The Journalist and the Sea

by BlueClaw


Chapter 7
Of Treachery and Chicanery

Dupre strode through the dusty, primitive streets with a purpose, determined to get this mission over and done with in as short a time as possible. Then perhaps he could gain a much needed break from his liege and spend it in some serious drinking and wenching! Those more prudish would have called him a debaucherer; he saw himself as more of a tentative philanderer with a taste for good alcohol.

New Magincia had indeed not changed all that much since his last visit here, more than a couple of decades ago. The Town of Humility was still humble, as he expected, a stark contrast to the thriving city of opulence it had once been centuries past. Perhaps abstinence from arrogance was the wiser choice, when considered in light of the fact that Old Magincia, the City of Pride, had been destroyed by daemons for its deadly vice. Still, Dupre would fain choose a more exciting place to live, like Trinsic, though his days there as mayor were long gone now. Better yet, perhaps it was best for him that he was an itinerant warrior. That way there was abundant adventure, revelry and damsels in distress who were more than willing to express their gratitude with more tangible means.

“Stop being so brisk, Dupre!” Sentri implored, struggling to keep up wit his leader’s energetic pace. “No need to be hasty. The paperwork will still be there when thou dost get back.” He grinned knowingly.

“Bah. Let us just get this quest right and then I’ll see about carousing.” Dupre grumbled.

“What? Responsibility dampening thine spirits?” Sentri asked.

“Things weren’t this bad since that position as mayor back in Trinsic.” Dupre replied.

“Ah. That seems a lifetime ago.” Sentri said, reminiscent.

“Lifetimes would be a better description.”

A cart darted across the road, pursued by a medium-sized dapple-coated dog that barked excitedly after its quarry.

“Thou dost remember the days back on Bordermarch, under Lord Michael?” Sentri asked.

Dupre nodded, smiling faintly as they walked.

“Now those were the days.” Sentri said. “A shame about those quakes, though. We’ll see Bordermarch nor good Sir Simon no more.”

A building materialised up ahead, near a large dock where the skeleton of a ship floated in dry dock, yet to be born. All about the large premises lay broad pieces of timber, some finely worked and some not. as well as the stereotypical shipwright’s tools, hammers, logsaws, and such.

“This must be it.” said Dupre. “The shipbuilder’s.”

“No need to state the palpable.” Sentri admonished jovially.

They entered the establishment, coming into an office with a single desk, the room for the most part covered in a thin layer of sawdust and wood chippings. Ringing the bell that sat on the desk, they were soon to be greeted by a large, heavyset man who emerged from an adjacent doorway of the house. Surprisingly dapper despite his size, he hailed them with a vigorous pumping of the hand.

“Good morrow, sirs. I’m Roberto, local shipwright. How can I help thee?” he man asked.

“Our ship’s anchored at port. It took some damage in a storm and we need urgent repairs.” Dupre explained.

Robert nodded. “Aye. I understand. We got some rains, though not the brunt of it, I’m sure. There was some ominous assemblage of thunder clouds far to the east. Glad I wasn’t there.” he added sheepishly. “Well, I’ve got no pressing arrangements so I could probably gather my usual workmen and have a look at her scars. Thou art the King’s men, I assume?”

Dupre and Sentri nodded in unison.

“I see.” replied Roberto. “Then I suppose I’ll be guaranteed payment. No need to go about repair contracts immediately.” He scratched his chin. “Being a shipwright here in New Magincia of all places is not the most lucrative business, so I have to keep close tabs on who wants what. At least it’s a peaceful life.” He frowned momentarily, wincing a little. “For the most part.”

A wailing cry rose from the adjacent room, lasting long and loud before softening, then rising in pitch yet again.

“Hold on, little Russel! I’m coming! I’m coming!” Roberto called in return, dry-washing his hands on his jumper.

“Where’s thy wife?” Sentri inquired out of curiosity.

Roberto’s countenance was briefly pained before it resumed its stony composure. “She…disappeared some months back, where to I have not an inkling of. They say they found a woman’s body in the fold, torn apart and unrecognizable. I didn’t dare look. I know she is still alive. I know it!” His tone was a blend of determination and desperation. “Mayhaps that wandering paladin will help. Yes, he must help me, must…” He rubbed his nosebridge. “Forgive me. It takes all of my energy to focus on my work. I must go.” He left them to tend to the wailing baby.

“I understand. Thank thee for thine help!” Dupre said, his normally boisterous demeanour exchanged for a touch of sympathy.

The shipwright did not reply.

After leaving his meagre possessions in the more-than-adequate room allocated to him, Jimmy descended the stairs, which led him straight into the inn’s commons. He supposed it was a nice enough place, heir to a calm, serene ambience that soothed the tension out of a person’s troubled soul, so to speak. It was certainly immaculate, at the very least.

A series of small round tables were set around the large room in a not necessarily ad hoc fashion, large enough to accommodate for more than three people. The walls were not strictly bare; paintings of great ships and scenes, quite possibly mythical. In one painting, he recognised the Avatar standing on what appeared to be a cliff, a long staff with an ankh affixed at the top in hand, struggling to surpass the buffeting of powerful winds. Jimmy shook his head, smiling wryly to himself; that one always got into trouble, it seemed. Why didn’t he get portraits painted of himself? Life wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t.

An opulent, ornate marble fireplace dominated a good portion of the wall, currently flaming to chase away the chill of the sea breeze, being so close to the dock and all. It must have cost a fortune to build, and was quite obviously the work of pride. Was being proud taboo in the Town of Humility. Jimmy wondered whether Delfin’s tale of the daemon hordes laying waste to Old Magincia for the inhabitants’ arrogance could actually be taken at face value. Perhaps it would be better to take it with a pinch of salt instead.

Nearby on another part of the wall was mounted a glass display case, where a number of items of note resided. A golden shield with a white ankh emblazoned on the resplendent burnished surface, a gold-hilt double-edged sword, a thick bulky tome of most certainly ancient writ, a sanguine wine decanter, a nondescript iron ring, a proud standard, a taper, and a cup. Upon closer inspection, a plaque under the display case identified them as, ‘Replicas of the Talismans of Virtue Used in the Descent Into the Stygian Abyss’. Each of the items had labels, not that Jimmy had any interest in them. The Avatar had been around, from all ostensible accounts.

Nearby, and perhaps most significantly of all (at least to him), resided the bar, from which waitresses scurried into and out of, brisk about their business. Some were even buxom, but he had no time to gawk. He had to use his eyes for vigilance. It could mean his life, after all.

Turning his attention to the patrons, Jimmy found there to be only a moderate number. At least two tables were occupied by several merchants, who watched each other with shifty, suspicious eyes almost as much as they watched him. Clique-minded was right; he received dark, vaguely menacing looks whenever he came too close to their proximity. At the far end of the commons a carefree, jovial fellow sat with his legs propped up on his table, strumming a lute at his leisure and signing snatches of a ballad quietly to himself. Finally, in the most distant corner, there sat a menacing nimbus of a man. Tall even when sitting, he glowered ominously at everything around him, bleary eyes undertoned by dark sacks that denoted fatigue with a mix of despondency and frustration. Even the paranoid merchants averted their distrusting gazes, choosing in lieu to scowl at those less likely to do more than just glare back. The man was in amour, plate and mail, though it could not be said to possess the quality of resplendence any longer. It was fain dull and scratched in some places, dented in others, as if the knight had been in his fair share of scraps but had cared little to maintain his appearance. A sword was sheathed at his hip, lengthy and most certainly dangerous.

None of Jimmy’s companions had come down from their rooms yet, so he decided to take a seat at a table one across from the warrior. Taking a furtive gander from the corner of his eye, he discerned the yellow-and-red square-patterned surcoat the man wore, the emblem of a wine glass etched on the front. An unusual crest. But then again, Britannia was an unusual place. Very unusual.

Hearing the metallic clanking down the stairs, Jimmy turned his head to see Sir Pasar emerge from the foot of the staircase, heading for the annex room. Pausing only to shoot Jimmy an acerbic glare, the lord knight briskly departed, quite possibly to secure the establishment’s perimeter or some such rubbish. Or maybe to be ostentatious in his shining armour. Mayhaps both, knowing the condescending prig.

The sullen warrior at the table had had his interest piqued for a moment, but the spark was quickly washed away as he quaffed down his tankard of ale without the slightest trace of protocol.

Despite his partial inebriation, his vigilant senses, honed over years of training, detected the watcher within moments.

“Hey, thou!” the knight barked gruffly. “Who dost thou think thou art looking at?”

The merchants at their table assiduously ignored the imminent altercation, speaking amongst each other in even more hushed tones, if that were possible. The bard watched, though he did so discreetly.

The knight’s gaze became menacing as he launched further interrogatives. “Yeah, thee! That’s who I am talking to! Who dost thou think thou art to look at me that way?” His voice was slightly slurred form intoxication, though it did little to dampen the fiery glint in his not-so-bleary-anymore eyes. If anything, it only made him more dangerous. An unpredictable soldier was perhaps the most dangerous soldier of all. “Thou thinkest thou can look at me as if I am some museum exhibit? Like I’m some two-headed firedrake that’s the pet experiment of some half-senile wizard? Answer me, knave, or thou wilt wish thou never didst cross a paladin of Trinsic, the Town of Honour!”

Jimmy looked at him cynically. “For a guy who supposedly comes from the Town of Honour, you sure don’t seem honourable.” he retorted.

The paladin scowled. “Impudent cur! Thou wilt think twice before thou dost try to shame Sir Findar’s name again!” He stood from his chair, reaching for the pommel of his sword.

Jimmy stood when he did, dagger in hand. It trembled slightly in his sweat-inundated grasp. He tried to steel himself, bringing back the memories of how he had fought far worse opponents than this. It would be just like facing those Nahuatla guards back in Eodon, he reassured himself. Never mind the fact that he had nearly had his heart cut out.

“Findar, put that bloody thing away. The patrons don’t like it.” chided a rather bulky, hmmely woman with a tray in one meaty hand.

