jack, alias Jacky! If that is your real name!”

Pasar’s face went red with indignation. With one arm, he drew his four-foot sword, gripping the hilt with his other hand for consolidation, and Jimmy launched right back. “Thou vagabond! Check the records at Yew if thou dost not believe the impeccable nature of my most assuredly honourable character. But thy slander will not last beyond the next dawn!”

“Leave ‘im alone, Pasar.” said one of the sailors that had congregated nearby to watch the showdown. ‘Tis not his fault he don’t like conformity.”

The lord knight fixed him with a supercilious glare. “Get back to thine duties, deckhand, before I report thee for indolence.”

“Hmm…methinks I struck a nerve.” Jimmy said quietly, tapping his chin, though not quiet enough for Pasar not to hear.

The big man whirled round, eyes ablaze and like augers, trying to bore into his skull. “Thou wilt be silenced!”

“Take a pill, Robocop!” Jimmy retorted.

“Thou dost have audacity, outlander, but what makes thee think I won’t flog thee even despite Force Commander Dupre’s special protection?” he rasped, stomping forward and exuding dire menace.

“Two words, tin man.” Jimmy replied, displaying a pair of fingers for emphasis. “Lord Scottish - er, British.”

All too disarmingly, like quicksilver, Pasar reigned in his rage, his face again becoming an epitomised mask of cool condescension. His eyes narrowed though, the fire there little more than a spark but still dangerous. “Insolence…it is not so blasphemous directed at me than when directed at our beloved liege, the saviour of our land.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all about him. Some bearded guy who sits on a throne all day and gets other people to do his dirty work for him. What a champ. Or should I say chump?” Jimmy retorted derisively.

Pasar didn’t even flinch. He simply looked down his nose at the lanky, diminutive reporter. “Thou art not worth his time, nor art thou worth mine.”

Jimmy couldn’t let him turn without retaliation. Drawing out his camera, he shouted, “Hey, tin man, say cheese!” The subsequent flash caught the lord knight completely by surprise, temporarily blinding him. He covered his eyes with one hand, staggering about like a drunk and swinging his sword erratically.

“My eyes! My eyes!” he cried. “What sorcery is this? Arrgh!” He yelped and cursed as he tumbled into several barrels, the seamen nearby laughing uproariously at his expense.

As for Jimmy, he took a moment to enjoy the fruits of his mischief and then turned and fled, snickering to himself. “Jimmy Malone - 1! Tin Man - 0!”

Scurrying through the gauntlet of crates, boxes, rope, and men wondering what all the commotion was about on mid-deck, he made his way to the bow, where Captain Regara stood at the wheel, Dupre and Sentri on either side of him, discussing the pace of the voyage.

“How long will it take?” Dupre asked.

“The breeze is fine, sir. I can tell by the sky clear as a glass sword and as cloudless as a sober man’s head, that not a storm will plague us for at least a week! And by that time we will be in Britain at least three days before. I wager my fifty years of sailing on it! A finer day than this thou couldst not look to find.”

From the corner of his eye, Dupre caught Jimmy coming up the steps to the helm stations. He nodded curtly to him, uncharacteristically strained in both countenance and manner. Where was that ever-ready boyish smile that Jimmy so well remembered from his days in Eodon, or that anti-staid glint in his brown eyes?

Sentri frowned. “Master Malone, as our charge and in the great perpetual danger as thou dost always seem to be, wouldst thou not consider it wiser to get down below? ‘Tis safe haven should we be assailed yet again.” he said solemnly.

Jimmy rolled his eyes. Was everybody becoming solemn aboard this ship? He could take care of himself. He’d done well so far, for the most part.

“Don’t get gray hairs over it. I’ll be fine as long as I don’t slip on a banana peel and fall overboard.” Jimmy answered wryly.

Dupre self-consciously ran his fingers through his chestnut brown hair, though his gaze appeared to be vacantly focused on the deck just beyond his feet.

“Bah! We won’t be accosted, not with the winds as benevolent as they are and visibility greater than from atop the highest peak in the Serpent’s Spine.” Regara interjected self-assuredly, looking over his shoulder at the men. “I told thee once and I’ll tell thee again, a finer day than this for ‘nary a storm thou wilt never live to see again. Experience does not deceive! I guarantee it.”

Dupre snorted. “The winds will not deign to maintain their benevolence for very much longer, regardless of they experience, Captain.”

Regara’s jowls wobbled in vehement opposition.

Sentri jerked a thumb at Dupre and grinned lopsidedly. “Ignore him. He’s just become pessimistic ever since Lord British slapped him with this monumental task. Responsibility is anathema to a natural-born adventurer of lubricity, thou knowest."

“Responsibility is the bane of all good swashbuckers.” Dupre rejoined wryly. “Lord British made a grave error in sending me on this mission, and as leader of all things.” the man began to gripe. “‘No, milord, I cannot take the reins of such a prestigious command.’ ‘Nonsense, Dupre! Thou hast faced much worse before! Besides, if I wert to leave thee here idly in Britain for too long, I wouldst have to contend with a riot of angry women bent on thine utter destruction.’ Bah! I can handle a debacle in my simultaneous courtship scheme of multiple women better than running a shipload of armoured fools…” He stalked off grumbling something under his breath.

Sentri shrugged. “Somewhat touchy about the subject, is he not?”

There was a sudden commotion on lower deck as seamen gave way to a shouting barrage. “Where is that sorcerous, treacherous, dishonourable knave?!” roared a very familiar - and irritable - voice.

Jimmy didn’t need to look to know who it was, but Sentri’s eyes widened in surprise.

“In all my years I don’t think I’ve ver seen Sir Pasar so openly ruffled before.” he said, intrigued. “What could have happened to him?”

Jimmy wished he could sink into the deck. “Erm…I think that safe haven below deck you mentioned doesn’t sound so bad after all. Ciao!” He scuttled off, ignoring Sentri’s queries as he stayed low and headed as covertly as he could to the sub-decks, Sir Pasar’s outraged cries pursuing him all the way.

Blackeye winced at the bitter taste of the foul liquid in his mouth, then let it burn all the way down his throat, shuddering as the remnants of his twinge retreated into his infinite depths, repulsed for the time being. He looked at the fat brown bottle gripped taut in his scarred and swarthy hand by the neck, drained to the dregs in mere moments. Rum…the concoction, so vile yet so vital to him, had saved him yet again from the brink of succumbing to the urge. Rum, his most hated beverage, but his beloved saviour. The cruel irony was not lost on him, Blackeye, First Mate of the notorious Captain Silverbeard, a pirate every bit as nefarious as his leader if not more so.

Relishing the vanquishing of the final vestiges of the greatly feared tick, Blackeye regained his bearings. He was on the mid-deck, close to the cabins and the stairs that led into the belly of the infamous pirate vessel the Sea Critter. The compulsion had struck suddenly this time, when he’d least expected it. The rum had barely kept the seething bloodlust down, something which worried the unflappable and callous First Mate to know end. He did not have much rum left in his store ever since the accursed Silverbeard had cut off his desperately needed supply as punishment for his failure to capture the amulet thief. That meant that when his remaining rum was depleted - and it inevitably would, at the rate at which he consumed it - he would have to resort to consuming meat again. Preferably fresh, and human too. Otherwise he might not be able to control himself next time. He could take it in small doses, finding some blundering oaf aboard ship to suitably scapegoat and give him the prerogative to punish him at his discretion, which would most certainly involve horrendous tearing of limbs and ravenous devouring of consumption. But Silverbeard would notice his crew disappearing one by one and logically arrive at the conclusion that he was behind the gruesome deaths. Even the old fool wasn’t that oblivious to his cannibalistic tendencies, though he had tried diligently in disciplining them. The rum had almost entirely assuaged that implacable hunger, mitigating it to requiring only a finger or liver here and there, but now that he had run out…

Maybe he should just kidnap one of the more unassuming of the crew, Perhaps young Phil over there, who stared at him nervously while attempting to seal a barrel with a wheevil-ridden bung over near the corner of the cabins, or Bob the Lecher, the scrawny fellow who hastily climbed up the nearby rigging, whether anxious to do his duties or get away from his propinquity, he could not say. Blackeye seriously doubted the former. If he could just seize somebody, maybe he could keep them prisoner in his quarters, keep them alive while he ate them piece by small piece over a stretched period of time, so as to keep his hunger satisfied. He suppressed the animalistic thought, realising that he was drooling in predatory anticipation.

Phil was still staring at him, hammer trembling in his hand in mid-descent over a half-driven in nail. Blackeye was gazing at him blankly. Shaking his head, the First Mate’s mouth transformed into a snarling rictus, spitting imprecations at the fear-frozen pirate youth.

“Scum! What are you looking at? This is not some gawking children’s festival!” he roared. Phil literally blanched and jumped simultaneously, the hammer dropping from his hand and clattering on the soiled wooden deck. Blackeye took a menacing step - or rather stomp - forward, stained, jagged teeth bared. “I’m going to give you until the count of ten to get your putrid, pale-fleshed cadaver out of my sight! One…!”

“Aiieee!” Phil screamed, turning tail and fleeing.


Phil had barely covered three paces by the time the empty rum bottle sailed through the air and shattered against his back. He went down with a piteous cry, desperately trying to crawl away. Blackeye didn’t give him that merciless chance, instead leaping upon him with a foul-mouthed roar and hauling him roughly onto his feet. Slamming young Phil’s back against the cabin’s exterior wall, he confronted him so that their noses were scant inches apart.

“You lilly-livered, vomit-eating gutter rat! You think your eyes are made to rove? Think again!” Blackeye growled menacingly, his fetid breath hot against his captive’s sweat-saturated face.

Poor Phil, feet dangling nearly a foot off the ground, could barely give a fearful squeak in reply, shaking his head vigorously.

“Young fool, cross me again and I will eat your eyeballs! Do you understand?”

Phil nodded frantically, moaning.

“Do not speak of what you saw today. If I eve so much as think that Silverbeard suspects that I still drink rum, I will come looking for you. Be assured, death will be the least of your concerns when I get my hands on you!” Blackeye silently cursed Silverbeard’s prohibition on his drinking of the much needed rum. The coming days were not going to be easy. Then an idea came to him. Perhaps this miserable worm would prove useful to him after all. “Do you have rum?” he demanded.

When Phil could only stutter in surprise, Blackeye shook him hard.

“Well, do you?!” he snarled.

Phil nodded incessantly between intermittent squeaks, gasping, “Y-yes, F-First Mate.”

“Give me some! All of it!” Blackeye demanded voraciously, shaking his captive even harder this time. The urge was returning, seeping into his veins once more, inexorably progressing through his system. “You are mine now! You will ‘lend’ me your rum rations on a permanent basis, scum! You will thieve rum whenever you can and bring it to me! My cabin! If you see some oaf lose a drop to the deck, you will sponge up every dreg and bring it to me!”

Phil’s eyes widened even more, if that were possible, and he croaked a petrified reply, “B-but Silverbeard said the penalty for theft was hanging!”

Blackeye snorted odiously. “Fool! If you do not do what I tell you, you will suffer worse than a mere hanging! How does being eaten alive piece by piece by yours truly sound, hmmm?”

Phil gulped, then nodded his head frantically.

“Good.” Blackeye said, suddenly as calm as the placid surface of Locke Lake again. He had reigned in his fury, banished the bloodthirst urge to the depths.

He released the trembling pirate, now ignorant of his existence as his attention settled on another event occurring across deck. Phil scurried away like a rat, disappearing behind a brace of barrels as Blackeye strode with single-minded determination toward the source of his interest. Shouldering past pirates and ‘comrades’ too stupid to prudently vacate his path, Blackeye reached the congregation at the gunwale.

Silverbeard stood at the centre of it, as was to be expected, looking for all the world to be an ominous thunderhead about to strike out against those who displeased him. From all appearances, as like as not everyone in the local vicinity was doing a good job of that. He was gesticulating wildly, roaring his disgruntlement at any and everyone who would listen. Not that they had much of a choice in the matter.

“Who did this?! Mutineers, cutthroats, and black hearts, every one of ye!” he bellowed furiously. “Bilge-drinking, shell-headed lackwits! I’d sooner feel safe with a pack of starving trolls warding my back than dawdle about with the likes of ye scum.”

He pointed at the corpse of what appeared to be Gidyon Foster, the inconspicuous and usually taciturn former painter of the Artist’s Guild in Minoc. His throat had been expertly cut, judging from the copious congealed blood that caked the flesh around the gaping slash and the flaking crimson from his open mouth. His eyes stared vacantly toward the uncaring blue firmament, pasty countenance possessing an expression that could have only been described as one of profound surprise.

“Why art thou getting’ so riled up about this? Things of this like happen all the time. It ain’t unnatural, says I.” one man dared to speak up, a bully boy recruited months back from Buccaneer’s Den called Kimp the Tough. The audacious fool, while burly and intimidating in stature, was not quite a match for the ogre Rael Paws, who was half again as tall as he.

The other filthy scalliwags took an instinctive step back from the brute when Silverbeard focused his molten gaze on him. “Why?!” he spat hatefully. “I’ll tell ye why, dog! This man was the only one who could have helped me achieve my ends! He was scum and filth, but I needed ‘im all the same, and when I find out the bloody swab who killed him, they’ll be wishing they never ‘eard the name Silverbeard!” His clenched fists, which trembled with barely contained rage, punched into the overhead air in sporadic fits of intense incense. “I’ll cut ‘im up slowly, pour salt and vinegar in his wounds, and relish his every piteous scream and supplication!” His roving eye swept over the assembled men, low-lives and murderers each and everyone. To say he trusted them no further than he could throw Stonegate was a gross understatement. “Which one of ye yellow dogs was it? You, Bob, you lecherous son of a whore?”

“No!” whined Bob, raising his hands palm forward before his torso in a desperate placating gesture. He must have come down from the rigging quite fast to investigate the scene, but then again, he was renowned for his spry constitution, as he was for his excessive lubricity, exemplified by the moniker of ‘The Lecher’ appended to the end of his otherwise overly simplistic name. “I’ve never seen this man in my life!”

Now that was an outright lie if ever Blackeye had heard one, and he had heard quite a few in his time. He had seen Bob’s attitude toward Foster on many occasions, and judging from those sightings the two had certainly never been amicable partners. In fact, Bob the Lecher was known to have a seething grudge for Foster ever since the former painter had made a picture of him in a decidedly compromised and embarrassing position. If any had good reason to kill Foster, Bob certainly would have.

Silverbeard’s look was vaguely incredulous scepticism. “How convenient. And I suppose your alibi was that you were sleeping with one of your wenches again, eh?”

“Nay, Capt’n! He was sleepin’ wit one of the men!” one of the pirates from the group said, and the crowd burst into laughter. “And it wert Morgan too!”

The laughter redoubled, while Bob grumbled something inaudible and scowled at nothing on the deck. Morgan, who had just come to see what all the hubbub was about, looked confused, which was the norm for a fellow of his somewhat restricted intellect.

“Huh? Who? What? Where? Someone slept wif me?” he asked, bewildered. “Funny, I can’t remember nothin’.” He scratched his head.

Blackeye smirked imperceptibly. Like iron filings to a lodestone, it seemed to draw Silverbeard’s gaze right to him. His already dark face darkened even more like a nimbus. Perhaps miasma was a better description for it.

Baring his teeth, the old sea pirate’s snarl cut off all vestiges of ribald mirth. “Blackeye! So, ye here! How interesting! Come now, ye venomous snake, let’s speak the truth at last! Poor Foster ‘ere was found cut open like a fish in the galley. You did it, didn’t ye? Don’t deny it!”

Blackeye was preparing one of his usual eloquent, mellifluous refutations and an on-the-spot fabrication of a suitable alibi when Rael Paws lumbered in, holding the chef by the scruff of the neck.

“Look who I found in the cupboards, Capt’n.” the tough said, throwing the dishevelled man onto the floor. “Hiding, says I. This bloody knife was nearby to boot.” He tossed the kitchen blade onto the deck beside the dazed chef, caked with coagulated sanguinity as it was. “Mighty condemning.”

Silverbeard scowled at the chef, who reciprocated the look, albeit more sheepishly.

“I didn’t do nothin’, Capt’n! I swear!” the chef burst out suddenly, a flood of mostly incoherent words and excessive colloquialism that grated on Blackeye’s nerves. “I just woke up and found the bloody blade next to me hand!”

“Ah, but if ye did nothing than ye’d have to have done something. Ye just contradicted yeself, knave!” Silverbeard snarled fastidiously.

“If you are innocent, then why did you hide?” Blackeye questioned, pressing home the attack. He didn’t really care who took the blame for Foster’s murder, so long as it wasn’t himself.

The chef feigned indignation. He didn’t do a very good job of it. “Me? Hide? I wasn’t hiding! I was just, er, lookin’ for somethin’ in the cupboard when the door locked behind me!”

Rael Paws frowned. “Funny, seeing as how those cupboards don’t have locks, and how you were kicking and screaming until I had to clout you ever the head.” he said, uncharacteristically pensive.

Now that had to have been the most intelligent thing Blackeye had ever heard Rael Paws say in nearly a decade of pirating.

Silverbeard’s worn visage was grave now. “Hang him. Now.” he commanded, cold in the injunction’s inherent simplicity. When Paws produced a black hood, the captain shook his head. “No hood. I want everybody to see his face as he dies slowly.” There was no arguing with the frigidity in his tone.

Rael shrugged and grabbed the chef with the aid of another pirate, the convict crying out his pathetic protests and dubious claims of innocence. They took him up the rigging to one of the mast’s lower crossbeams, preparing the noose.

The men watched silently, including Blackeye, though from the corner of his eye he caught Kimp casting him a baleful glare, trying to be discreet about it in his own right. N doubt he would have rather seen him hanging instead of the chef. There was bad blood between them. The vindictive bully boy feared and hated him more so than others, especially since Blackeye had dined on the heart of his brother for failing in his tasks a score of months ago. Also, Kimp stood in line for the position of First Mate should anything untoward happen to Blackeye…not that the savage First Mate intended to allow anything of that nature to happen, but he suspected that Kimp was colluding with several others to overthrow him. He did not know the identities of the other conspirators. but when he did find them out as he most certainly would, he would have a fresh supply of meat for many days to come to be sure.

“Bring the prisoner.” Silverbeard ordered.

Blackeye was snapped out of his brooding by the gagging of the chef above, who dangled by the neck, twisting in the wind as he futilely struggled to get the noose off his neck. His eyes bulged and his face went red as he croaked desperately for help. Rael Paws descended the rigging with the other pirate, and together they went below to the galley to fetch Leron.

A few minutes later, they brought the bedraggled Leron upon deck, the man held tightly by both arms. Not that he could have posted much threat even if he were unrestrained, judging by his pallid, despondent face. Blackeye squinted. No. There was something not quite right about his bruised and beaten countenance. Leron didn’t strike him as the type that rolled over and died even when hopelessness loomed…

“Scum, by the devil’s own luck your foreseeable life span has been extended.” Silverbeard growled at the ragged captive.

Leron looked up at the choking chef, still struggling in his ultimate futility to survive, and gave a perfunctory sniff.

Silverbeard spat with contempt. “Never forget who holds your puny life in the palm of his hand.” He gestured at the body sprawled on the deck. “Just because Foster here has been cut out of the picture doesn’t mean ye have free reign all of a sudden. Yer still as worthless to me as ye were the day before, it’s just now I need ye more.”

Blackeye nearly laughed at the old codger’s outright self-contradiction, but disciplined himself not to. Such a blatant display of scorn would earn him death regardless of his abilities as second-in-command.

For a moment, it seemed as if the corners of Leron’s cracked lips upturned in a faint, conceited smile, then it faded as if it were no more than some illusion conjured by a cheap prestidigitator. But Blackeye did not think for a second that his eyes had deceived him. He was right, he knew, in the fact that Leron had not been completely broken. The man possessed a subtle mind, despite his insufferable nature, and even in the jaws of doom he was manipulating the oblivious Silverbeard and other oafs with his ostensibly newfound meekness. But Blackeye wasn’t fooled.

Sneering, the cruel First Mate decided to burst the poor fellow’s bubble. “If I may, Captain,” he said, bringing the collective attention to him. He did not sway, but felt slightly abased - slightly - when Silverbeard’s dangerous gaze swept over to him. If he took the wrong step now, he would never be able to obtain what he needed from the senescent cur. Everything else was immaterial to that one objective: the ship, the prisoner, Silverbeard’s clandestine plan…everything. He had pushed the letter addressed to Silverbeard’s temper an admirable number of times in the past, but now was the time for tact and caution. He had to increase his value in the eyes of the Captain or he would not be capable of achieving his ambitions. Only then would he have any chance of finding out what he needed to know. “I can identify the amulet thief on sight. I still remember his cowardly visage. You needn’t rely on this pawn alone.”

Leron’s eyes flashed hatred at him. Blackeye beamed provocatively in response.

Silverbeard snorted. “To be sure you can, dog!” he barked, voice growing in amplitude with each word. “I would trust ye no further than I could throw the Sea Critter.”

Blackeye looked at him sullenly, but it was all pretence. Come to think of it, all his years of service to the dog had been pretence, a wretched veneer designed to aid him in his own personal salvation. The relentless interest in Silverbeard’s latest interest, his seeming determination to plunder the oceans, all were a cover for a much greater - and ominous - objective, one that would grant him the sovereignty he so richly deserved.

“What are all ye lubbers staring at?” Silverbeard demanded of the other pirates. “This is just between me and Blackeye!”

The pirates hastily scurried to their former roles, while Morgan touched his forelock and mumbled something about keeping on their current course, returning to his post at the helm. Only Rael stayed behind, firmly holding the prisoner with hands like a vice.

Silverbeard watched Morgan go, scratching his head as he presumably wondered who had been sailing the ship for all of this time. His attention, however, quickly returned to Blackeye, wrinkled face scowling. “So, ye’ve finally become useful, eh?” He chuckled scornfully.

“We shall see.” Blackeye said evenly.

“You filth! I am your only chance for success in that which you seek most ruthlessly!” Leron hissed, struggling against Rael’s iron grip. “I should be paid for this!”

Silverbeard smiled coldly, stroking his long flowing argent beard which seemed to scintillate in the sunlight. “Yes. Since ye seem to think so highly of yer own worth, perhaps we should pay ye if ye don’t deign to waive the customary fees. Pay the man, Rael.”

The tough grinned grotesquely. Leron groaned as he was thrown onto his knees and had the stuffings methodically beaten out of him by Rael’s cruel fists. At the end of it, Leron was a mangled mass of bruises and lacerations. Yet still he had the gall to defy his tormentors.

“You…will live to r-regret this…pigs…” he rasped, every breath a struggle. “I will use your b…eard for t-tinder…awww…”

Silverbeard stared down at the man contemptuously. “Take him back to the galley and beat him up some more, just for fun.” said the pirate.

Rael smiled and nodded, dragging Leron by the legs back down the stairs to the galley.

Silverbeard turned to Blackeye, barely suppressing a sneer. “The same will happen to you if you are stupid enough to blunder again. That’s ye final warning and chance.” The old sea tyrant left then at a brisk pace, heading for the bow.

Blackeye snorted. His final chance indeed. He could have killed the codger on the spot and everyone else to boot, including Rael Paws, at a mere whim. But Silverbeard was no use to him dead. His fate would have to wait, Then there was the pathetic Leron, whose brief look of hatred in his direction had confirmed his suspicions that the man was still quite dangerous. Blackeye had no doubt the cur would try to kill him at a moment’s opportunity. He would have to watch that one, if the poor wretch survived the hospitality of Rael.