Fifdar froze in his attack, glancing at the woman uncertainly. He had good reason too. The serving maid looked as if she could crack a skull as thick as Findar’s, sword or not, and she did not seem to be the hesitant sort if it should come down to that scenario. Reluctantly, the disgruntled paladin released his pommel, casting a morose glare at Jimmy before retaking his seat.

The woman scowled at him as a mother would at a recalcitrant child, then turned that scowl to Jimmy. Sheepishly, the aspiring journalist sheathed his dirk and returned to his seat.

The serving maid - more like bouncer-cum-troll - underwent a magnificent and spontaneous transformation, metamorphosising from a reprimanding mother to a delighted mother who spoiled her children with sweets. She must have been a stickler for compliance. Lumbering over to Findar, she put down the tray and placed a decanter, most certainly filled with some alcoholic concoction, before the irate paladin’s nose.

“There’s a good lad. Now try some of this mead to calm thy nerves.” she said sweetly. “it’s Mister Argent’s best brew.” For a moment, Findar looked at the bottle suspiciously, but upon the passage of several seconds, seized it in a gauntleted hand and began to quaff down its contents avariciously. When the maid’s gaze hardened, Findar took the bottle from his mouth and nodded hastily, saying, “Yes, Mistress Belina. Thank thee, Mistress Belina.” That placated the demanding serving maid, but then Jimmy quickly found her roving attention now turned to him.

That sort of attention made him squirm like a child who had been caught redhanded stealing his mother’s pies from the windowsill.

“And as for thee, boy, thou wilt sit with poor Sir Findar here and settle thine issues in a civilised manner, won’t thou?” Mistress Belina did not make it sound as if it were a polite request.

Reluctant, but backed into a corner from which he could not escape, Jimmy dismally nodded his head and moved over to the ornery paladin’s table. Belina ratified the action with a curt sniff and lumbered off to resume her duties.

Findar scowled at him. “Don’t get any erroneous ideas in thine head that I’m lacking in fortitude. Findar is the greatest, most honourable, courageous…”

“Noble?” Jimmy suggested sweetly.

“…noble, glorious paladin that has ever, and will ever, live!” Findar proclaimed his flowery self-praise.

“Really?” Jimmy asked, baiting the vainglorious fellow onward. Hopefully, if the arrogant oaf filled his belly with enough cheap booze and distracted himself with sufficient gloating, he would be able to furtively sneak away and resume more interesting activities.

“By the Principles, I am, or art thou a blind ignoramus?” Findar demanded, slightly disparaging.

“Hmmm…you’d be a very incongruous sort in a place of humility such as this.” Jimmy retorted with a faint smirk, but while the black-tempered warrior was straining his grog-soaked brain over whether to take the remark as an insult or not, the journalist plowed on, “So, you must be on a pretty important mission to be staying in nondescript New Magincia.”

Findar frowned for a moment, then nodded in affirmation. “Very perceptive. It is not every day a locale as backward as this…peasant village -” he almost spat contemptuously “-has the awesome privilege of a paladin’s honourable presence, especially me.” He fondled the hilt of his sword. “I am on a quest of the utmost importance. There is a certain mage, nay, sorcerer would be a better description of the foul villain that I seek, who is responsible for the most vile of crimes. The massacre of innocent families and travellers. He is particularly fond of dismembering mothers and their young children. Usually, any innocent woman will do.”

Jimmy’s eyebrows rose. Even though the man was drunk, at least in the partial sense, he could detect not a hint of hyperbole in the story. He should know; as a journalist, hyperbole was as natural to him as breathing. This was reminiscent of the Satanic rituals a few reclusive cliques of depraved psychopaths practiced back home, though they performed such macabre rites on goats and family pets rather than on women and children. Their activities were child’s play compared to this.

“Dismembered, you say? Ritualistic killings?” he asked the paladin, now thoroughly enthralled by the tale. His journalistic instincts churning, his notepad and pen materialised in his hands, and he began to scribble notes in his indecipherable shorthand as the paladin regaled him, if the tale could be said to be capable of such a cheerily connotative thing.

“Yes, dismembered. Ripped apart, their limbs strewn all over the place, to put it more colloquially.” Findar said, going as far as to sober slightly. “Tortured, their blood drained in copious amounts to be used for dark, daemonic arts. We had plenty of those mad, power-lusting wizards back in the cruel days of Mondain, so the legends say. It is customary for a paladin of Trinsic to take on a quest of great importance, and so this was the one I chose, tracking the madman from his refuge in the Deep Forest surrounding Yew, giving chase all the way to the Cape of Heroes and back up north again, west to Spiritwood and then to the far northeastern desert, across the seas from island to island, never pausing in my chase for fear his evil may spread to harm further innocence. I know not his name nor his description, save that he has a particular fondness for fire spells and summoning monsters such as headlesses and gazers to do his dirty work, but what mad sorcerer does not these days?” He smirked, about to say something particularly ribald, but quickly opted otherwise when Mistress Belina strode nearby, heading on an errand to give the seemingly complacent bard a drink. “But I have chased him for five years, and I will continue to chase him, to the end of the world if need be, even to Stonegate if that is what it takes, like I did the last time…”

Noting the considerable revulsion in the paladin’s tone when mentioning the place called Stonegate, Jimmy queried on this topic, Findar complied, almost patronising as he ostensibly humoured him, telling how Stonegate had first come about in the great mountains near the throat of Lost Hope Bay several centuries ago, serving as a fortress of the nefarious Shadowlords in the days of Blackthorn’s harsh reign. Over time, its structure gradually changed, and in the War of the False Prophet it became the home of a family of cyclops, the surrogate parents of an orphaned human child. In the many years since then, successive quakes shook the region, shattering the mountains and much of the notorious fortress itself, so that a festering marsh of fever and vile reptilian things was birthed around it, as if it were part of some dark fantasy spawned in the more pernicious recesses of some reclusively introverted author’s mind.

But this was a world of fantasy after all, and it was real fantasy at that.

Findar did not sound as if he were making this all up for Jimmy’s amusement. Past the layer of arrogance and condescension, there was an underlying sincerity, a solemnity that the most holy priest could not match. When the paladin spoke of his desire to hunt down the bloodthirsty wizard, Jimmy detected truthful devotion, a faint nobility that transcended the conceitedness but was hopelessly tainted with bitterness and implacable frustration.

He felt pity for the man. He honesty did. Here was a fellow who suffered the vices any man did in life, but who had been dealt the harsher hand. While not despondent per se, the paladin’s bitterness and deep-rooted hatred had clearly been shaped by the ordeals he had indubitably encountered.

Both Findar and Jimmy were startled out of their own private reverie by the sudden appearance of Sargan, who was mumbling something incessantly under his breath while placing a square plate of cooked rabbit on the table before Findar.

“Thou like rabbit, yes? Cooked coney? Thou like my cooked rabbit? Thou wants more, dost thou not?” the idiosyncratic servant said, clapping his hands together gleefully and cackling almost wickedlyd.

Casting a surreptitious glance at Jimmy, Sargan shuffled off, mumbling to himself about ‘stews’ and ‘rabbits’. Jimmy sighed and shook his head irritably. Perhaps Mister Argent had been too compassionate when deciding to let that one work at his establishment. He scrunched up his face at the vile invisible contrail of sulfur.

“Geez, don’t they have showers in Britannia?” he asked, ostentatiously holding his nose in revulsion.

Findar didn’t notice, instead pushing away the steaming platter as he grumbled, “Don’t want anymore rabbit. It tastes funny after a while.” Elbow on the table and holding his chin in hand, he glowered at nothing in particular.

“Then maybe I can try some…” Jimmy suggested tentatively, but the egocentric paladin would have none of it, slapping his hand away from the rabbit and snarling, “My rabbit! Mine! Go get thine own rabbit!”

Jimmy was taken aback for a moment, but then a smile played across his lips. “Maybe not.” he said, sniggering inwardly at some joke, “he probably cursed it anyway.”

Findar glared at him, suspecting the jest to be at his expense, but his roving gaze of fire turned to the stairs an instant later. His eyes widened and seemed to flare. All vestiges of inebriation fled before the rally of rage, and he stood rather abruptly, jerking the table so that the platter fell and the cooked coney splattered on the floor.

“Gargoyle!” he virtually spat, pointing a trembling finger over Jimmy’s shoulder.

Jimmy turned to glance at the stairs, and saw Kap-Lem at the base, staring apprehensively at the rambling paladin. Travis and Lindu were behind him, curiously watching the potential altercation.

“Yeah, it is. Dazzling deduction, Inspector Gadget.” Jimmy replied, bemused.

“Kap-Lem!” Findar rasped, voice turning sibilant.

Now that took Jimmy by surprise. “How did you -?”

“Thou villain! Thou wilt not escape my wrath this time!” Findar hissed, reaching for his hilt.

Kap-Lem tensed, shocked recognition on his face.

Travis and Lindu watched apathetically, neither bothering to draw weapons in defence of on of their own companions. Jimmy surmised that they still had not forgotten Kap-Lem’s ill treatment of their good comrade Graldesh. Whatever muted conversation there had been in the commons had now been rendered non-existent as the few patrons present anxiously awaited for the quarrel to abate.

“To see you still have no forgiven me, Sir Findar.” Kap-Lem said, demeanour wary.

“Forgive thee?” Findar exclaimed bitterly. “Ha! What dost thou take me for? A bloody monk from Empath Abbey? Nay, scum. The years have not made me forget the injustices thou didst commit. But now, with thee conveniently here, I will exact justice, as is my rightful jurisdiction as a paladin of Trinsic, City of Honour!”

Kap-Lem had his boomerang in hand, but Jimmy launched onto his feet, getting between the two antagonists.

“Hey! Now wait just a minute! Back off the plate, tin man!” he protested.

Findar glared venomously at him. “So! A sympathiser! Thou art a friend of this knave, now?” he demanded furiously.

“To be no friend of mine!” Kap-Lem said vehemently.

Jimmy gave him a pained look. “Now that stung, Kappy. It really did.” He meant it too.