A gust of wind howled, and Blackeye lifted his head to see the chef, now dead, swinging in the increasingly forceful air currents. Strange, he wondered. He could not be certain, but he thought he’d sniffed a whiff of arcane resonance on that wind. Coupled with the fact that even a landsman could have said the day would be fine one and now apparently would not be judging by that alien wind, Blackeye suspected something was afoul, and it was none of his doing neither. That irked him.

Then, eyes concentrating on the swinging corpse, the hunger for fresh flesh assailed anew. Smacking his lips, Blackeye smiled in satisfaction. The convenience of the situation delighted him. It would be lunchtime soon.

The Void echoed with booming laughter, the sort that mocked and cut like knives with each condescending report, the laughter that was indicative of only evil mirth. Jimmy ran on the golden path, fleeing in terror from an unseen predator. Creatures rose up from the all-encompassing blackness, strange bloodshot eyeballs and tentacled things, crimson skulls with bat wings and gliding purple worm-like vermiforms with canvas wings that spat fire balls. Each and everyone sought his destruction, he knew. All hunted him with the intent to maim and murder. While he could outrun these foes, he could not escape the laughter, regardless of the spryness of his legs.

“Run, rabbit, run!” boomed a most ominous voice, malevolent to the decibel.

Jimmy yelled as the path dissolved beneath his feet, and he plummeted into the hungry maw of a gaping, sanguine-lipped pair of jaws with razor sharp teeth and an innate wicked grin.

The Void around him transformed into the corridor of the Museum of Natural History, only this time it was an endless labyrinth with infinite doors. Even here the laughter chased him. He knew he had to run, he knew he had to get away from the nameless, horrible thing that relentlessly pursued him.

Entering one door, he found himself in a very familiar lab, the murdered scientist lying prone in the corner in a bloody heap, the ruined apparatuses carelessly strewn across the floor.

“Ready or not, here I come, puppy.” resonated that sickeningly sweet voice, and Jimmy turned his head to see flame-haired Fiona emerging from the supply room door, raising her gun.

Jimmy bolted, slamming the door behind him, fleeing down the endless twisting corridor. From one bend materialised Reizer, cold dark eyes like awls, a grim look of resolution on his face. Success at any cost. Efficiency despite blood.

“Mr Malone, we have certain business to discuss.” the grave hired corporate killer said solemnly, stepping forward.

“Sorry, but my schedule’s full! See ya!” Jimmy yelped and did a three-sixty, heading for another door.

This time he found himself confronted by the furious visage of Leron, who snarled and pointed at him wordlessly. Sitch appeared, stomping toward him with a look of pure sadism on his chiselled block-shaped face, but then a black moongate opened like some ravenous maw, swallowing everything as it inexorably grew. Jimmy tried to escape, but there was no escaping the inescapable, and in less than a moment he found himself floating free fall as if blindfolded, no wind in his hair but a deathly cold.

He found himself on a dirt road in the picturesque countryside, surrounded by hills. A beggar-man jumped out at him, countenance set in pathetic supplication, but which transformed in an instant into a snarling, pernicious rictus, flaming eyes and all. The beggar-man whipped out a staff, and from his gnarled, pale lips issued forth that same booming, intimidating voice, “You have what I need, rabbit! Give it to me now!”

“I ain’t no bunny rabbit!” Jimmy retorted and lunged despite his festering fears, but the very earth trembled and gave way to a bottomless chasm, in which he tumbled into without possible hope of salvation, the booming laughter following him all the way… 

He hit the hard wooden floor with a loud thud, his head pounding. But that was not the only thing that pounded, for something darkly ominous rumbled outside against the ship’s hull, like immense rolling waves. The patter - no, bombardment - of a serious deluge could be heard from above. The ship rocked and listed from flank to flank as the monster waves harried it without mercy.

Gripping the edge of his hammock for support, he pulled himself up, but he could not avoid stumbling as the floor shook beneath his feet. The hall groaned under the incessant assault of the waves.

Staggering into the corridor, he could hear distant shouting from above amidst the crashing of magnanimous amounts of water. He could see it pooling at the bottom of the stairs, a new onrush of salt water at irregular intervals heralded by the foreboding crashing raucous, like buildings toppling.

Somebody slipped down the stairs, tumbling hard onto the floor. The stocky figure was back on his feet in a moment, suit of mail dripping wet, his devilish beard even more so. Alcor plodded forward, somehow managing to keep his footing even when the ship lurched as violently as the angry earth.

“Alcor!” Jimmy yelled over the pounding of the rain and the howling of the wind.

Alcor spotted him and violently shook his head, “Don’t go up there, lad! Thou wilt be swept off the deck!” He stumbled as the floor lurched yet again. “I must get this armour off before it begins to rust! Stay in thine cabin!” The warrior disappeared down another passage, presumably heading for his own cabin.

Ignoring his advice as was his nature, Jimmy headed for the open deck so wracked with the violent storms, braving the ascension of the stairs and rushing across for cover. Some men, naught but shadows briefly illuminated by intermittent thunder, bolted this way and that, likewise seeking cover while simultaneously managing tasks vital to the Virtuosity’s survival.

The wind howled and the raindrops - the size of an index finger - pelted to the point of pain, but Jimmy pressed forward, determined to reach the foredeck. After what seemed like hours of groping around in the semi-darkness where the cold and wet cut to the bone, Jimmy’s numbed hand gripped the railing to the stairs that ascended to the foredeck. REsisting the barrage of yet another wave that cleared the gunwale by metres, he set foot upon the foredeck, staggering against the pummelling wind as he struggled to reach the helm post. There was Dupre, who clung for dear life on the railing, soaked worse than a miserable sodden alley cat, and Regara, who wrestled with the wheel as if caught in some mad frenzy.

“Turn, thou wench! Turn!” Regara said through gritted teeth, voice strained as he struggled with a wheel that seemed to have a mind of its own and the obstinacy to rival a donkey. “Shiver me timbers! If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the wind had the conscience not to let us to Britain! It seems that whenever I turn, the storm has other ideas, usually opposite!”

“Where is it taking us?” Dupre demanded.

“I can’t see in this blasted storm! Me sense o’ direction has been blown topsy-turvy by this sorcerous wind! Damn! Thou move where I tell thee to, nae the other way ‘round, woman!” Regara snapped in reply.

“I thought you said it would be clear skies for a week, Captain Kirk!” Jimmy shouted over the wailing gusts.

Dupre’s eyes widened at the incongruous sight of his charge. “Malone! What art thou doing here? Art thou mad? Get down below now!” he commanded imperiously, though he was sorely humbled by the authority of the furious wind.

“I’m doing what a reporter does! Getting into the thick of things to bring back an exciting story!” Jimmy yelled, grabbing hold of the opposite railing.

“I never even saw it coming!” Regara lamented shamefully, eyes fixed on the fork-lightning-split blackness ahead. “After scores of years sailing, thou’d think I’d know the sea like the back of my hand! This part of the sea ain’t even that fickle! This be the devil’s work, I say!”

The oceans roiled before them, a crest that rose to monumental proportions like a mountain of water, a summit which the hapless vessel had no choice but to surmount, only to be inevitably plummet down the liquid precipice, lurching madly.

Jimmy barely held on after the violent jolt. Someone screamed and he thought he saw a small figure fly overhead toward the sea.

Despite his tight concentration on the sea, Regara noticed the event and gave a melancholy salute, saying, “That be Jerome, a good dogwatchman if ever I saw one. He will be missed.

“Hey!” Jimmy shouted at Dupre. “I don’t suppose Pasar got washed overboard, did he?”

Dupre shook his head, jaw clenched as he whethered another salty cascade.

Soaked anew, Jimmy slammed a fist onto the railing. “Damn,” he cursed. “Just when I thought my day couldn’t get any worse!”

The ominous coalesced nimbus overhead promised more horrible things to come, the thunder heralding its machinations for the puny ship and her crew caught in its unyielding grasp.

Thunder roared and crackled, the wooden walls of the narrow corridor failing to mute the fearsome cacophony dismally. The very world trembled at the fury of the storm raging outside. For Leron, the world was the corridor, strictly per se, and the bloody kitchen knife in his hand. The fool Rael Paws had locked him in the scullery cupboard again, but had been too ignorant to even think of patting him down. When the storm had struck so suddenly with all its terrible might, Leron had snapped. He would not bide his time in chains as he originally planned. No longer would he endure the injustices inflicted upon him by these barbarian dogs. The seething hatred within his soul had finally bubbled to the surface - no, it had exploded with every bit as much ferocity as the storm wreaking havoc outside, and then some.

Escaping his iron bands had been a simple matter of using the rusty nail, though it had broken when the chain had dropped from around his arms. No guards had been in the kitchen; if there were any, he would have killed them. Though he was battered and beaten - no, not beaten, but merely impeded! - he drew on the reserves stockpiled by a hatred that flowed like a river of lava. Now he roamed the corridors of the sublevels of the pirate ship, undertaking a grim and silent quest of implacable vengeance. His shame would be washed away with the blood of these vermin. It did not matter whom he came across; they died by his knife just the same. The instrument of his retribution. The storm shielded his movements and muffled the screams of his victims; most of the crew were up on deck trying to wrest away the ship from the obstinate grasp of the tempest. Those few who still roamed the corridors were usually solitary; they were the ones who died from his knife in the dark.

Two such pirates he had already dispatched, one of which he was most pleased to discover to be one of his original tormentors, the ugly bastard with the cudgel, back before he was moved to the cramped scullery cupboard.

That one had not died quickly. He had died begging for mercy, on his knees as Leron cut pieces off him one at a time. The poor fellow had not been so tough without his cudgel or his friends. Leron had relished every cry, every piteous supplication for mercy. The fool’s fresh cadaver had been left in a barrel…what was left of it.

Leron sought Silverbeard most…that one would get his especial attention. He would suffer for at least an hour before he finished him. And that would be a mercy considering what tortures Leron had in store of him. Then there was Blackeye; the supposed First Mate had done nothing to him personally in the physical sense, but he knew Malone’s visual identity. Added to the fact that he was a sharp-toothed savage that ate human viscera for a hobby and Leron felt that he had justified reason to kill him. His death would be a quick one; he didn’t want to keep that bastard alive any longer than he had to. He gave him shivers at a mere look, though he was loath to admit it.

The reticent corporate agent inconspicuously entered each room he came across, but for the most part found only garbage and personal effects, which amounted to the same thing, when one took into account the nature of these piratical scum.

Upon entering one room, he nearly tripped as the ship lurched violently like an unstable belly about to spew an unsettling breakfast, quickly composing himself and revolving three-hundred-sixty degrees to assess any threats. He could see nothing in the dimly lit room, a single taper providing illumination that left much to be desired.

“I know where the treasure is!”

The shrill voice made Leron leap, and with adrenaline rushing through his veins he whirled around to face the source of the noise. In the corner rested a flamboyant green-blue parrot on a stool, grooming the feathers under its wing. Cocking its head at random and odd angles much like any bird, characteristic of parrots in particular, it regarded the grimly approaching Leron with indifference.

“Squawk! Claudius wants a cracker!” it squawked.

A single slash reduced the bird to a mass of bloody feathers on the floor. Sneering at its corpse, Leron hoped the animal’s death would cause its owner at least some grief, if he had not slit the swine’s throat already. Leaving the room and gently closing the door behind him, Leron furtively approached the next few feet ahead, where several broken bottles lay strewn in chaotic fashion. He gave a smirk at the red trail his dripping blade left behind.

Come to me, my curs. Come to your deaths. he brooded morbidly.

Enduring another tumultuous heave of the ship followed by a particularly deafening peel of thunder, Leron tenderly grabbed the wooden door handle. Grimacing, he sniffed his hand. Rum. He supposed rum was an affinity for pirates; they had no notion of sobriety or discipline whatsoever.

Opening the door without so much as a creak, he entered the dimly lit room. To his delight - and slight perplexity - he found Blackeye sleeping in ostensible fitfullness in the bunk. Even stranger, the First Mate’s sleeping form appeared totally unaffected by the shaking of the ship. A bottle crashed to the floor, shattering loudly. Leron tensed, knife held with hilt facing his torso, but the pirate did not stir. He had no qualms about murdering this one in his sleep. It would just make his job so much easier.

Creeping forward, he raised his blade for a vicious downward thrust. It was in that instant that Blackeye’s single eye snapped open. With an imprecation he was on his feet, but the dagger was already in his belly. Barely wincing, he backhanded Leron with such inhuman force that the hapless agent slammed against the opposite wall. The ship heaved and the door slammed shut, but Blackeye was oblivious to this. Drawing the black-stained knife from his stomach, he held it contemptuously before his eyes, watching it sizzle and dissolve as the black corrosive substance voraciously devoured it. Several drops landed on the floor, burning holes in the brittle wood.

Wordlessly dropping the now ruined weapon, he crossed the cabin in three long strides, lifting the dazed Leron three feet off the floor with one cold hand by the neck. Leron could do little but gag and watch with fear as Blackeye regarded him as a lion might an antelope.

“So, this one tries to kill me, does he?” Blackeye rasped, his voice no longer mundane, but a horrible serpentine hiss tempered with liquid fire. His one good eye was literally aflame. “I’m hungry. Perhaps you are the meal I am looking for!”

There was a rapping on the door.

Blackeye’s lone eye narrowed, the falme winking out of existence as if it had never been. Briskly, he shoved Leron into a nearby ramshackle wardrobe, turning to attend to the door. Helpless, Leron watched from between a crack in the wardrobe’s cheap panelling, paralyzed with something he had never felt before - fear. It was a disturbingly obtrusive feeling; a festering one.

A the door was a young, scrawny fellow. Apprehension was painted on his face like white on black. In his trembling hands he held two bottles of rum.

“F-first Mate, s-sir…” he stammered.

Blackeye pulled him in, slamming the door behind him.

“Phil, what are you doing here in the midst of a storm like this? Silverbeard will have your hide!” Blackeye berated irritably, voice back to human decibels. As if to emphasise his point, the vessel heaved again.

“I-I have thine rum, sir!” he said in an annoying whine. “Stole it from Jon the Lesser, I did! Both bottles! Like thou didst ask!”

Blackeye eyed the rum as if seeing it for the first time, then his lone eye lit with hunger. He snatched the bottles from the nervous lad’s hands, beginning to gulp down the contents of the first one.

As the First Mate quaffed quite obtrusively, Phil watched him, scratching his arm worriedly in his absent-mindedness. But the look on his face was not just fear, there was something more…anxious anticipation, perhaps?

“I’m still scrounging for some, don’t thou worry, but it’s tricksy, s-sir. Lotsa guys jealous of their stuff, ‘specially their rum!” He gave a weak, forced rum.

By this time, Blackeye was onto the second bottle, shattering the first against the wall. Liquid dribbled down his chin, but he did not notice. Phil’s cheek twitched nervously.

“Good, sir, huh? Heh, heh…” he mumbled.

Blackeye finished the bottle, then frowned. If Phil’s face could have blanched any further, it did so. The boy gulped. Blackeye clicked his tongue curiously, testing the taste of the residual rum in hid mouth. He sniffed the opening of the bottle. When his eye rolled to settle on Phil, the animalistic savagery was back.

Phil took a step back, squeaking. “Please, F-first Mate! It weren’t me that did it! It wasn’t my fault! They made me do it! Honest! No! No!!!”

What Leron saw next nearly made him soil his pants.

Outside the door of the First Mate, three men in shadow lay in anxious wait. Kimp the Tough nervously unsheathed his belt knife, while Bob the Lecher toyed with a club in apprehension. It was only Poxxy, an ugly brute with a face so pockmarked it could have rivalled the moon, who was calm, serenely - if one as monstrous as he could be called that - bouncing a pouch of herbs from hand to hand.

“Thou thinkest the brat will do it?” Bob asked nervously.

“He’d better, otherwise he’ll be lickin’ deck grim for the rest of his life!” Kimp growled menacingly, though he could not entirely conceal the anxiety in his voice.

“Never mind Phil, what about the poison?” Bob demanded. The waves poundings the flanks of the ship did little to calm his already frizzled nerves.

“It better.” Kimp snapped. Blackeye had kept his rank for far too long for his liking; the cannibal had to go down. What better time than now, during the unexpected storm where they could toss his lifeless body into the sea? That was if the poison did its work. If not, they would just have to deal with him the old-fashioned way - by reducing him to a lump of ragged meat. He looked at Poxxy pointedly.

Poxxy smiled reassuringly, not a pretty sight at all. “Fear not,” he said. “A drop of that brew is enough to kill an ox. I prepared two laced rum bottles of it. He’ll be dead, and if not in the first half-moment, certainly in the second.” Poxxy could talk; in his previous more law-abiding career, he had been an apothecary in Yew. That had changed quite drastically when one of his customer’s tried swindling him, at which point he brutally murdered him over a period of several hours. When the law had tried to apprehend him for ‘vengeance instead of justice’, Poxxy rebelled, turning to a life of rape and murder. He still possessed the skills of the apothecary trade today.

There was a sudden chilling scream of the most horrendous pain, followed by a horrible wet tearing sound.

“In the name of Virtue, what was that?” Bob blathered, face white with stark fear.

Poxxy’s eyes shifted to the upper left corner as he thought. “Oh, I’d say that’d be Phil.”

“Phil?! What the ‘ell happened?” Bob demanded in a hoarse whisper.

Poxxy snorted and gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Efff…probably Phil was just daft enough to take a whiff of the poison. That’s all…” He frowned and scratched his chin. “Though if he did take a whiff of it, he should’ve just dropped dead, not screamed. Hmm…interesting.”

A roar split the corridor’s stuffy air.

“Oh, and thou hast got a sagely explanation for that too, Seer Poxxy?” Kimp asked sarcastically.

Poxxy shrugged.

A great clawed hand burst through the door, and Bob, who was scant inches away from the cabin portal, had his face inevitably grabbed. Screaming, he was pulled through the door, while the others stumbled back in consternation. Blood sprayed copiously against the far wall, painting it in a veneer of red dabbled with rags of torn meat.

“What in Blimey Jones?!” Kimp gasped as a looming, intimidating mass of red hide stormed into the corridor.

Its wings filled the entire breadth of the passage, its face fearsome with chiselled angles and deep set eyes that flamed. The horns on its head only confirmed the obvious.

“Daemon!” Poxxy cried.

Kimp hurled his dagger instinctively at the beast, but it merely bounced off its mottled hide. With a growl that could have been mocking laughter, the daemon closed in on him. Kimp frantically began to box into its belly, though he did more damage to his own fists than the creature itself.

Kimp couldn’t even scream as the lone swipe sprayed a new coat of sanguinity over the wall.

Now the daemon turned to Poxxy, a deep rumble in its throat matching aptly with the malevolent thunder outside. Poxxy began throwing reagents at it; spider silk, nightshade, mandrake, black pearl…all did naught.

“With a pinch of ash and a touch of silk, I consign thee back to thine vile ilk!” Poxxy cried. “Alakazam!” Noticing no discernible effect, he shrugged, resigned to his most certainly horrible fate. “Guess I failed mage class for a reason…”

The daemon enveloped him, and all that could be heard, even above the sporadic peals of thunder, were the former apothecary’s screams as he was rent to pieces.

It was all a nightmare, It must have been a nightmare. His mission through the corridors, Blackeye, that devil creature…hell, this whole business with Malone had to be a dream, and a bad one at that. A very bad dream.

Leron tried to convince himself in regards to what he had seen only a few moments ago. Creatures like that could not exist! Or did they? What was all this? The blood and gore of the monster’s victims, those persons he had seen literally torn apart, covered the walls and floor of the diminutive cabin. Talk about a paint job, Leron thought wryly.

Thunder still rumbled outside. He imagined faint shouting from above deck. Footsteps thudded heavily toward him, his little pathetic citadel, the wardrobe, both fortress and prison.

Leron felt a new sheen of sweat cover his forehead. It covered his whole body. The wardrobe was ripped open with a snap, and Leron braced himself for a similar fate as those before at the claws of this hellish beast. But it was not the beast who confronted him. It was Blackeye again. Scant difference.

The pirate slash demon grabbed him by the ragged, soiled remains of his shirt, pulling him out and holding him in the air with little effort on his part.

“That was a good outing…yes…” Blackeye said, slightly breathless. “The urge has never been that well satiated in many, many years. But my bloodlust is placated, for now…” He scrutinised his prisoner more assiduously. “Or, then again, perhaps not.”

Leron wanted to moan, but was so petrified he could not.

“But wait…I sense that you are from another world. Is this the case?” Blackeye, or whatever it really was, asked in a deceptively patient tone.

“Y-y-yes.” Leron croaked.

“A place called Earth. That name is very familiar…I know the Bane of my race comes from there. That one is the ultimate anathema to us, the one who used the Horn of the Silver Serpent to drive our grand legions away from the Shrine of Humility.” Blackeye rasped, reminiscent. “A long time ago that was, and many conquests did we have…like the destruction of Magincia. Humans and pride are a mismatched pair. Humans should be made to serve, not to control.” The pirate’s face twisted into an odious grimace. “But the Enemy drove us away and took the Shrine, letting the Other decimate us or worse, bind us to this worthless mudball of a planet. I told Virtuebane to find and destroy the horn! He was obviously too incompetent to do even that!” His eye narrowed. “Mayhaps I should just kill you for being the Bane’s compatriot!”

“No! I can be of use to you!” Leron said frantically, feebly trying to pry Blackeye’s hand off his shirt. In actuality, Leron doubted he could be of any use to this…this thing. But there was no harm in trying, was there? Was there?

Blackeye mused. “Perhaps…you may be useful after all. I know you despise Silverbeard, as do I. I have need of an assistant. You will help me find an object…an orb that I believe the good captain has somewhere in his possession. If you do find it, I will let you live. Understood?”

Leron nodded quickly. Blackeye threw him onto the floor in response.

“W-why do you - what is so valuable about this orb?” Leron dared to ask after a few moments of rubbing his sore rump. He was reigning his fear, though in a painfully slow fashion.

Blackeye pointed at him menacingly. “You needn’t know why. Just that I want it.”

“Fine.” Leron replied. “I’ll help you then. But answer me one last question: just what are you?”

Blackeye gazed at him contemptuously. “Your puny kind call my race daemons. We are often described as ferocious hellspawn bent on the destruction of all virtuous things…rest assured, we are.” he added with a cruel smile. It only broadened Leron’s involuntary wince. “We are set apart from the realm of men and mundanes. To explain it would be a waste of breath on one such inferior as yourself. Just know that our power is great.”

In the wink of an eye, Blackeye was suddenly a beautiful - and naked - woman, so stunning that even Leron’s eyes widened. He was not one for trivial things such as women, unless of course they were the quintessence of working efficiency - like Fiona - but this paragon of aesthetics was something no man’s eyes could ignore. Golden flowing hair, a body of tantalising sinuous curves, a bosom to rival Mount Everest… then he shuddered in revulsion at the mere thought of lying with such a monster in disguise. He would rather have bedded a rabid mule.

In the next wink, he was staring at Silverbeard, then an exact mirror image of himself. Finally, Blackeye resumed his original piratical appearance.

“As you can see, our abilities are not ones to be taken lightly.” Blackeye said condescendingly.

“I can see.” Leron said, vaguely feisty. He looked absently at the pervasive gore throughout the cabin and the stench of blood. “What are you going to do about this mess?”

Blackeye shrugged. “Oh, this? I’ll just burn it and make it look like a lightning strike. One of my favourite forms of chicanery, mind you.” He grinned wickedly.