For a brief second, shame flitted across the gargoyle’s chiselled visage, but it quickly departed when Findar drew his sword with a quick metallic rasp.

“I will slay thee all, if I must!” Findar roared, shoving Jimmy aside, but Travis’s blade knocked the angered paladin’s weapon out of his hand, then pushed him against the wall, pinning the struggling warrior there. Lindu appeared on the scene, ready to render aid if necessary.

“Release me, vagabond!” Findar demanded, piqued that he could be defeated by a man with no specific coat-of-arms.

“Only if thou dost cease and desist in thine hostilities, good sir.” Travis said, a touch wry as he held him there restrained.

“Bah! Fine then, gargoyle lovers! Have it thy way!” Findar ceased his struggle, and Travis released him, though he was cautiously slow as he did so. Findar smiled with insincere gratitude and picked up his sword, sheathing it ostentatiously so as not to alarm his opponents. “But be warned: just because I already hunt one does not mean I cannot hunt another. Justice will be served…with extreme prejudice.”

Jimmy sighed imperceptibly. Now that was an oxymoron if ever he’d heard one. That vestige of nobility was nowhere to be seen now; only hatred flared, the manifestation of the man’s greatest vice.

It was then that Mistress Belina stormed in, demanding what all the fuss was about. Travis took her aside in an attempt to ameliorate her indignation, while Lindu watched Findar askance. Findar took a seat, for the most part calm, though his eyes still burned hatred whenever he looked at Kap-Lem.

“Well,” he said, tone quite frosty, enough to make the perfect ice cream, “thou certainly hast not changed, Kap-Lem. Thou still dost look the bandersnatch rogue that thou art.”

Kap-Lem’s eyes narrowed. “To see that you have not changed much either since last we met, Sir Findar. To see you are still arrogant. To be disappointed.”

Findar laughed scornfully. “Disappointed? Thou dost not know what the word means, scum. Thou wert lucky that that old man was there to save thee.”

“To warn you not to disparage Hothame. To be a better man than thou wilt ever be.” Kap-Lem retorted menacingly.

Jimmy’s eyes widened in consternation. Could it be that Sir Findar was one of the paladins that had nearly killed Kap-Lem? Damn, but Britannia must’ve been a small world indeed.

“I think not.” Findar drawled patronisingly. “Though for him to have cured thee of that dreaded silver serpent venom addiction does admittedly vouch for his proficiency in the healing arts. He should be on the human side of the war.”

“Hello…the War of the False Prophet ended one-hundred-and-sixty-five years ago.” Lindu said, enunciating every word.

“Perhaps on the surface.” Findar condescended to concur. “But it is below the surface where the conflict continues.” He glared at Kap-Lem. “Oh, and if thou wert wondering about thou insignificant little band of dissenters, let me assure thee that we found out their lair shortly after thou wert captured. I had the pleasure of leading the attack. Thine cave was purged of Gargish scum and thy ill-gotten goods confiscated. None survived but thy leader, the large winged one, but he couldn’t have gotten far, I’m sure, since I made certain to caress him with my blade before he escaped.”

Jimmy thought he heard Kap-Lem whisper the name ‘Rukeb’.

Findar smiled provocatively at the introverted gargoyle. “It was this very blade, in fact, that drank the blood of thy compatriots. Thy…accomplices.” he said, probing Kap-Lem’s weaknesses, goading him to hostility.

“Kap-Lem, perhaps thou shouldst leave before any more trouble ensues.” Lindu suggested, watching them both as if they were rabid dogs.

Kap-Lem acquiesced with a nod. “To be a wise decision.” Without further ado, the wingless gargoyle left the establishment, brisk and disgruntled in his gait.

The door slammed shut, and Findar sniffed repugnantly.

To Lindu he said, “Thou dost look at me like I am scum, but I tell thee, lass, if thou had an inkling of knowledge of that one’s past, I wager my knighthood that thou wouldst feel the same way as I do.” He was very solemn now. “I rarely have love for brigands who waylay and murder innocent travellers and families who mind their own business.”

Lindu looked shocked, turning to Jimmy for credence. Jimmy nodded his head lightly, ruefully. Lindu gazed toward the path the gargoyle had taken, cogitating.

“All right, all right, all right now! What’s all this speak of commotion about?” cried the grizzled voice of Mister Argent, whose demands were complemented by the whinings of Sargan.

Jimmy rolled his eyes as Argent stepped into the commons from the bar, led by the hand b the fretful hunchback, who hopped about on his feet and pointed toward them frantically.

“Oh, it was horrible, master! Horrible! That one -” he pointed at the now indifferent Findar, who had become somewhat catatonic “-started it all! He spoke with the voice of Balinor himself, master, and lightning bolts came out of his eyes and singed the entire commons! Then that one -” Jimmy winced as the crazy old coot began pointing at him “-laughed with all the malevolence of Mondain himself, calling on darker powers to destroy us all! Oh, the horror!”

“What be goin’ on here? By the scourge of scurvy, I won’t have no daemonic voices on my establishment!” Argent demanded, the first time Jimmy had ever seen him incensed.

Travis approached, offering explanations and apologies even as Mistress Belina pursued him, as if yet still unsatisfied.

A younger serving maid by the name of Anita, a girl barely out of her teens, came over to clean up the mess with the rabbit on the floor, pouting as she did so. Not quite slim and yet not quite scrawny, just the nameless something in between, she was pretty in a fragile sort of way, stirring up feelings akin to a man’s innate protective instincts in regards to defending a woman from any harm. She knelt and picked up the platter, grabbing the rabbit off the floor, fretting as she did so.

“What is that ugly stain?” she asked no one in particular, referring to the odious black stain on the floor where the rabbit had been. Wiping her hand on her apron in disgust, she stood, keeping the platter at arms length as she headed for the kitchen.

Jimmy frowned, studying the stain. The ugly wet substance had permeated the floorboards and appeared to be festering. Any other word could not describe it as precisely so. What kind of cooked rabbit made stains like that? He was glad he hadn’t partaken of its surely foul meat. Turning to Findar, whom stared into his drained tankard, eyes vacant with deep thought, he wondered how the paladin could have possibly eaten that kind of slop. One thing was for certain, he would never even consider eating one of Sargan’s delicacies again. Britannia earnestly needed some health inspectors.

Prudently stepping away from both Findar and the ominous swarthy stain, Jimmy turned about himself slowly as he scoped out any tables that would provide him with at least reasonable remoteness from all the recent hubbub. The way the merchants affected - strained would have been a better word - not to look even in his direction was palpable. Scratching his bare head and slightly miffed by the tangible inattention, he was surprised to catch from the corner of his eye the bard now studying him quite overtly. The lithe man’s legs were no longer propped up on the table, probably as a precautionary prelude to fleeing should the fracas of only a few moments before go seriously awry. His remotely suspicious scrutiny was no doubt a legacy of the violence, but with the threat now mollified at least for the time being, the suspicion was fluidly turning to open curiosity. He gestured to Jimmy, beckoning him to approach.

Ostentatiously, glancing around to make sure the man was not referring to anybody else, Jimmy complied and sat at his table, looking at his host expectantly.

While carefree, the bard’s countenance was one that exuded a seasoned wisdom of the world that could only have been gained from extensive travel, his ice blue eyes mirthful but tempered with maturity suitable, perhaps even more so, for one of his age. His attire was certainly travel worn, but Jimmy definitely could not speak highly of his own choice of fashion. He hated being in vogue any place any time.

“Thou hast the look of a stranger about thee. A stranger to more than thou shouldst be.” said the bard, fondling the lute propped up by his side. “Certainly more than is proper.”

“By who standards? Yours?” Jimmy retorted, feigning contempt.

The bard smiled broadly. “Thou dost have an affinity for acidic repartee.”

“I like to polish it a lot.” Jimmy replied.

The bard gave an exaggerated wince. “Thy phonetic and linguistic areas could also stand some polishing. Thy dost not speak as any grassroots Britannia would. Thou art a foreigner, no doubt. From one of the other islands? There are rumours of the existence of other insular realms, far out to sea.”

“This ain’t no Spanish Inquisition.”

The bard’s eyes twinkled. “No, it certainly is not, at least not since Blackthorn was deposed, which was a long time ago, fortunately.” He frowned, his brow creased in muse. “Though I don’t know of these so-called ‘Spanish’. In fact, thou dost speak much like good Mister Argent. Art thou his compatriot? They say he hails from a distant realm in the remote vastness of the Void.”

“Sorry, but I don’t talk to strangers.” Jimmy said dryly.

“I go by Burem these days.”

“Fine then, Burem, if that is your real name. I’m Jimmy. Jimmy Malone, Ultimate Adventures Magazine reporter extraordinaire.”

Burem smiled amiably. “Well, then, Mr Malone, if that means thou art not operating incognito, we can talk now since we are no longer strangers.”

Jimmy dropped the Columbo façade. “My turn at interrogation.”

“Question away, Ye Seeker of Truth.”

Jimmy leaned forward. “Don’t bards usually sing to liven up a place?” he asked curiously.

“In case thou hast not noticed, this place does not look in the mood to be receptive to ‘livening up’, as thou dost say.” Burem said wryly, jutting his chin nigh imperceptibly toward the huddled merchants and the brooding paladin. “There are few here in this commons at least who are fond of the timeless ballads that praise the Avatar’s courage and battle prowess. In all my travels I have never seen a less reciprocal audience. Even Buccaneer’s Den was better than this - though the songs had to be slightly more colourful than my usual repertoire.” He chuckled, albeit a little sheepishly. “Aye, good old Buccaneer’s Den. Thou wilt never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. At least they are generous with the coin, though it can be a challenge to get out of the local alehouse without a black eye and minus thine purse.” He smiled in his reverie. “I think I might have to try my luck at the Modest Damsel instead. It’s a new inn, I hear, on the west side of the island. Quite a novelty to have a fresh construct in a place as stagnant as New Magincia. Methinks humility is not all it is cracked up to be.”

Jimmy shrugged. “A little pride can’t hurt.”

Burem arched an eyebrow dubiously. “Tell that to the poor residents of Old Magincia.” He sighed as he picked up his lute, tentatively plucking at random strings.

Jimmy grimaced. “Well, I can be your audience. I got nothing better to do. Surely you have some tall tales or songs to tell me about.” he said, expectant.

“Ah, one who enjoys the fine arts of revelry. Perhaps thou wouldst like to hear the story of one certain lion in a tale that is called…” Burem’s voice became deeper, “…‘Hubert’s Hair-raising Adventure.’ ”

“If that’s supposed to intimidate me, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Jimmy said, though Burem merely deflected the sarcasm with a conceited sniff.”

What followed was a less than enthralling story about a certain lion named Hubert who had a great mane that he happened to be very proud of. After traipsing about the deep jungle for an indeterminate amount of time, his mane caught fire, thereby causing a great tropical debacle in which the poor lion’s pride was quite veritably destroyed. Not exactly Jimmy’s kind of enrapturing fairytale. What he couldn’t fathom though was the Britannian populace’s seeming ambivalence toward a little show of pride. After all, Jimmy flaunted a little pride in his fantastic work here and there and people still liked him. Well, most people. Those who did not find him obnoxious or just plain old irritating.

Stifling a yawn, Jimmy cast a deprecating look at the bard, who shrugged noncommittally in response as he placed his lute on the table.

“Don’t you have anything exciting to regale me with? Even remotely exciting?” Jimmy asked hopefully.

Burem rubbed his chin in a pretence of consternation. “Hmmm…I usually elicit a more livid response from my audience than this.” He unhurriedly reached for his tankard of ale. “Well,” he said after a long pull from the tankard, “what dost thou like? I know a myriad of things. Lore gathering is my hobby.”

“Alright. There must surely be a history to New Magincia. I mean, since it’s got the prefix ‘new’ tagged to the front of it, I’m guessing it wouldn’t be an unreasonable supposition to assume that.” Jimmy suggested.

“Well, there was this one time, during the War of the False Prophet, when the Avatar -”

Jimmy’s discontented hiss truncated what the bard was about to say, the reporter shaking his head vehemently. “No! Nothing about the Avatar! I’ve heard enough about that so-called ‘champion’ to last me a score of life times. That charlatan isn’t what everybody thinks. I should know. I’ve fought by the side of your bona fide hero. There’s nothing that stunning about -”

Burem’s smirk caused Jimmy no small amount of chagrin, freezing the reporter’s tongue.

“Right, Master Malone. Thou art one of the esteemed Companions of the Avatar. Didst I also tell thee that I am really Lord Blackthorn?” His tone dripped with derision.

Jimmy scowled and spread his hands, palms up. “What is it with you people and Blackthorn. Leave Blackthorn alone. What’s he ever done to you?”

Burem snorted. “Thou dost need quite the history lesson indeed.”

“Anything, so long as it does not include the word ‘Avatar’.” Jimmy said, miffed.

“Fine.” Burem said, steepling his fingers as he whistled a reminiscent tune to himself. “How about the tale of the inception of the Scuttled Schooner legend?”

Jimmy’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Hey, waaait a second. I thought you were an itinerant bard! How in the name of Elizabeth Cochrane do you know about the history of New Magincia if you’re supposedly nomadic?”

Burem affected a look of complete innocence. “Being a bard means that I am quite the listener, if thou knowest what I mean. I, well…listen. Put thine ear to the right wall and thou canst hear whispers of all sorts.”

“When I start hearing walls talking I’ll sign my self-commission form,” Jimmy said cynically, then started when a memory spontaneously came to mind. “Though there was this one time when I talked to a carved stone head who had an unusual affinity for frogs…”

“Thy fibs notwithstanding, the tale will go on.” Burem said, frowning in deprecation before converting his voice to the tone suitable for storytelling. “Nigh fifteen years ago, some even say twenty, a great storm struck New Magincia, buffeting both coasts and hinterlands alike, sweeping aside houses like the scythe sweeps through the crops, that the poor Magincians had thought it was the Daemon Horde returned to revenge the resurrection of the diminutive town. Never was such a perniciously callous storm recorded - save for tempests of magic, but those are horrors I will not defer to describe this day - in many, many years. Later it turned out to be the word of Hurricane Amys, a most fickle lass of the sea indeed. When the storm cleared that morning, the shy people of the battered Town of Humility emerged from their havens to be confronted by a very unorthodox sight indeed: a frigate, or pieces of it anyway, beached up on their shores. There were only four survivors, one of them being Mister Argent. He was a crusty old sea salt, even then, a peg for one leg and a tongue of wisdom to rival the Codex itself. The marooned sailors said they were sailors come from Moonglow with a shipment of reagents, and the people of New Magincia, being as timid and unlearned in the ways of the wider world, did not feel the need to question. When offered the opportunity to return to the mainland, the sailors declined. They had intended to come to New Magincia to learn of Humility, they said, and so they settled, quite nicely I might add, but what could one expect from gentlemen as polite as them. Mister Argent even went so far as to build an inn out of the wreckage of his ship. Thus was born the Scuttled Schooner.” A short hiatus ensued as Burem depleted his tankard before resuming. “Why, kind old Mister Argent even took on a protégé, young Roberto - who is not young now, mind thee - and taught him the tricks of the shipbuilding trade. Thanks to Mister Argent, Roberto is now a fulfilled man of his trade, and has a son A shame what happened to his wife, though.” Burem sighed. “Mister Argent has done much for this town. More than the both of us will ever know.”

“What about the other survivors?” Jimmy asked, his intuitive instincts wailing like sirens.

Burem shrugged lightly. “Their fate was ambiguous. Some say they grew tired with humility and chose to depart the island. Others say they passed away. Still, there are those few that suspect foul play.” Burem’s derisive snort indicated to Jimmy what his opinion of the last theory was.

“Is murder really that far-fetched?” Jimmy said, dubious of the validity of the bard’s surety.

“Murder? Here in New Magincia?” Burem laughed at that. “I’d soon as believe all that nonsense I’ve been hearing lately about a coruscating bronze dragon living on the island. It’s just a pile of midden. Gossip spread by that curmudgeon of a proprietor, Philanser, the one who runs the Modest Damsel. He’s just jealous of Mister Argent’s hard-earned success, that is all. The fact that he believes in that dragon rubbish only works further to undermine his credibility, not that he had any to begin with. I pity his young son, Boris. The lad’s only four, but I can already see he’s picking up his old man’s bad habits. A shame really.”

“Yeah. Suppose it is.” Jimmy said dismally. Deep down, however, his journalistic instincts were jumping just like the time he had first met the Avatar. So there were rumours that questioned Mister Argent’s nobility of heart, were there? Very interesting. Mister Argent certainly did not look the shady type. He looked quite amiable, actually, while not amenable - vital qualities if he were to run a financially solvent business, but then again…there was the old twist, a cliché one indeed by this point in literature: it was always the one you least expected. The veneer of cordiality was a most dangerous weapon indeed in the hands of a master of duplicity.

The old man stood before the bar even as Jimmy cogitated, a worried frown creasing his brow as he scrutinised the despondently catatonic Sir Findar from afar. Clearly the would-be brawl was still fresh in the fellow’s mind. Jimmy doubted that the seemingly peaceable old timer found such violence in his establishment to be a very endearing thing at all.

Obsidian the parrot fidgeted about on his left shoulder, as was to be expected, squawking sporadically as both Mistress Belina and young Anita scurried across the commons. That indistinct blur of a memory tugged at his mind whenever he looked at the bird.

“Sum of Three, Crimson They Be!” the parrot squawked. “Takes Sight to See, Plenty of Treasure for Me! SQUAWK!”

There was something catchy about the line Obsidian had just mentioned. Upon asking Burem about the ‘Sum of Three, Crimson They Be’ babble, the bard looked at him askance, exhaling a slow breath of air that came off sounding more like an exasperated rasp than anything else.

“Another old wives’ tale, Master Malone. But, as is thy overly inquisitive nature, thou dost pay mind to inconsequential subjects.” Burem said dryly.

“They call my kind journalists.” said Jimmy, flashing his best grin. “We live to pry into so-called ‘inconsequential subjects’. Strangely enough, it’s the ‘inconsequential subjects’ that prove to be the most consequential given enough diligent delving between the lines.”

Burem sniffed with vague incredulity. “The ‘Sum of Three, Crimson They Be’ legend is a fanciful one at best, concocted by ne’er-do-wells and insecure attention-seekers, no doubt, or just plain paranoid sods. The legend makes the outlandish assumption that Mister Argent and the few survivors were pirates.” He snorted repugnantly. “Well, if they were really pirates, why didn’t their treasure wash up with the bodies and debris, I ask?”

“Maybe their hold was empty. The current may have even taken it away.” Jimmy suggested.

Burem conceded with a nod, though only in stubborn acquiescence. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

“In any case, proceed with the tale, if you will.” Jimmy gestured with a keen hand.

“The legend says Mister Argent hid the treasure in a secret chamber in his basement and killed his surviving comrades so as to prevent them from pilfering it. The chamber can only be accessed by finding three rubies that are especially hidden throughout the inn, then going below to the mosaic room and planting them in the gazer eyes. Some such drivel like that. I wouldn’t put stock in it if I were thee.”

“Mosaic room?” Jimmy queried, bewildered.

“ ‘Tis a room beyond Mister Argent’s basement. I’ve been down there myself, from the kitchen. Very elaborate gazer carvings, I must say. I suspect it was the same artist who made that beautiful fireplace.” He gestured with a thrust of his chin to the ornately done fireplace, the fire crackling in the hearth and embers glowing red with heat.

“Hmmm…” Jimmy mused, now quite intrigued. “This calls for a little journalistic investigation.

Burem merely frowned at him, eyes no longer twinkling.

There was a congregation on the quarterdeck, a throng of unwashed and unkempt dishonest gentlemen of fortune whom made the air buzz with tension. The tension of discontentment. Worse than that…it was the tension of imminent mutiny. The crew of the Sea Critter, upon barely surviving the monstrous uber-tempest that had almost wracked their vessel to pieces, had finally had their reserves of patience dried up.