Pointing a single finger at the mess, Leron winced from the sudden onrush of heat as flames swirled spontaneously from the incognito daemon’s callused tip, the hungry element of sultry swelter consuming the coagulating crimson and body parts. Even the outside thunder was outranked by the roaring of the arcane fires.

Pulling back as far from the inferno as the wall would allow, Leron covered his heat-stung face, crying out, “You’ll burn us all, you Satanic fool!” His cry was lost in the roaring surge.

Yet to his utter amazement, the cabin itself was not consumed, the magic flames focusing purely on the dismembered remains and sanguine fluid while leaving just a touch of char on the surface of the wood. The flames dissipated when Blackeye lowered his finger. He glanced at Leron, giving a smile of insincere consideration.

“What’s that, Leron? My ears are burning!” He began to cackle wickedly, an inhuman sound indeed. He lifted his gaze to the ceiling, and raising an open palm, launched a blinding bolt of lightning that burned a hole in the midst of a bone-jarring explosion and shower of debris. With the painful afterimage still playing on his eyes, Leron found himself assaulted by sleet and the cacophony of howling wind and pealing thunder. The cabin, exposed to the fury of the very same weather battering the ship, quickly became soaked.

But only an inch above any part of Blackeye’s body the rain shied away, as if running down some invisible raincoat. Leron found himself floating aloft, carried by an unseen force like a baby in a mother’s tender hands out the door. He abruptly hit the ground with a pained grunt. Blackeye entered the corridor after him, slamming the door shut. The storm, barely muted, still raged beyond.

“Now,” the pirate said with a contemptuous sneer, and with a wave of his hand Leron could have sworn all other sounds but their own were silenced in entirety. “It is time for I, your reigning lord and master, to discover every little detail about his new bondsman. Isn’t that right?”

Leron felt all remaining shreds of defiance melt away at one look at the glint in the pirate’s lone eye. He was not going to enjoy this experience. Not one bit.

Chapter 6
The Door of the Scuttled Schooner

The Virtuosity limped toward the large island on the horizon to the west, her sails torn and ragged where once before they had been an opulent white and as immaculately smooth as silk to be sure. The tempest had spent its fury, but not without cost, for the battered vessel bore a number of scars, testament to the power of the sea. It was ruefully ironic that with the sun shining down on them and the firmament a brighter blue than any had ever seen the ship and her crew were as bedraggled and scruffy as unkempt pirates. Jimmy felt mocked by the powers that were, that such pristine conditions could follow so closely the heels of tempestuousness.

The storm had passed less than an hour ago, suddenly and without reason, not that the weather felt obliged to supply any reasons to the pawns she often toyed with for her own fickle amusement. Several men had been lost, swept overboard by the gargantuan waves or blown from the riggings and carried into the swirling vortex to be lost forever.

The deck was a mess, and one of the crewmen from below, a bloody bandage wrapped around his head, had recently reported that there was a breach in the hull. Though Regara had ordered immediate bailing, the experienced sailor knew well the fact that the ship would sink if it did not reach port soon.

Jimmy was on the deck too, dishevelled and unkempt, his attire encrusted with salt. He could still taste the salt and was even now spitting it out. He wouldn’t be so inclined to eat salt and vinegar chips the next time the opportunity arose.

He picked his way through the debris, collecting pieces of shattered wood. Some fragments were even charred, proof of the ire of lightning. Elsewhere on the Virtuosity, a large crossbeam from one of the masts had fallen on the capstan, partially smashing it. Several men were attempting to remove the thick timber beam, grunting with the physical exertion, but to little avail. Then the tall and burly Graldesh appeared on the scene, lending his muscle.

Jimmy wondered where Kap-Lem was at this moment.

Travis and Lindu were helping with sanitation on deck nearby while watching the removal efforts. Alcor yelled as he pushed up from below the beam with all his might, teeth bared, “Come on, lads! Break thine backs!”

“I hope they have work cover.” Jimmy said dryly, though to no one in particular.

“Malone! What art thou doing lazing about?!” a voice yelled, and Jimmy turned to see Sir Pasar striding angrily toward him, shaking his balled fist.

The reporter almost laughed at Pasar’s state; his plate armour was not so shiny now after that tempestuous battering, and his cape was muddied and torn.

“Just because thou art our charge does not mean thou hast the privilege to loiter around! Render aid, knave!”

“Why don’t you?” Jimmy retorted. “You could try it in lieu of standing around and pissing people off by being so resplendent and pretty. Geez. You might give someone an epileptic fit with all that gaudiness.”

Pasar’s face twisted in fury and he was no doubt about to deliver one of his tiresome tirades about conformity and discipline when a grizzled older veteran, a knight in plate and chain, approached, thumbing his chin as he surveyed the damage inflicted on the sturdy battleship.

Jimmy had not had the pleasure of speaking to him since the beginning of the journey, though he’d heard from Lindu that he was as old as Britannia itself, and typical of the elderly sapient persona, relished in telling stories to the younger ones. His face was like wrinkled leather, though it was taut around the eyes, which were as alert as a cat’s.

“That storm reminds me of the Battle of the Cape of Heroes, when our fleet was up against the dreaded Shade Capt’n himself. Fightin’ in the midst of storms, we were, ten times worse than this one, mind thee, ships sinking like bricks! But through prowess and valour, and more than a little honour, we drove ‘em back, though the Shade Capt’n himself escaped in the tempest! Our fleet commander, Admiral Barass, was fuming -”

Pasar sighed imperceptibly and rolled his eyes. “Sir Delfin, thou hast told the tale of thou nearly captured the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet a dozen scores of times. Dost not thou think thou shouldst give it a rest? Any man with half a mind well knows the fact that that pirate did not exist -”

“Don’t patronise me!” Delfin barked harshly, pointing a reprimanding finger at him. Though Pasar was technically his superior officer, the venerable old warrior had a way of cowing people with a mere scolding. “Back in my days a whippersnapper like thyself would be striped from sunup to sundown for so much as looking at an elder the wrong way! Happened to me a few times, though that’s done and gone…” He seemed to look embarrassed for a second, then his face resumed its stern expression. “All thou young lads of today whinge and whine about how hard thou hast it! Oh, the giant rat bit me! Oh, my armour is scratched! Oh, my leg’s been severed! Grow up! Thou call thyselves knights? Back in my day, we went up against creatures ten times as worse! The Sea Serpent of today ain’t no sea serpent, it’s little more than a worm compared to its predecessor! And what about the ettins? None of them these sorry times, alas. Now they were worth a fierce fight. Not like those pathetic cyclops. Pah! Monsters indeed!”

Jimmy smirked and sneaked away, leaving Pasar to the mercy of the old veteran’s tirade. To his surprise, the men had just removed the crossbeam from the captsan, cheering as they did so. To his even greater surprise, he saw Kap-Lem was there as well. Then he realised: Kap-Lem had obviously assisted the team, and his strength coupled with Graldesh’s had provided all the impetus necessary to lift the massive timber. But Kap-Lem would not partake in the celebrations. Instead, he lumbered off, his gait sullen. Graldesh followed, taking the younger wingless gargoyle aside in an attempt to speak to him. Kap-lem hissed, stepping back defensively, mighty hands opening and closing as he contemplated battle.

Jimmy approached, but prudently.

“To not understand your dislike for me.” Graldesh said, concerned and sympathetic.

“To not be dislike!” Kap-Lem growled. “To be antipathy! To be ashamed at what you have done! To be shocked at your betrayal of the Gargish people!”

“To ask, what have I done?” Graldesh implored.

Kap-Lem’s eyes were venomous. “To say you know very well! To have forsaken Principles for Virtues! To have turned aside your heritage! Your rightful tenets! To be blasphemy! Blasphemy!”

Graldesh sighed, a lion’s frustrated rasp. “To not be betrayal of my people, Kap-Lem. TO believe we all have a right to choose what we place our faith in.” Kap-Lem’s face grew more malevolent with each word. “To believe that piety in any faith is hollow and pointless without the inherent will to have piety. It is a matter of choice. Principles to be meaningless if they are forced upon an independent entity. Look to the histories, both of the humans and of the gargoyles! Look to the histories, both of the humans and of the gargoyles! Recall the words of wise masters like Wartow and Valkadesh, and remember the chronicles of Blackthorn’s dark days of reign! Look even today to those of our kind who waste their lives on foolish vengeance quests against the humans, who mire themselves in hypocrisy and depravity!”

Kap-Lem winced at that statement, but the venom was still there. Giving Graldesh a baleful glare, he pointed a claw at him dangerously, “To respect humankind. To owe them a great, unconquerable debt. To respect their Virtues. To not respect betrayers! To tell you to keep your distance, or to not be held accountable for my actions.”

He stormed off. Graldesh watched him go, regret etched on his face.

“What was all that about?” Travis demanded, appearing at Graldesh’s side.

“To sense him to be a good gargoyle at heart, but to know he has had a troublesome past.” Graldesh responded, his tone melancholy.

“Want us to skin his hide for thee to teach him an iota of respect?” Lindu suggested, casting a menacing glance at Kap-Lem’s retreating back.

“Hey, leave Kappy alone!” Jimmy stepped up to the defence of his friend, glaring at all three fighters.

Lindu scowled. “Maybe we should teach thee a lesson also. Nobody is derogatory toward Graldesh with impunity, not without a little strapping.” She punched her fist into her opposing open palm.

Jimmy stepped back, the discreet thing to do. It was unwise to challenge the camaraderie of warriors, such bonds of loyalty and friendship formed in the heat of countless battles and tempered with tenacity, an unbreakable bond indeed.

“Hey, is that a giant squid I see?” Jimmy pointed, then ran off when Lindu looked over her shoulder, a grin of smug victory on her face as she boasted, “Aha! See what I told thee, Travis! Giant squids do still exist!”

“Uh, Lindu…” Travis said, trying to cover a smile. “I think he was referring to thee.”

Lindu kicked him in a place he would not soon forget.

Up on the foredeck, a bleary-eyed and raggedly worn Dupre had his hands gripped taut on the railing, while Captain Regara stuck doggedly to the wheel. Sentri and Vardu also stood within arms length.

“The ship may well float for about another ten hours before she sinks, Dupre.” Regara said, voice tired though tight with concern for the Virtuosity. “We’ll get to New Magincia in two. She’ll need repairs, though, and a good plenty of them. She’s a tough old girl.” He patted the railing affectionately. “At least we can find solace in the fact that the storm would have tussled our pursuers just as badly, if not worse.” He suddenly frowned. “I have not been to New Magincia in many years, but I don’t recall a small village like that ever having a shipbuilding industry. I fear they may not have the materials we require for proper repairs.”

“I have heard that in recent years New Magincia has birthed a small shipbuilding industry, mainly for their fishing boats, though the local shipwright has made at least two sea-faring sized vessels that I am aware of. Roberto is the shipwright’s name, I believe. He should have the materials we need.” Vardu said.

“And if he does not, we’ll simply gather the materials and repair the ship ourselves, though it will take longer, no doubt.” Sentri said sanguinely.

“Giving Silverbeard ample itme to catch us at our most vulnerable.” Vardu said.

“We can fight off his pathetic band of cutpurses like swatting gremlins!” Sentri retorted.

“Who cares?” Dupre cried, exasperated as he slammed his fist on the railing. “So long as New Magincia has an inn with good ale and buxom maids, I’ll be happy!”

“Ah, yes,” Sentri grinned knowingly. “More secretaries. Thou still hast some paperwork to do, eh?” He nudged the weary warrior with his elbow, eliciting only a half-hearted grunt. “Well, save some paperwork for me.”

Regara laughed, a refreshing jovial bellow that broke his own private tension. “Thou lads are too young to know what real paperwork is.” He paused for a moment, frowning. “Er, well, you look too young so an old salt like myself would think that way if I didn’t know thee. In any case, thou shouldst try being a sailor for forty years, that’ll show thee paperwork!” He laughed heartily. “Ah, but that was before fair Verona stole my heart and settled me down. A beautiful lass is she, and loving too. She understands that a sailor must have more than one love, and I care for her all the more for it. The Virtuosity and her are happier lasses for it. And I’ve had a few lasses in my time, of both kinds, if thou knowest what I mean.” He winked at them.