They were angry with their captain, the irascible sea tyrant Silverbeard, and while anyone of them was too cowardly to face their superior personally, as a collective whole they stood a chance of success in their mission. They just kept a prudent distance from the irate captain should he explode as was his habitual inclination.

The pirates had had a gut full of all this covert and clandestine sneaking about across the seas, the pursuit of the amulet thief having been so single-minded and priority-oriented that there had been no time whatsoever to plunder other ships and accrue more loot. A pirate’s avarice was never satisfied, so the old saying went.

Blackeye really could not blame the band of contemptible scalliwags. Being of malevolent nature, he could understand their perpetual need for destruction and plunder, even sympathise with the puny mortals…to a certain extent. The storm had been the catalyst for impending mutiny that had been broiling for quite some time, and now it looked as if it were about to reach its climax. The tempest had done its terrible work, ripping off crossarms, fouling the rigging, tearing gouts in the deck, and so forth. There had been no serious hull breaches, miraculously. The Sea Critter had the Lord of Flame’s own luck, it seemed.

When Blackeye had told the Captain what had transpired in his cabin, the fabrication of the lightning strike at the very least, shortly before this bellicose gathering, Silverbeard had done his usual bellowing and threatened to cut him up into little cubes so as to feed the ravenous sharks. All it took to placate him - which was an ambiguous word in this specific sense - was a gentle reminder of the First Mate’s worth, and a little ‘slip of the tongue’, so to speak, in regards to the ‘disappearance’ of Leron. Silverbeard had not liked that piece of news one bit, but he had wisely kept his mouth shut. In truth, Leron had not disappeared, but was presently working under stealth in the search for the orb that Blackeye so desperately needed. He had sworn allegiance to Blackeye, but the wily old daemon-in-disguise was not naïve - you could not extricate loyalty from treacherous men of his ilk. Only the fear of the daemon hunting him down with relentless animosity dissuaded him from attempting escape.

“Capt’n! We’re givin’ thee the black spot!” a lanky fellow named Solmon, who looked the kind that preferred treacherous knifing in the back than an honourable fight up close and personal, called out, jerkily stepping a foot ahead of the piratical group. He looked tough, but Blackeye knew very well that inside he trembled like jelly.

Silverbeard scowled lethally, the ferocity of his glare enough to cause Solmon to retreat back into the front lines of his assembled crowd a tad too tastily for dignity’s worth. Of course, as Captain, he fully understood what being given the ‘black spot’ entailed. A small piece of paper coloured black, the black spot was a summons given to those pirates in command when the crew had an earnest bone to pick. It was a piratical moot of sorts, where debates - usually quite one-sided - which dictated the future course of leadership were established.

There was some minor controversy in the midst of the dishonest throng and much jostling, before a lad with barely a whisker on his still smooth face was pushed forward, a diminutive piece of paper clutched in his trembling fingers. The poor boy stepped toward Silverbeard nervously, while the captain’s scowl deepened with each inch gained by the unwilling courier.

“Hand it over, lubber!” he roared, and the lad jumped from consternation, losing the spot and running back to the group.

Silverbeard lunged forward and snatched the paper before it could touch the deck, grumbling morosely as he unfolded it and read the poorly scrawled note on the back. Eyes narrowing with each minute word, he crushed the diminutive paper with a powerful clench of his fist, glaring fire at his amassed underlings.

“You dare to depose me?!” Silverbeard snarled abhorrently, whipping out his cutlass.

One or two of the boys drew their own weapons, though they were safe at the back and out of sight. Their abundant accomplices fondled their own pommels, uncertain of what to do. Blackeye smirked, safe in concealment bheind a toppled crate next to the main mast. This would be interesting.

By this point in time, Solmon had garnered enough courage to speak up once again. “Now, now, Silverbeard. This crew’s tipped thee the black spot. Thou wouldst be wise to heed what it says.” he said snidely. His words were sympathised with by supporting cries of ‘Aye!’ and ‘Har!’.

“That’s Captain to you, cur!” Silverbeard snapped.

Solmon, however, would not be swayed. With the agreement of his mates gaining momentum in ever increasing increments, he continued to denounce the old sea tyrant. “Nay, matey, I won’t settle down for nobody! This crew has rights, like other crews! We claims our rights, aye, claims ‘em hard, to be sure! We’ve had enough o’ this rotten ‘assignment’, as thou dost bloody call it, and we want out!” said Solmon, staring Silverbeard in the eye. He actually succeeded in doing so - for about four seconds.

Silverbeard seemed to pout. Blackeye recognised this as the characteristic prelude to an unpleasant outburst, or rather, volatile paroxysm. “Rights? RIGHTS?!” the truculent captain bellowed, the intensity of his anger and seething scorn palpable enough to cause Solmon to wince. “What know ye of rights, Solmon, ye stupid cur? Lemme tell ye somethin’ of rights…yer mother had no right to bring ye inot this world, that’s one. That is if ye even had a mother!” He laughed derisively at that, though Solmon scowled. “As for seconds, the only thing that dictates rights aboard this here hulk be me notched cutlass!” He hefted it for emphasis. “Or it will soon drink your foul blood!”

“Then that means thy right of Capt’n will be stripped away from thee.” Morgan said, appearing beside Solmon.

“Oh, really? I didn’t know thou didst have the intelligence to construct such an eloquent sentence. Too bad it ain’t eloquent!” Silverbeard snorted and spat. “Hey, wait a minute, if you’re here, Morgan, then who’s piloting the ship?” he asked, suddenly curious. He looked over his shoulder and to his great irritation found nobody to be at the wheel.

“Uh, sorry ‘bout that, Capt’n…” Morgan said sheepishly, detaching from the motley throng and slipping by Silverbeard to get to the helm again.

“No red herrings, Capt’n.” Solmon said, shaking his head vehemently. “Stick to the plot, or we’ll stick thine head on a pike.”

“Ha! You wouldn’t have the pair to do so!” Silverbeard laughed. “In fact, I don’t think ye had the pair to even call this would-be mutiny.” His eyes narrowed dangerously as they swept the crowd. “Blackeye, ye treacherous dog, where are ye? Yer behind this, aren’t ye? Yer shark bait, ye hear?”

“Captain,” Blackeye called, stepping out into the open. Silverbeard and the pirates turned their heads in his direction. He was a prudent distance from all of them. “You were shouting about something…?” He feigned ignorance of the situation.

Silverbeeard wasn’t fooled by the chicanery for an instant. “You are the leader of this plot to take over my rightful captaincy, aren’t ye?” Blackeye opened his mouth, but Silverbeard apparently thought himself to be clairvoyant and so plowed on regardless, “Aha! Admission! As I thought! Treachery in me own command circle! I’ll not tolerate you any longer, scum! Blackeye, prepare to taste death, at its highest intensity!”

“Captain, I am merely a middleman in this event. I am a neutral party.” said Blackeye, deceptively meek.

“Oh, how convenient!” Silverbeard spat disparagingly. “Neutral meaning that once we’re done tearin’ each other apart, ye’ll pick up the pieces, won’t ye? Ye scurvy-ridden scavenger!”

“The First Mate will go down with thee, I’m afraid.” Solmon said icily. “We’ve had our fill of cannibalism for one voyage.”

Blackeye feigned being taken aback.

Silverbeard glanced at him shrewdly, then returned his awl-like gaze to Solmon and his mutineers. “We shall see.” he rasped. “Rael! Rael Paws! Get out here and dispense with these turncoat lubbers!” he called.

No one came. Blackeye was aware that due to his exceeding stupidity, Paws had the loyalty of a hound to Silverbeard, though of times it seemed more the dubious loyalty of a rabid one.

Solmon laughed mockingly. “Oh, I would not count on poor Rael’s help this time, old man. We took good care of him.” He chuckled self-assuredly.

“So, a dagger in the back was it, Solmon, ye lilly-livered yellow dog?” Silverbeard demanded.

Solmon looked shocked. “I ain’t that daft as to take on Rael Paws, even from behind, and I wouldn’t dare even if I had a cannon beaded on him, loaded and primed! No, sirree, me and Old Slimey Will did somethin’ a little mores subtle. Told ‘im there was a pie in the hold, then locked him in. The blockhead’s too stupid to even realise why he still can’t open the door.

Silverbeard slapped his forehead ostentatiously. “By the powers, Solmon, ye do have smarts after all! And they say there are no more miracles!” He scowled hatefully. “But it shall avail ye not, no! To the death, knaves!”

“So be it then.” Solmon said. At his gesture, the men drew weapons, cutlasses, daggers, and cudgels.

Blackeye knew he had to intervene before blood was spilled. If Silverbeard died, and knowing the obstinacy of the fool he would probably fain dying than lose his captaincy living, the bound daemon would never get what he needed even with Leron’s help.

“Wait!” Blackeye shouted. Surprisingly, all ceased in mid-draw, looking to the First Mate expectantly. Silverbeard, too, sword raised overhead and mouth a snarling rictus. “Do you all not wonder why Silverbeard has dragged your carcasses along for so much time all the while prohibiting the taking of all the other ships we passed? Do you not wonder whether perhaps there was an ulterior motive of benefit for all of us as a collective whole?”

Some of the men lowered their weapons, mumbling amongst themselves. Silverbeard regarded him in a calculating fashion.

“Somethin’ about an amulet…” Solmon said, suspicion and interest - strange bedfellows indeed - piqued. “But why bother finding it? It’s little more than a worthless trinket! We won’t get rich off it.” He snorted. “Let the thief keep it. Maybe it’ll feed his family.” His comrades laughed.

“Ostensibly, it is worhtless. But mayhaps we should consider the more intrinsic value of the trinket.” Blackeye said. “Silverbeard has a purpose no doubt.” He looked at the besieged captain pointedly.

Silverbeard got the point and nodded imperceptibly. He had no choice but to acquiesce and yield his secret plan, or he would have not even the most slim chance of seeing the next dawn, let alone keeping his captaincy.

So, he told the disgruntled pirates of his plan with the amulet, and their mouths watered.