Even bone-weary Dupre broke into a grin. “Ah, indeed. Thou hast lived a full life, Captain. A full life indeed. Probably fuller than all my centuries of existence.” Noticing that Vardu was not partaking in the banter, he said, “Sir Vardu, my good knight, what’s afoul? Dost not thou like a little paperwork also?”

Vardu’s face, as plain as smoothly cut marble, did not change, though for a brief moment his inscrutable eyes held something…melancholy, a deep longing. “I am no bureaucrat.” he said stonily. He turned on his heel, headed for the aft deck. “If anyone requires my aid, I’ll be at stern deck.”

The air was musty, reeking of stagnant, soiled water as it was. Only a little light filtered down from the grating above, casting dull dappled shadows upon the wooden floor. The Virtuosity’s hull was voluminous, though it could not compete with the mighty vessels of steel that roamed the seas back on Earth.

Reizer reticently studied the contents of the hold, furtively searching for anything that might assist him in his nefarious ambitions. He could hear the commotion overhead on deck, slightly muffled, and the shadows of men would quickly dash across the dappled floor only to disappear again. Giant crates and chests, once placed in ad hoc style, lay scattered about as testament to the furious turbulence of the all too recent tempest that had been so unimaginably spontaneous in its undeniable fury.

But what caught Reizer’s interest was the pile of kegs that lay in the corner of the hold, seemingly innocent and unassuming. He surmised them to be powder kegs, and a slight smile of satisfaction played across his lips. Taking a closer look, he knelt before them, running a finger across the blatant surface of one particular keg’s bung, from which a flaccid fuse protruded from the centre. Perhaps this was the sort of weapon he required to gain him a significant advantage over his despicable enemies. He still had his 9mm pistol, but he doubted that that would suffice in the takeover of the ship.

With the explosive power of this little collection of kegs, he could very probably blow this ship to pieces, but then again, that would be counter-productive. He needed Malone alive. If he could only smuggle them out without being spotted by the sentries, he could strategically place the powder kegs in locations throughout the ship in order to maximise the possibility of meddlesome crew extermination. Then he would have his objective all to himself, and the secrets of moongate travel between worlds would be within his grasp. Now that he had ascertained that not only Eodon existed, but a myriad of other worlds accessible by moongate, the possibilities for wealth and power were limitless. The slight matter of the extraction of the much desired information would be simple enough. He seriously doubted the young journalist could endure the excruciating pain of a hot knife stripping away his skin stripe by stripe for very long. In fact, the whelp could probably start babbling at the mere sight of the cruel implement of torture. All the better for Reizer. But it was pointless to spend time thinking of methods of data extraction until he actually had Malone in his hands.

“What art thou doing here?” a deep and officious voice demanded.

Reizer stood and whirled around, muscles tensed for combat. He relaxed half a moment later, realising that revealing his true colours at this point of time would negate all he had struggled to achieve so far. In the wide doorway stood a tall man in gleaming armour, a flowing red cape descending from his broad shoulders. His face was hard and blue-eyed ice, his blond hair cropped short for convenience of vision and maintenance. Though the warrior did not know it, it mattered little however burly he was in constitution. His excessive plate would do nothing to stop the small steel-capped bullet from plunging into his chest and bereaving him of life. Sir Walton was the man’s name, as Reizer had gleaned from eavesdropping on the various crew that regularly passed through the galley. He was apparently second-in-command of a detachment of knights from a place called Serpent’s Hold, and was fortunately more lenient than his pompous blue-caped superior who deserved naught but a four-inch wide lead pipe through his temple to ease his pontificating bigotry.

“I - I got lost.” Reizer lied. It was a feeble act of falsehood, but he could think of nothing better. Besides, the fact that he was technically a new member of the crew gave him at least some credibility. “It’s a big ship.”

Walton nodded, conceding that point. “Indeed it is. A big ship, with many places that specifically require authorised personnel only.” His gaze became harder.

Reizer’s eyes dropped to the double-edged sword at Walton’s hip. If the man tried to apprehend him through force of arms, he would have no choice but to kill him. He still had his firearm secreted about his person, silencers installed.

“Such prohibited places include the cargo hold.” Walton considered Reizer’s soiled and sullen apron that partially covered his otherwise swarthy attire. “Thou art the new scullery maid. Thou shouldst not be here.”

Reizer shrugged.” Like I said, I got lost during the storm.”

“Then I will return thee to thy station. The cook is a busy man and requires assistance at all hours of the day.” Walton said and turned on his heel, not bothering to make sure that his charge was following him.

One bullet in the back would be enough to silence the proud warrior. It was a tempting thought, but Reizer refrained from executing it. It would not do to have a cumbersome body lying around, and while the cause of death would be alien to the victim’s compatriots, it certainly would not be to Malone himself, and then his well-crafted on-the-fly plan would be undermined in totality. It would only be a matter of subsequent hours before they found the murderer as well.

So Reizer resolved to return here and resume his machinations at a more fortuitous time, namely at night, when stealth would be much simpler to attain. Assuming a veneer of meekness, he dutifully followed the knight back to the drudgery of the accursed galley.

“Bloody damn lost our bearings, we did!” exclaimed Mole, who held the wheel against the final breaths of the dying storm that was quickly dissipating into nothingness.

“And our lives too nearly!” added Blacktooth a few paces off, still gripping the gunwale for dear life.

Verne composed himself from his position at the railing, assuming full stature once again now that the tempest that had so suddenly struck had spent its fury and was melting into the calmer ambient winds. The likes of such a storm he had never seen in all his days of sailing - which were many to be sure - a force that came out of nowhere with absolutely no preamble whatsoever. Now Verne knew the sea to be a capricious lady, and oft times did she vent here rage at the most unexpected of times, but this sample of her fury had been a member of a different league all together. How this was so he could not say with reliable credence, but it reeked of something he had never faced before. Or perhaps not so after all.

His eyes narrowed as a vague memory resurfaced in his extensive patchwork of life experiences, going perhaps as far back as his days in the service of the disreputable Lord Blackthorn.

When privation and insurrection had been common things in the ruins of freedom, the true advocates of Virtue and the rightful Lord British, called the Resistance as a collective whole, rallied their forces to challenge the reign of Blackthorn. But the true rulers of Britannia, the trio of darkness known only as the Shadowlords, the truth of their origins a fact naught could say, had manifested themselves to crush such uprisings. And crush them they did, wielding potent magic and laying waste to the brave - but infinitely foolish - legions of freedom fighters. A favourite arcane weapon of the pernicious nether lords was the summoning of a deadly storm from which lightning lanced and winds buffeted with malicious intent.

It was not unlike the tempest Verne’s Wave Raider had endured, though understandably of a much higher calibre. Still, Verne could recognise the craft of magic when he saw it - he had come from a realm practically saturated with magic - and this smacked of it. Of particularly worthy note was the sheer determination in which the storm had shifted the ship’s course despite her every effort to resist.

Verne had every right to believe it had been the work of a mage, and a powerful one at that.

“Ack! I don’t think I’ve ever been in this part of the sea before. We’re lost!” Mole cried, scratching his bald head in bewilderment.

“No, we’re not, you bloody dam fool!” Verne snapped. “Take a gander at your sextant for a change, salt mongrel. We’re on a course for New Magincia!” To himself he added, “Mighty fine navigation skills on the part of that storm, too. Damn wizards…”

“New Magincia!” Mole exclaimed incredulously. “Rubbish! I’d sooner see a pod of whales do a tapdance on the water before me very eyes than believe a storm could throw us off course so far!”

“Watch your black tongue, fool, or you’ll be feeding that pod of whales!” Verne barked contemptuously. “I was raiding these parts back before you were even at your mother’s teat. I tell you, whelp, New Magincia is just beyond yonder horizon!”

“Well, that’s just dandy!” Mole said, exasperated. “We’ve lost Silverbeard for certain now! So much for thine great master plan, Captain.” He gave a mocking salute not unlike the kind those in the Britannian navy gave to show deference to their superior officers.

Irritated by the ostentatious show of insincerity, Verne hawked and spat. “Lubber, you’re treading a fine line, you -”

To his great indignation, Mole cut him off, an epitome of presumptuousness and impudence, “No, it is thee who art treading the fine line, and then some. Thou art treading the whole bloody plank, which is rickety to boot! Ain’t that right, Blacktooth matey?” There was no reply. “Blacktooth…?”

The swarthy-skinned pirate was still gripping the gunwale for dear life, face a contorted mask of consternation and anxiety as he trembled, fearful that the storm might revisit its wrath upon them.

Mole sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Blacktooth, the storm is over, in case thou hast not noticed. Thou canst let go of the gunwale now.” he said, tone lightly patronising. “That’s it…easy does it. No need to get startled. Mole is here to protect thee.” he added unctuous encouragement as Blacktooth reluctantly released the gunwale, trembling, eyes darting from side to side as if expecting to be assailed from every quarter. Blacktooth straightened uncertainly and took a wobbly step toward his friend, like a toddler taking its first steps. He gulped and stumbled, crumpling into Mole’s arms and crying on his shoulder, wracked with sobs.

Verne could not help but marvel at the characteristically savage pirate’s idiosyncratic fear. It was not as if a pirate didn’t live through vicious sea storms every day of his life.

“I…I thought we wouldn’t make it…I thought she’d go under and I’d d-d-die…” Blacktooth’s piteous bawling redoubled as he shook in Mole’s arms, and Verne had to look the other way but for sheer embarrassment.

“There, there. There, there.” Mole whispered quietly, patting his distraught friend on the shoulder reassuringly.

The queer spectacle was attracting notice. Mole’s eyes began to dart nervously as others began to point and laugh, shouting things like ‘woolly sheep’ and ‘bunk biter’.

“Uh, Blacktooth, get off me. Thou’rt givin’ people the wrong idea…” Mole said, prying his friend away from him.

Verne’s fist took Blacktooth to the side of the face, knocking him to the deck with a pained grunt. Mole could not elude the uppercut that sprawled him like a heap, and the next thing he saw was Verne staring down at him imperiously, eyes flaming and capable of ripping the recalcitrant asunder.

“You pathetic fools dare to challenge my captaincy through cheap innuendo and implicit threats? Think again!” Verne roared, drawing his cutlass.

“Kill us, and thou wilt have a mutiny on thine hands.” Mole said with an insolent grin, though his jaw ached terribly.

Verne’s eyes narrowed dangerously. At a quick glance, he saw that a crowd had gathered near quarterdeck, curiously watching the confrontation. Several of the spectators glared at him darkly. The temerity of the fools! He would have to make examples…

“Presumptuous maggot! Thou wouldst be an impecunious beggar-man had I knot taken you off the streets! You score one point for treachery!” he snarled.

Mole snorted, staring up at him defiantly. “Since when has a pirate ever been known for his loyalty?” He glanced toward the crowd and nodded confidently. Perhaps over-confidently. “Thou must face facts. Thou hast lost Silverbeard. That means thou hast lost the so-called treasure too. Now, I’m not denying that it exists, but I am sayin’ it’s too well-hidden for us to find in the next age or so. The Capt’n of the Shade Fleet was a wily one, like thou hast said so often. Us, the crew, are tired of chasin’ legends and ghosts. We haven’t been allowed to pick so much as a fishing boat for plucking, and we’re getting’ downright disgruntled about it. Why, just the other day I heard a group o’ men - who I won’t dishonour by mentionin’ their names - jivin’ of mutiny. Mutiny, captain.” He applied emphasis on the treacherous word as he stood up, smoothing his permanently dishevelled attire. His mate was still on the floor at his feet.

Verne nodded. “And I bet thou wert their ringleader, too. Ah, well.” Mole smiled. Verne hefted his sword, intending more than just petty spite. “We’ll just have to see how loyal they are to you. Since when has a pirate ever been known for his loyalty, after all?” He lifted his cutlass overhead, and this time Mole’s smile did fade. “Here’s to loyalty, fool!”

Mole took a step back, raising his hands in a feeble defence.

“Leave him alone, thou bully!”

Verne turned his head in the direction of the feminine voice, eyes prepared to singe steel to molten slag. A diminutive, darkly beautiful girl in her late teens confronted him, eyes aflame with fires of defiance and audacity. Her name was Mandy, little more than a wench the men liked to play with form time to time, but a fesity wench at that. She reminded him of a certain feisty wench that had haunted the Fallen Virign back in the days of Blackthorn, who would become quite friendly if offered a drink or two and was complimented on her looks. Unfortunately, Mandy did not appear to be the type that could be mollified with either a drink or a compliment. She was a thunderhead at the moment, scowling her disapproval at him. Somehow, it made her seem more beautiful.

“You dare to interfere?” Verne demanded.

Mandy put her hands on her hips and swayed them suggestively. “If thou dost not harm him, thou won’t regret it, I can assure thee.” She winked and smiled.

Verne snorted. So, the wench was offering a trade, was she? Sex in exchange for sparing Mole’s pitiful life? Bah! What was sex without the sincere Principle of Love? A meaningless gesture used by depraved pleasure-seekers and debaucherers, that was what. Verne had suspicions that Mandy held affections for Mole - the Codex only knew how - but whatever the nature of their relationship, he was sure it wasn’t platonic.

She had the determination of a rock against the pounding waves of an ocean, and while she did not look as if she had the ability or will to kill, he sensed that should would be inclined to avenge Mole’s death should push come to shove. Lowering his sword, Verne yielded to the wench-girl’s demand, stepping back.

Laughing scornfully - for Mole could not be allowed to escape his wrath without at least some partial scathing - Verne attacked the rebellious pirate’s over-swelled pride. “So, Mole, you’re lucky this time. All it took was a wench to save you.”

The crowd began to laugh uproariously, while Mole scowled petulantly as Mandy began to tend to the growing welt on his face. Blacktooth still lay sprawled on the deck, deeply concussed.

Verne turned his back on Mole - a risky move, perhaps, but he could not show to the rest of the crew even a hint of fear, or else the mutiny would be upon him in the blink of an eye - and marched up to the foremost part of the quarterdeck. He had only delayed the mutiny at best. He had to get that treasure soon, or he would facea powder keg under his bunk. Grumbling to himself as to why he as going out of his way to plunder loot for this ungrateful mob of scalliwags, he set his mind to the task of taking his bearings.

The Wave Raider’s course had been forcibly altered. That meant there was a high chance of the Sea Critter having been put on the very same course for New Magincia If he acted fast o this, he could catch Silverberad’s trail and follow him to the stashed treasure.

“Mole!” Verne barked. “Stop sulking and get back at that wheel! We’ve got treasure to find!”

Jimmy stepped off the gangplank and felt the reassuring stability of the pier beneath his feet. Granted, it was made of wood like the ship’s deck, but at least he had a chance at reaching shore should this foothold collapse for whatever reason.

A party of several others accompanied them. Dupre and Sentri were as always in each other’s proximity, the latter at least keeping a vigilant eye for trouble while the leader watched for any taverns of good repute. Lindu and Travis were present, in armour and ready to fight even as they looked relaxed and complacent. A dangerous pretence for an enemy who underestimated without secondary judgment. The diminutive but stocky Alcor as close behind, eyes narrowed as he scrutinised his new environment while at the same time enduring Sir Delfin’s barrage of ancient tales and archaic nations. Unfortunately, Sir Pasar had also decided to join the entourage, condescending even when he offered his presence. The arrogant fool thought that he was doing everybody a favour by merely standing in the local vicinity. Supercilious in disposition though he remained ominously silent, the castle lord cast disparaging glances at the natives, some of whom saw it fit to be less than subtle with their curiosity by taking a closer look at the newcomers. It was not everyday a great battleship came into port in a place as seemingly far removed from mainstream civilisation as this. Last of all to alight was Kap-Lem, who glowered at everything that moved and tried to remain as aloof as possible from the rest of the company as was humanly - or Gargishly, if that could be considered a word - possible.

Jimmy’s concern for the gargoyle had deepened over the past brace of days. He was becoming exceedingly introverted, isolating himself even from his compatriot Graldesh. The fact that Kap-Lem seemed to hate one of his own kind most was no small cause for consternation for the young report-turned-adventurer…or quarry, depending on how one saw it.

Kap-Lem had ostracised himself from the rest of the crew, opting an insular standing rather than exchange even a mild word with the people who had virtually forced him to come along for the journey. But he had dragged out this petulance for far too long…though petulance was not exactly a term that described his predicament judiciously. Jimmy resolved to at least attempt to renew relations with the now irascible self-alienated gargoyle. He owed that much for his life at minimum.

“Ah, New Magincia.” Dupre said as he took in a voluminous breath of air, his chest puffing as he surveyed the smattering of wooden and brick buildings before him, an anticipatory gleam in his eyes. That gleam suddenly died when he exhaled, which came out as more of a disappointed sigh than anything else. “Still the same old nondescript, boring place. Not much has changed in more than a century and a half, has it?”

Sentri rolled his eyes. “Thine appraisal does not do New Magincia justice. Come, come. They have a nascent shipbuilding industry, at the very least.”

Dupre snorted. “Aye, I’ll give them that much at the very least. Though I’ll wager my command that they still don’t have a clue about making a good drink.”

“Well then, let us go see, shall we?” Sentri said, and off he marched down the dirt road, leaving the others to follow.

Dupre’s initial description of the place was one on the mark; nondescript, most definitely. New Magincia appeared to have not even an inkling of what opulence and aesthetics entailed, instead choosing to maintain small one-storey houses of wood - a scarce few were wrought of stone - that seemed to barely cater for the needs of their inhabitants. In Vesper, things had been kept austere - that was a prerequisite for surviving as harsh an ambient environment as that - but even there civil design had at the very least had some degree of pride. Here, everything was simple. Not strictly impecunious, but not a whole lot far off either. The people were shy, for the most part, the braver ones daring to look the strangers tramping down their street in the eye for more than just a few seconds before looking away out of sheer timidity. They were attired in wool and cloths that certainly did not strive to be ostentatious, rather more suited to performing the role they were originally designed for, in this case keeping warmth and covering modesty.

“Accursed sheep,” Pasar said, contempt thinly veiled as he noted the sheep openly crossing the street, baaing as they did so, moving off complacently as the group approached. A man in a relatively simple blue tunic sat cross-legged with a crook at his feet by the roadside, eyes closed as if meditating. Pasar rasped upon seeing him. “That epitome of indolence should be flogged for apathy toward his duties. Imagine! Sheep not being shepherded!”

“To be a sign of lack of Discipline.” Kap-Lem grunted a few paces behind.

Pasar nodded his agreement, a curt tilting of the head in the gargoyle’s direction, and somehow even managed to make that appear condescending, much like a parent would nod approvingly toward a once recalcitrant child who had learned and executed what was right. Kap-Lem glowered at the knight’s back, but then again, he did so at everybody. The fact that he was the essence of the natives’ shy curiosity did little to assuage his irritation.

Up ahead rose the most conspicuous building of the entire town encountered thus far; a two-storey structure that, unlike the adjacent homes, seemed to shout pride, designed not only to serve a purpose but to be ostentatious and opulent, at least in an austere sort of way. In any case, it was quite an incongruous sight in the diminutive, idyllic locale called New Magincia. Jimmy absently wondered how the ‘old’ Magincia would have looked, then decided not to. They were probably living in caves back then in worse conditions than these.

“And people enjoy living in a place as uneventful as this?” he asked the air.

“It’s called the Town of Humility for a reason, lad.”

Jimmy nearly soiled his pants from surprise at Sir Delfin’s sudden appearance at his flank. He had an admonishing look on his weathered visage when he continued to speak.

“And it’ll stay that way for good reason. Very good reason indeed.” he said gruffly. “For back in the early days of Britannia under Lord British’s united sovereignty a town of wealth and opulence stood in this very spot.”

“Lemme guess…it was called Magincia, right?” Jimmy said dryly.

Delfin looked genuinely nonplussed. “However didst thou know?” He frowned for a moment, craggy countenance pensive, then resumed his storytelling, “Well, at any rate, the populace of Magincia had grown arrogant in their ever swelling treasuries and coffers, being rich merchants and businessmen and all, to the point where they were the collective epitome of the Vice of Pride. The town was subsequently destroyed by a horde of daemons from the Shrine of Humility for displaying such excessive pride.”

Pasar’s derisive snort was quite palpable. “Daemons? What nonsense! Daemons are naught but fable! I’ve been in the field for many years and I have never once seen such a creature! They are only stories to frighten children! Or outlanders…” He glanced pointedly at Jimmy.

Delfin looked at him as if he were an arrogant teen yet to have his teeth kicked in by the hard realities of life. “I have been in the field decades longer than thee, boy.” Pasar scowled at him, visibly piqued. “THou art fortunate that the more deadly monsters died before they team.

“Pshaw!” Pasar spat disparagingly. “That’s much like the story thou didst tell me of the orcs! Orcs indeed! As if they ever existed.” He shook his head vehemently. “No, they only exist in fairytales, old man.”

The headslap took Pasar by complete surprise.

“Show some respect to thine elders, whelp!” Delfin growled.

Pasar drew up indignantly, preparing to pull rank, but was cut off when Dupre shouted.

“Ale! Ale at last!” the warrior cried joyously.

They were at the door of the inn. On closer inspection, the building appeared to be made of materials quite unorthodox in contrast to the rest of the town. Large planks of wood comprised the wall, bowing in some places, oiled in others. A ghastly visage that leered and sported horns atop the head stood at the apex of the forewall of the inn, and over the entrance hung a painted sign with a black outline of a three-mast ship, the words ‘The Scuttled Schooner Inn’ printed above.

“After thee.” Sentri said courteously to Dupre, bowing as he would for a petite lady.

Dupre grunted noncommittally and entered, followed by the others. Jimmy paused, though, upon seeing Delfin study the leering daemon’s head atop the inn roof, his chin cradled in one hand.

“Something wrong?” Jimmy asked the elder knight.

“That face reminds me of something…something I’ve not seen since -” Delfin began, but his voice trailed off as he struggled to remember to little avail.

Jimmy rolled his eyes and quickly entered the inn before the old knight could successfully recall the ancient memory and take another few precious hours of his life ‘regaling’ him with it.

Inside what appeared to be an annex room of sorts, Jimmy saw his companions come to a halt at one of the doors up ahead. A stooped, hunch-backed midget of a man who appeared to be far beyond his middle years barred their path, gesticulating wildly an screaming inanities in a high-pitched shriek that managed to grate on Jimmy’s nerves gravely. It appeared to have a similar effect on Dupre, who grimaced with each successive failed attempt to get a word in over the geriatric’s senseless blabber.

“Thou dost dare to intrude upon the domain of Master Argent, interlopers? I shall sway thee from whatever vile designs thou hast in the deep recesses of thine foul minds to taint this fine establishment, the greatest testimony to me master’s hard sweat and labour in all existence!” the twisted, diminutive elder shrieked, pointing a knobby accusatory finger at the party and at Dupre especially. He wore what appeared to be a soiled apron, the garments beneath nondescript but equally dishevelled, indicative of the fellow’s lack of personal care. And hygiene too, so it seemed from the way Dupre wrinkled his nose in disgust.

Jimmy could understand why, as he began to get a whiff of a most unnatural scent that indubitably emanated from the senescent madman. He recognised the smell from somewhere, as if something had been burnt or was smouldering, but to his great chagrin could not for the life of him put a picture to the obscure memory.