Jimmy sat at the table, sipping lightly from his glass of icewater as he listened to the banter between the recently returned Dupre and Sentri. They had apparently made a contract with the local shipwright, who was even now sending over his workmen to begin repairs on the battered Virtuosity.

After downing his second tankard of ale, Argent’s ‘finest brew’ as the old timer had put it, Sentri grinned at Dupre, the other warrior scowling as he assiduously studied his empty mug.

“Well, it looks as if thou didst lose that wager in regards to good ale in New Magincia.” Sentri said. “I’d even go so far as to say it tops any of the brews I have ever sampled at the Blue Boar.”

Dupre shrugged. “It lacks the regal subtlety one would find at the Boar, though that might just be because it’s Britain. It tastes…humble, but surprisingly good.” He smiled at his comrade in sheer anticipation. “I concede defeat. Thou canst have my command.”

“Thank thee. I respectfully decline.”


Jimmy watched from the corner of his eye as Sargan made the rounds, delivering trays of steaming cooked meals and froth-topped drinks to the various patrons. There were slightly more customers now that it was nearing dusk, seven of the clock according to the archaic grandfather clock that stood in a remote corner of the commons. Jimmy made especially certain that whatever he ordered did not come from the old lunatic. That black stain as sure as hellfire had made up his mind in regards to trying Sargan’s delicacies. Over the past few uneventful hours, Jimmy had caught him on more than one occasion looking oddly in his direction, at which point the old freak simply licked his lips in apprehension and moved on about his tasks.

“Something wrong, Jimmy?” Sentri queried out of curiosity.

“That Sargan fellow gives me the creeps.” Jimmy replied, looking balefully at the twisted man’s now retreating back. “Keeps on looking at me weirdly.”

“Hmm…” Sentri rubbed his chin in light cogitation.” He does strike me as rather…unorthodox in his behaviour. Almost reminds me of that raving lunatic Sutek.”

“Mayhaps he just finds thee comely.” Dupre suggested playfully.

Jimmy snorted repugnantly. “I’m not that kind of guy, if that is his interest.” Eager for a drastic shift away from the uncomfortable topic, he said, “I think it’s time we found out what the amulet is all about.”

“Ah, yes, the riddle.” said Sentri.

“Tomorrow morning we should do it.” Jimmy suggested.

Dupre nodded in the affirmative. “At six in the morning would be best, when the sun crests over the horizon. It will be quite a sight.”

“Aye. The sea makes for wonderful scintillation and resplendence.” Sentri said.

“I’m not here for picturesque qualities.” Jimmy replied, a little too gruffly. “Besides, those shimmering red morning waters could turn real red with my lifeblood once my good friend Silverbeard gets here.”

“Fear not, my friend. We shall protect thee form that dastardly villain.” said Sentri in his determined, tenacious mode of speech, visage grim in its obstinacy.

“Snazzy. I feel safe already.” Jimmy replied, treading the fine line between light irony and wry sarcasm. “Hey, has Kap-Lem come back yet?”

Lindu, who sat at the adjacent table, lifted her head from a game of dice with Travis and Alcor, glancing at Jimmy. “Though I don’t care much for that nimbus, I have not seen him since he left after that altercation with the lout of a paladin over there.” she said.

That ‘lout’ was still draining Mister Argent’s beverage stocks dry, introverted and in his own little world.

“Damn, why now? I haven’t time to deal with gargoyles in a black mood now of all times. I dealt with my fair share - as like as not far more - back in the days of the War of the False Prophet!” Dupre groaned irritably.

“Relax, old man. He probably needs time to cool down. He has not been in the best temper of late. He is a big gargoyle…I am certain he can look after himself.” Sentri said.

Dupre rose, dry-washing his hands on his dull armour, the attire having lost its shine after going days without polishing. “In any case, I must go and check on the repairs on the ship. I’m sure Regara will have something to complain about.” The fighter left, grumbling under his breath about ‘bloody responsibility’ and shaving Lord British’s beard in his sleep or some such.

“And I had best to a little scouting of my own around New Magincia, lest any pirates have sneaked in. Silverbeard’s a wily one, from what I’ve seen, but it’s a small town, and new people become noticed in a fairly short time. Farewell.” Sentri said, rising and following Dupre.

“See you around.” Jimmy reciprocated absently, toying with his empty glass. It sparkled faintly in the candlelight.

The fireplace was lit, the flames crackling almost complacently as they chased away the cold of encroaching Magincian night, soothing and bringing a much welcome tranquility underscored by the muted murmur of other patrons. Jimmy found it slightly disturbing that his environment did a good job of making him forget his problems. Of all things, he must not forget his problems. He could not become complacent like the flames. Otherwise, he’d be taken by surprise by Silverbeard or Reizer, or worse, have one of Sargan’s cooked ‘rabbits’ shoved down his throat.

Sir Delfin emerged from the annex room in a huff. Noticing Jimmy all alone, the old veteran made a beeline for his table. Jimmy groaned imperceptibly as the knight took a seat and began to talk incessantly as he always did.

“The impudence of that whelp! Canst thou imagine?” Delfin remonstrated gruffly, looking balefully toward the entrance of the annex room. “Standing there like a chaperon - a preened cock more like it - thinking that he can accost people for whatever damnable reason.”

Jimmy got the drift of what the old timer was saying. Sir Pasar, pompous oaf as always, was standing at the entrance of the inn, playing his little game of ‘bouncer’. The fact that he was insufferably obnoxious would only bring detriment good Mister Argent’s business. Very few would come when faced with the steel-cased knight’s uncomfortably penetrating questions.

“Thou hast never heard the Shade Capt’n Versus The Red Dragon tale, have thee?” Delfin asked spontaneously, gazing at Jimmy intently now.

Jimmy shook his head.

“Ah, but a riveting tale it was, lad!” Delfin said self-assuredly, beaming. It was a stark contrast to his glowering countenance not so long ago. “I was there too, mind thee.”

Jimmy sighed softly. “Yes, Delfin. I’m sure you were.”

“It was my second encounter with the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet, nigh over twenty years past, whilst serving with the Home Guard Fleet. There we were, just west of the shores so perilously close to the mountains whose pinnacles housed eyries of dragons and drakes and were also the location of the dreaded Dungeon Destard, when who should we come across but none other than the Shade Capt’n and his flotilla itself! Now the Shade Capt’n’s ship was not a hard one to notice, for it was well-known and well-feared throughout all the seas of Britannia by this point in time. Red Roger fluttering in the wind, the eyes of its daemon’s head prow quite literally flaming with malevolence, they called her the Sanguine Serpent, and a mean lass she was.” He frowned. “Nay, she could not be called mean. She was downright bitchy. Lad, thou art listening?”

Jimmy started out of introversion induced by bored apathy, giving a mock salute and blurting, “Flaming eyes. Gotcha.”

“Well, as I was saying,” Delfin continued, “there we were, and here comes this pirate flotilla from the east, Shade Capt’n leading them on as if the Draconian Hordes were nipping at their sterns! And indeed they were, in a sense, as thou wilt find out soon enough. Our Captain, a seasoned dog called Jeroshar, ordered his Home Guard into attack formation. My comrades and I were prepared to board the pirate flagship and take her down once and for all, but then did a most fantastical thing strike! For it seemed that the Shade Capt’n had seized something quite valuable from the deadly draconian treasuries, as a great red dragon was pursuing them, incensed being an understatement, flames spewing out of its nostrils. It swooped toward the Sanguine Serpent, intent on macabre transgressions indeed, but the Shade Capt’n himself, black hood and all, rose up to challenge the beast in what would have to be one of the most spectacular battles of the arcane arts in recent Britannian history. Rumour purported that the profligate Shade Capt’n had in his indomitable possession a spellbook of great power, one that did not require reagents or mana, but instead drew from the omnipresent ether itself.” Sir Delfin appeared to be getting excited, as he now began gesticulating with his hands, trying to give a visualisation to the far-fetched tale. Far-fetched was an understatement, as Jimmy saw it, and so he maintained a healthy level of scepticism. “And when I say he rose up, he literally rose up, levitating into the air and combating the winged beast. Flames scorched the air and lightning bolts rained down, wreaking havoc on both flotillas, Ships simply exploded or were incinerated down to the waterline with all hands aboard, and those that survived scattered in fear. Even when Captain Jeroshar ordered his crew to beat a hasty retreat, my own eyes were glued to the duel of the powers, as fearsome as it was. Never a potent clash wouldst thou have seen, my boy. The sky sizzled with pernicious magicks. The waters boiled in anger and scores upon scores of dead fish floated lifelessly to the surface. From that day onward, I knew that the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet’s reputation of notoriety had been well-earned.”

“Who won?” Jimmy asked.

“The Shade Capt’n, I’m afraid. Though I have little fondness for dragonkind, in that pitched battle I had been fearfully hoping that the Red Dragon would be the victor. Alas, that was not to be. The Red Dragon’s magic was strong, but the Shade Captain’s spellbook proved to be the stronger, smiting the reptilian beast with a seething bolt of lethal energy and causing it to plunge into the sea.”

“Wow.” Jimmy said, not too enthusiastic.

“But, in case thou wert thinking, that was not the end of the dragon. Oh, no, it certainly was not.” Delfin added with a sagely raised finger. “For only moments later, it burst from the water with a mighty roar, flying toward the horizon injured and beaten, but alive.” He finished up with an affirmative nod, looking at his one-person audience expectantly.

“Riiight…” Jimmy replied, somewhat nonplussed. “Okay. That was a pretty riveting tale. A little overblown, if you don’t mind my saying.”

“Overblown?!” Delfin huffed indignantly. “I’ve give thee overblown!” He shook a steel gauntleted fist at the young journalist’s nose. “What know thee of a truthful tale, outlander? From what I here, thou dost come from a world with great cities that span leagues and are comprised of buildings that scrape the sky! Ha! What rubbish!”

“Uh, yeah. They’re called skyscrapers.” Jimmy said slowly. “Ask your Avatar about them the next time everybody’s favourite hero deigns to pay Britannia a visit.”