“Cease thy prattle, man!” Pasar commanded in that typical officious manner, while Dupre and Sentri merely rolled their eyes unanimously. “As a knight of the honourable Serpent’s Hold, I command thee! We are the King’s men, fool, not invaders!”

The codger recoiled, dark eyes flaring indignation as if stung, and drew his peculiar cowl tighter around his ancient face, one that Jimmy likened to an ugly millenium-old tree about to collapse upon someone’s head but for decrepitude. From his near toothless mouth spat forth a plethora of curses and profanities that made Pasar blanch from nonplussed pique and Dupre barely able to hold the roiling laughter surging within him.

“I put a curse on thee! I put a curse on thee!” the geriatric cried, stabbing his gnarled finger wildly as he cursed each companion. “I put a curse on they sword! I put a curse on thy belt buckle! I put a curse on that bowl of fruit! I put a curse on the horse thou didst ride in on!”

“We don’t have a horse, thou daft fool!” Pasar growled, but the old coot plowed on regardless, shrieking and cursing everything his roving eyes swept across.

“I curse that vase of flowers! I curse that door jamb!” When his eyes settled on Jimmy, his blabbering paused for a moment, a barely perceptible hiatus in his endless stream of curses as he licked his pale lips in some form of…anticipation, perhaps? Jimmy could not be certain, for the madman resumed his inane tirade of profanities and evil voodoo-related enchantments, flailing his hands almost spastically.

“I curse that nightstand! Oooo…that painting has to be cursed! Yep, yep, a curse on that!” the elder cackled insanely, clapping his hands in childish glee tinged with playful malevolence.

The painting he was referring to was a rather ominous one, mounted on the west wall of the immaculately maintained annex room, that depicted a warrior crouched low in battle stance, sword drawn as he sought to protect his comrade fallen at his side with an arrow protruding from his flank. Three black-robed figures, cowls drawn to conceal shadowy visages from which burned crimson eyes of undeniable malignancy, loomed before the swordsman, intimidating in every respect and poised to strike. Jimmy was particularly captivated by the eyes of the forefront shadowy figure, which seemed to radiate odium. Dupre glanced at the painting, muttering something about a ‘reckless ranger’ and a ‘black arrow’.

“Silence, thou oaf!” Pasar roared, drawing his double-edged sword and brandishing it at the old man threateningly. “Curses are for curs and mages of questionable dignity!”

The geriatric covered his head and cringed fearfully, frantically pleading for amnesty, “No, don’t slice me like a rabbit! Don’t hack me like a rabbit, pleeeease! I take back my curses! I verily, verily do by the Virtue of Honesty, I do! Oh, yes!”

Satisfied, Pasar deigned to sheathe his blade, nodding superciliously. “Thou hast made a wise decision, old man.”

Lowering his twisted, knobby hands from his head, the eccentric elder dared to look up at him, smiling a nervous smile of gratitude - very possibly unctuous - and straightened as far as his hunchback would allow. “Oh, thank thee, milord! Thou shan’t hear another curse from me, I swear by my virtuous soul, I do! Oh, yes, I do!”

Pasar looked to Dupre, smiling condescendingly. “Thou dost see how leadership should epitomise zero tolerance for the inanities of the damned.

“Dupre frowned at him, but then the old man reneged on his vow, launching into a renewed fit of curses. “I put a curse on thine underpants! I put a curse on thine manhood! I put a curse on -”

Pasar glared volcanic fury and prepared to draw his sword, this time to shed blood, but Sentri grabbed his arm and whispered something vehement into his ear, and the insufferable lord knight acquiesced to end his hostilities. He reddened slightly at Lindu’s hushed giggles.

“Kind father,” Dupre intervened, interrupting the old man’s tirade. The fellow looked at him expectantly, opening his mouth to assail with his tiresome slander, but Dupre was brisk and spoke first, “Kind father, we mean thee no harm. We request to see the proprietor of this fine inn, that is all, for we were caught in a storm and -”

“A curse on all storms!” the old man exclaimed, and everybody winced, prepared for yet more pointless babble, but he was to surprise them. “Mister Argent’s the one thou dost want to see! A kind, good man is he, shrewd and compassionate both, and he likes me roast rabbit! Yes! Rabbit is good, yes! Yum, yum!” He smacked his lips with a disgusting wet sound, drool dribbling down his wrinkled chin.

Pasar grimaced contemptuously.

Just when the old codger seemed to have become amicable toward the party, his excessive oddness notwithstanding, Delfin entered the premises, and heralded by a screech of consternation, he launched into yet another inane verbal assault, babbling about the usual ‘curses’, ‘interlopers’, and ‘roast rabbit’. By this time, Dupre was rubbing his nosebridge with thumb and forefinger, casting a bleary-eyed glare in the bemused and befuddled Sir Delfin’s direction.

“Sargan, keep your trap shut, for Virtue’s sake! You’re worse than a fisherman’s wife spouting superstitious folly and half-brained myth at the local well! Get back to that rabbit stew you were making, man!” came the command from the doorway leading from the annex room deeper into the inn. There stood a man in his middle years of medium stature and nondescript build, leaning awkwardly on one leg. His face was weathered like that of a sailor’s - he certainly looked as if he had spent much of his life on the open sea, from what Jimmy had seen of sailors so far - clean-shaven and tanned from years in the sun. Though his blue eyes and face exuded kindness and to a small extent obsequiousness, he appeared sapient, the wizened old grandfather who quipped proverbs to the little grandchildren and regaled them with tales of fantastical feats and adventure. He was the epitome of venerability, at least from an exterior glance.

“Amnesty, Mister Argent! Amnesty! Old Sargan will be getting’ back to his rabbit stew, don’t though worry! Oh, yes, he will!” the old codger said sheepishly in his trademark rush, bowing repeatedly and backing out of the annex room by the man. His cackling faded amidst the sporadic curse here and there, punctuated with the occasional disparaging remark about rabbits.

“Now that guy is definitely a few strawberries short of a fruitcake.” Jimmy said to no one in particular.

The man who had taken control looked to Dupre apologetically. “Forgive Sargan, if it pleases you, newcomer. He be a sorely disturbed fellow, the poor man. A wanderer who showed up more than a year and half back, impecunious to say the last. I took him in out of the Virtue of Compassion, I did, and despite his occasional incoherent rhetoric, he makes a good dependant. Makes good rabbit stew too, and Virtue knows, there be plenty of them furry critters on this here island.” He gave a laugh, brief but jovial all the same.

“How nice for thee.” Pasar said cynically, arms folded beneath his chest.

Ignoring that slight, the man smiled amiably and moved with a noticeable limp toward Dupre. It was then that Jimmy registered the flamboyant, predominantly blue parrot that rested on his left shoulder, squawking spontaneously at irregular intervals, grooming its owner’s hair affectionately.

“Oh, sorry ‘bout the smell.” he said, slightly sheepish as he detected the unusual stench that had not yet begun to diffuse. “Don’t know how poor Sargan gets exposed to so much ash, especially in New Magincia of all places.”

Ash! Now Jimmy remembered. It was traces of sulfur his acute olfactory cells were detecting! Back in Eodon, when himself and Rafkin used to cut bamboo sticks to construct primitive flintlock rifles, pools of sulfur had been rife! It had also made a key ingredient to the much needed gunpowder required to fend off the array of bone-crunching, sinew-chewing beats that roamed the vast jungle.

“Art thou Mister Argent?” Dupre asked tentatively, fearing that Sargan’s daftness may not have been restricted only to anti-social behaviour but recognition as well.

“That be my name to be sure.” replied the old man. “I be the owner of this here inn, for more than fifteen years, mind ye. A fine place New Magincia is, be assured. Quiet, but quaint and idyllic. A good place to find humility.” He laughed again.

Jimmy could not help but smile. Mister Argent’s mirth was infectious. His cheery personality matched his debonair appearance, even though he wore an apron. Now here was a man of humble dignity if ever he saw one.

“That is good to here, sir.” Dupre said.

Argent shook his head vehemently, waving a hand with surprising vigour for one of his age. “No need for honorifics in the Town of Humility, lad. I was a man like yourself until a few decades, mayhaps make that centuries” - he chuckled - “ago, aye, back on the sea, sailing with the wind. Those were the days of adventure, me boy…” His eyes took on a faraway look for a moment.

It was the parrot that disrupted his reveries with an obtrusive squawk. “SQUAWK! Sum of three, crimson they be! SQUAWK!”

Argent gave a start, perhaps a little on the ostentatious side, and frowned at the parrot. “Pipe down, Obsidian, ye feathered fool!”

The parrot gave an indignant squawk and snapped its beak shut, moving away from Argent’s eyar. Jimmy would have swore its demeanour was petulant.

“How can I help ye?” Argent asked Dupre, finally getting to the point.

Pasar sighed audibly, only to receive a slap across the back of the head from Delfin. His retaliatory look certainly could not be called pleasant, though the scowling veteran Delfin was not to be brow beaten.

“We need some lodgings for a few nights, Mister Argent, if thou canst handle it.” Dupre said. “And, if it is not too much trial, a recommendation for where to get our vessel repaired.”

Argent positively beamed. “It won’t be any trouble at all! We’ve had few travellers of late. Only ones at themoment are a few clique-minded merchants, an itinerant bard, and a bad-tempered paladin come out of Trinsic, I believe.” he said, eager to be of assistance. “Business is slow, but it always is here in New Magincia, as they say.” He was about to laugh again, but thought better of it upon noticing Pasar’s deprecatory glare. “Well, as for your ship, I can recommend none other than Roberto. He’s a man who knows his ships, and no matter the treachery of a storm, he can patch up your vessel as fast as -”

“-a slime divides, I hope, because that’s the sort of speed we’re going to need.” Travis interrupted, earninga scowl from both Lindu and Alcor.

“Ye in need for briskness for a reason, lad?” Argent asked curiously.

“That is government business and none of thy concern, MIster Argent.” Pasar interjected imperiously.

Argent showed obeisance with a bow and held out his hands in a placating gesture, saying, “No, no, no! Old Argent doesn’t mean to pry into the business of the realm. Beggin’ your pardon, sir knight.” Pasar sniffed. “I’m just saying from the mouth of an experienced sailor that briskness ain’t always prudence. How many brisk lads have I seen floatin’ in the Great Sea, thinking they could challenge her might, all because of this same hurry, hurry, hurry! I’ve been brisk in my time too, me lads, as ye can surely see.” He tapped his left foot on the wooden floorboards, which gave a dull thud. That was because it wasn’t a foot, but the bottom part of a pegleg. That explained the awkward limp. Jimmy was abased he had not noticed it before. “Lost it on a midnight voyage to Moonglow, when I was on watch broadside and we hit some nasty shoals. Let me tell ye, it’s an ice thing to be young and have ten toes. Ye don’t know what ye got till it’s gone…” He sighed wistfully. “No matter. I shall get Anita to ready your rooms. Have a pleasant stay here at the Scuttled Schooner.”

“I’m sure we will.” Dupre said, then with a mutter added, “So long as the ale is good.” When Argent handed him the register, Dupre grimaced and passed it onto Alcor. The bull-necked fighter filled it in with alacrity.

“To find the shipwright, just take the north road a few paces east of here. That’ll lead ye straight to his place. Can’t miss him!” Argent said, receiving the register from Alcor. “Dupre, Officer of Lord British…” he read the names to himself.

“Thank thee.” said Dupre.

Jimmy watched him and Sentri leave the inn, headed for the shipwright’s. Turning to the others, he prepared to endure another long, apprehensive stay in less than pleasant company, namely Pasar and the ambivalent Kap-Lem, who even now was looking at him darkly from the corner of the annex room.

Why did he always end up in situations like this?

Checking that the amulet still hung from his neck, cool against his chest as always, he then fingered the mutilated moonstone in his pocket. Hopefully, his old acquaintances Silverbeard and Reizer were far, far behind now.

“SQUAWK! Sum of three, crimson they be!”

Journey Onwards

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