“Impudent, blasphemous whelp…Thou had best put some deference in thy tone when thou dost speak of the Avatar, our six-time saviour and…”

“Nup, nup, nup.” Jimmy interrupted, shaking his head with vehemence. “The tales you hear are just the flowery versions of adventures that aren’t all that crash hot. I should know. I’ve been on one such adventure in the past. Granted, it was dangerous. Stupendous even. But it’s not as stupendous as everybody here makes it out to be. Get over it.”

Delfin looked at him incredulously. “Oh, and I suppose thou hast served with the Avatar now, hast thou?” He laughed derisively. “James Malone, one of the esteemed Companions of the Avatar. Grow up.”

“That’s Jimmy Malone, old timer.” Jimmy said, a hint of menace in his tone. “And I’m one of the unwritten Companions of the Avatar.”

“Yeees. I’m sure thou art.” Delfin said, his tone suggesting the exact opposite. He stood from his chair. “Perhaps when thou art less inclined to embellish thine tales we will talk some more. Until then, fare thee well.”

“Like you can talk.” Jimmy grumbled as the grizzled veteran walked away.

The young reporter glumly looked around, finding the commons to be an increasingly uneventful place. It was not the locale for an aspiring journalist to sniff out a story. Travis, Lindu and Alcor still played dice, though the taciturn and stout Alcor watched all happenings from the corner of his eye. He was a vigilant one, that fighter. Argent stood to one side of the room, directing a youthful but petulant Anita about the proper protocols of being obsequious. The merchants minded their own business as was to be expected, sticking doggedly to their little cliques and casting menacing glares at anyone who approached. They even had the audacity to stare down Mistress Belina - for a few seconds at least - but she had them straightened out swiftly enough. They did not look at her with acid at all from that point on, though one or two stared daggers at her broad back when she was not looking.

Jimmy’s jaws cracked as he failed to stifle the inexorable yawn. Fatigue was encroaching, borne by the winds of boredom, to speak metaphorically. Jimmy hoped he was not becoming lethargic; even an hour of inaction was like an hour of arithmetic, guaranteed to instill apathy. But then again, perhaps it was all the excitement of the recent days. It was certainly not a common occurrence to be whisked off to a world Mother MacRae knew how many parsecs away from downtown Earth. Perhaps it was time to drop the vigilance, at least for a brief duration. Surely Reizer or Silverbeard would not pounce during a fifteen minute power nap? Jimmy fervently hoped not.

He rose from his chair, catching the eyes of his ‘guardians’, who froze in their monotonous game of dice. They certainly did not seem to be finding it monotonous.

“Going somewhere, are we?” Lindu queried, masking her concern with a veneer of curiosity tinged with banter.

“Just for some shut-eye. I’m getting old, you know.” Jimmy grumbled, heading for the stairs.

“Do not forget thine rattan walking stick, old man.” she added smugly as he left, eliciting a chuckle from Travis.

Jimmy didn’t even bother to retort with some fine repartee; his eyelids seemed as heavy as lead. His jaw cracked from yet another monstrous yawn as he mounted the stairs. He hoped that senescent maniac Sargan had not spiked his drink with anything, unless it was a machination of Anita’s designed to get back at him for those two or so times she had caught him scrutinising her pretty posterior. Well, he had been trying to be surreptitious, but with a woman’s natural wider peripheral vision and observation that was keener than an eagle’s, his efforts at discreet ogling appraisal had been rendered somewhat futile.

Reaching his door, he fumbled for his key in his pocket, a small sanguine utensil that served its purpose by gaining him access to his room, and stumbled in, closing the humble portal behind him.

Yawning one last time, eyes closing on their own volition, he lunged for his bed, heedless of his ambient surroundings, falling upon the blankets and thus into darkness.

When he awoke, it was as if he had been roused from a bad dream of the ilk that while forgotten upon waking, still persisted in abandoning some unpleasant legacy in one’s mind. His eyes felt as if they were filled with grit, but he got out of the bed, feeling that sleep had paid its visit for now and was gone for the time being.

The candle on his nightstand was lit, casting faint ever-shifting shadows across the walls and floor of his small, mediocre lodgings. A light rain pattered on the windows, a soothing rhythm that made him almost desire to rest his head on the soft pillow again. Instead, Jimmy violently shook his head, chasing away the remaining vestiges of sleep and restoring alertness to his senses once again.

Kneeling to open the backpack by his bed, he drew his wide-brim hat from its long hiatus, noting with wry amusement its bedraggled state. Scouring bottom of his pack with one hand, he found what he wanted. The crinkled card that inevitably read ‘Press’. Tacking it gently into the hatband, he donned the hat. Jimmy Malone, Ultimate Adventures Magazine reporter extraordinaire, was back in business and ready to do some serious investigating. Dirt-digging and legend-chasing more like it, but Jimmy had to admit, Burem’s tale had piqued his inquisitive curiosity. He would be the one to solve the ‘Sum of Three, Crimson They Be’ legend.

Now, Jimmy had no reason to suspect Mister Argent of anything depraved or illicit; he was just the curious sort. Besides, he believed there was more to Argent’s so-called sailing history than met the eye. Maybe he had brought treasure from his days as a sailor of the tempestuous seas, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was a pirate. He hoped. Argent was too gentlemanly for that sort of decadence.

Checking that the amulet and scarred moonstone were still on his person, Jimmy exited his room, locking the door.

The corridor was shadowy. A few candles in simple sconces were lit, but not enough for ideal luminescence. The rain still pattered outside, gaining in tempo. The nimbus above New Magincia was getting heavier, it seemed.

Quietly creeping down the stairs, thankful the old wooden boards did not creak, Jimmy tuned into the commons. But for a few candles, the place was dimly lit. Empty too, excluding Sir Findar, whose head lay on his table snoring, a spilled tankard of ale by his cheek. The black stain still marred the floor ominously adjacent to his table. It looked as if Anita had not been able to scrub that out.

Jimmy winced. He would never eat rabbit again.

Besides the rain outside and the rouge paladin’s snoring, the only other sounds were the rhythmic flames of the fireplace and the tick-tock tick-tock of the grandfather clock. Jimmy could just barely make out the time: an hour and a half past midnight.

Dupre would have posted guards along the perimeter of the inn’s premises, most probably Alcor, Lindu, Travis, or even that would-be arrogant know-it-all Pasar.

So, Jimmy wondered where he should begin. Three rubies hidden throughout the inn. How hard could it be? He stealthily prowled about the commons, keeping his eyes open. He scrutinised the fireplace; the coals glowed bright red, the tongs placed next to the hearth in plain view. Nothing on the lintel. Jimmy castigated himself; if Mister Argent was really as wily as he seemed, he would not have left something as precious and conspicuous as a ruby lying around in open sight!

Jimmy’s eyes drifted to the display case; nothing there either, it seemed. The replica talismans lay silent. After ten minutes or so of fruitless silent scouring, he resorted to the unsavoury task of looking in the spittoons. Keeping a hold of his cookies, Jimmy stifled a particularly lurid curse and stood again.

He turned, heading for the small annex room. A flush of lightning and a subsequent peal of deafening thunder, like a few hundred thousand crashing supermarket trolleys, made his heart leap. It was then that he found illumination, in an equivocal sort of way.

The portrait of the lone hero standing against the three dark figures captivated him once again. The crimson eyes really did seem to glint and radiate odium. In fact, there was a subtle, but intriguing, idiosyncrasy with the forefront cloaked one. The left eye, from Jimmy’s vantage point, seemed to sparkle. Nothing this minor scintillation, Jimmy approached the painting, gingerly running a finger down its smooth surface. He smiled when he found the eye to be unlevel, unlike the rest of the painting. It was something foreign, that which did not belong. A subtle incongruity that only a trained or lucky eye could notice. His had been the lucky one.

Carefully digging out the small object, he found in his palm a coruscating ruby the size of the nail of his little finger.

Fascinating, as Spock would say.

Pocketing the ruby, Jimmy felt invigorated with his amazing find, driven to locate the other brace of purported rubies. Only now, he knew they weren’t purported.

Returning to the commons, Jimmy scrutinised his surroundings more intensely this time. Argent was a wily, subtle fellow indeed. Where could he have hidden the other prized jewels? They were a startling red, obviously. So Jimmy searched for anything that glinted with an odd red hue. His eyes instantly fell upon the glass display case. There scintillated faintly the red wine decanter. Crossing over to it, he undid the hasp and slid open the glass. Taking the decanter by the neck, he read the label before it: ‘The Wine of Compassion’.

Well, he’d just have to hope the talisman was compassionate to his cause. Twisting open the glass stopper, he held his hand out and inverted the bottle, shaking it once, twice, thrice…a sparkling ruby only slightly larger than the first fell into his palm. Pocketing it, he returned the decanter to its place and closed the case, re-adjusting the hasp.

There was only one more ruby to go.

Jimmy turned to the only other red place he was aware of; the fireplace. Now this was getting diabolical. He could not figure out why subtle types like Mister Argent could not just hide their valuables in locked jewelry boxes under their beds instead of going to great lengths to wickedly conceal them in places a mundane person might not suspect, so that meddlesome inquisitive sorts like Jimmy - who was not mundane in the least by his personal reckoning - could find them.

Grabbing the tongs, he began to sift through the red-glowing embers, enduring the heat and discomfort until his perseverance was rewarded - the biggest ruby yet, nearly the size of his thumb, lay there innocently. Using the prongs to obtain them, he prudently kept the hot ruby at arms length as he headed over to the bar. Gently placing it on a coaster, he got a bottle of icewater and poured it in a close-at-hand tankard. Once again picking up the ruby with the tongs, he placed it in the water. There was a slight hiss and a little steam that billowed as it cooled rapidly.

Jimmy was glad none of his old physics teachers were around. They would probably have head-slapped him for failing to acknowledge the risk of sudden contraction brought on by rapid cooling, which could very well shatter the diminutive jewel. Fortunately, the little ruby remained intact.

Once he had placed the ruby in his inventory, Jimmy carefully made certain to leave everything as he had found them, most importantly returning the tongs to their rightful place besides the alluringly warm hearth. Hat done, Jimmy resolved to enter the kitchen; by the laws of the establishment that was somewhat illegal, but it would not be the first time Jimmy had broken and entered. Like that time back at the Nahuatla palace in Eodon, where he and his companions had brazenly ‘borrowed’ what they had required from the royal treasury right under the mad and depraved king’s nose for an indeterminate amount of time.

Jimmy did not have to break in in order to enter; making his way around the counter, all he needed was a little caution. Surreptitiously peeking his head in so as to make sure the implacable Mistress Belina was not still working, he crept through the doorway and into the shadowy kitchen.

Dirty pots lay beside wash basins, unwashed glasses and tankards too, a fine physical epitome of anarchy. Piercing the darkness, he spotted the stairs leading down into the cellar near a cluster of barrels containing cured meat and fruit. Approaching them with stealth, to his surprise he found them to be made of rough stone, as if they had been hewn from the very natural rock of the earth beneath. It was a fine contrast to the otherwise wooden construction of the inn.

Descending the stairs with tentative steps, he entered the gloomy cellar. It was a nondescript subterranean chamber, its staid look perhaps enhanced by the near darkness. Jimmy could faintly make out stacks of crates and barrels clustered in one corner, as well as a trio of rather large kegs at the back. Dupre would have positively relished to get his hands on their faucets.

Exploring the chamber, the darkness and dimensions not a place for claustrophobics, Jimmy’s footsteps echoed faintly on the cold stone floor, reverberating off the walls. Ahead appeared a door, ironbound and sturdy. Jimmy tried the handle; it opened with an infinitesimal squeak, but with surprising ease.

The only problem was, the chamber beyond was pitch black. There was no faint lighting to filter from above. Stepping in regardless, he fumbled in the dark, only to have - to his great consternation - the torches flare in their sconces on their own volition. Jimmy froze, head turning this way and that to appraise his situation. It was not a trap, as he had initially feared, merely an arcane parlour trick indicative of an arcane world. There were no myrmidex in the darkness and no pirates that said ‘Har!’ and had peglegs and sanguinary hooks. Most importantly, there was no Reizer. That guy was like a relentless machine. He’d rather be ambushed by a pack of rabid myrmidex than face that glint in the corporate agent’s eye.

“Neat trick.” Jimmy said, feeling just a tinge of relief.

What he beheld next was truly a work of art. In the walls themselves was carved the smooth images of strange, mythical beasts; for each wall, there was one arcane but certainly horrifying creature, shaped like a grotesque orb with a central mesmerising eye. A plethora of what appeared to be long, sinuous eyestalks protruded from the bottom of the monster, each of the eyes as equally malignant as the central. These were the gazer mosaics, no doubt. The chamber was quite empty, but for the spontaneously ignited torches in their gilded, masterfully crafted sconces.

On closer inspection, Jimmy’s assiduous scrutiny discovered three holes, one for each wall, in various places: the forward wall had a rather large hole in the pupil of the gazer’s central eye: the left wall had a hole in the pupil of a mediocre-sized eyestalk; last of all, the right wall had a rather small hole in the pupil of the most diminutive eyestalk. Interestingly enough, the holes corresponded to the sizes of each respective ruby.

Smiling, Jimmy drew out the rubies, systematically placing them within the corresponding holes.

As he expected, there was a grating of stone on stone, and then soundlessly did a square man-sized portion of the forward door open, folding away from the granite jam inward. Beyond lay a cramped chamber, lit like the mosaic room but having no visible source of luminescence. A small, unassuming brassbound chest lay innocent in the centre.

Jimmy’s brow furrowed in confusion. This was the legendary sailor Argent’s treasure? It seemed certainly too small for any good repository of abundant wealth, unless it contained within its inventory some very, very valuable pieces of bullion or jewelry. Jimmy was no jeweller, but he reckoned he could have gotten a few grand for those three rubies alone. They weren’t the biggest he had seen either. Back in Eodon, tribal chieftains had in their possession rubies the size of a chicken’s egg. They had been sticklers for wealth, though Jimmy’s green dollar bills had been somewhat anachronistic and thus redundant in trade. He had found that out the hard way when he had tried to buy a quiver of arrows from a local Nahuatla fletcher, and had ended up being ejected from the store with Nahuatla obsidian swords prodding at his posterior.

Kneeling beside the chest, he tried opening it. The lid would not budge. Its size belied its intrinsic sturdy nature. The iron lock held firm, and there was no way he could pick it without the experience. Besides, he didn’t have the time to engage in anymore acts of kleptomania; he had spent far more time than was wise down here in a place he should not be.

Standing, he retreated from the chamber with a slow backward gait, watching curiously as the secret door swung shut on its own volition. The gazers’ eyes spat out the rubies, leaving them to sparkle in the flickering torchlight. Jimmy collected each of them with all due haste. As he picked up the last one, back to the obvious doorway and still vacillating over whether to return the rubies or keep them for himself, there was a faint scraping sound, like hard leather on cobblestone, from behind.

“SQUAWK! Sum of Three, Crimson They Be!”

The abrupt squawk made Jimmy’s heart nearly jump out of his throat as he whirled around, only to face Mister Argent. He squinted, a lit candle in one hand, though it was hardly necessary here, and Obsidian on his shoulder.

“What are ye doing here?” he asked, not quite hostile but also not amiable.

In an instant Jimmy had concocted a devious plot of sophistry, affecting to wear a façade of disorientation on his stunned face. “Who? What? Huh? Where am I?” he asked, doing his best to sound perplexed.

“Ye be in my cellar, that’s where!” Argent said, beginning to show signs of chagrin in his tone.

“Cellar? What in the -?” Jimmy said, voice partially slurred as if from just waking, fluttering his eyes a little too ostentatiously. He looked around, confused. “Damn! I’m sorry, Mister Argent, but I must have been sleep walking again!” He spread his hands, palms up, in an apologetic fashion. “I sleep walk sometimes.”

Argent’s appraising gaze was not a crediting one. “With ye hat?”

Jimmy started again, part from genuine surprise and part for show, tentatively feeling the brim of the hat atop his head. He shrugged. “Hey, when I was a kid my parents used to lock the lounge room door so I couldn’t get in there when I sleep walked, but I used to unconsciously find the key and unlock it anyway.” It was a feeble excuse, but it was his last round left.

Argent scratched his chin, deliberating for a moment. His visage became reminiscent. “Ah, lad, back in me days aboard the merchant ship Hispaniola, I had me a messmate who sometimes would sleep walk at night. Somnambulism, it’s called.” Both countenance and tone became poignant. “Poor lad one night sleep walked over the gunwale and was made into a bloody feeding frenzy for the sharks that were following us.”

Jimmy sighed imperceptibly in relief. The old man had returned to his reverie and nostalgic revelry. It was a better fate than being caught red-handed in the act of solving his most probably well-kept secret.

“Aye. A bloody sight that was.” Argent said, nodding his head sagely. “Not a pretty one at all, neither.”

Obsidian piped up again spontaneously, breaking into a shrill, morbid song,

‘Blood and gore!

Blood and gore!

Enough to make the eyes sore!

Maggots and flies!

Testament to the scoundrel’s lies!

Treachery here! Treachery there!

Treachery everywhere!’


“Obsidian, be quiet now, before I -” Argent began his ultimatum, but the feisty parrot would not be silenced.

‘Blood on the hoard!

Blood on the hoard!

Stolen was the lightning sword!

Took it did he,

when none could see!

Slain were the five!

He left none alive!

Merciless was he,

Capt’n of the Shade,

into history did he fade!’


“Shut yer beak, ye bloody feathered goose-brain, before I take ye back to where I found ye and let those scaly-hide sharp-toothed beasts tear ye apart!” Argent snapped, his use of vitriol surprisingly uncharacteristic of his usually cordial nature.

The parrot shut up, even managing to look sheepish somehow, and Argent looked at Jimmy, apologetic.

“My apologies, Master Malone. Sometimes ol’ Obsidian here gets a little too rowdy. He’s been listening to one too many of Burem’s songs, I’ll wager.” the grizzled veteran sailor said.

Jimmy nodded sympathetically. “Sorry about the sleep walking thing. I’ll get back to my room now.

“Aye, ye do that now, lad. Just make sure you don’t go sleep walking into the sea or anything!” Argent laughed heartily, patting him on the shoulder.

“Riiight…” Jimmy replied, a little uncertain as he headed for the door.

“Mayhaps in the morning when ye come around the bar I’ll tell ye about the time I lost me leg while on dogwatch, surprised by a horde o’ pirates climbing over the gunwale!” Argent suggested cheerily.

“I’ll be looking forward to it…” Jimmy said, smiling unctuously.

He headed toward the stairs, eager to get away from the old man. He had detected something obscurely unnerving about him, and after this clandestine business with the rubies, Jimmy was not so inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt this time. He silently wondered whether he would feel safer with Sargan in the same room, or with old man Argent.

“Ye go to yer comfy room now, lad!” Argent called after him merrily. “Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the sharks bite!”

“SQUAWK! Sum of Three, Crimson They Be!” Obsidian chipped in.

Jimmy would return to his room alright, but he would not sleep. Oh, no. Not after this little investigation’s reaping. He would maintain a close vigil on his door, window, and the mousehole beside the wardrobe, otherwise he might end up waking up dead tomorrow morning or something equally unpleasant, like one of Sargan’s cooked rabbit specialties shoved halfway down his throat.

The rain pattered on the canvas stretched over the cargo grating above with such gentle, rhythmic intensity that one could have found a sense of serenity and relaxation.

Reizer wasn’t one to waste time on the ideals of serenity and relaxation. While rarely hotheaded, his own tenets that he had formed over the years of his life dictated his actions to the extreme: he believed that to relax, even for a brief moment, was to open the door to complacence. To compromise diligence and efficiency was unimaginable. That was why the world today became corpulent and indolent, desultory and perfunctory in the everyday tasks of life. It was unacceptable to a man of his mind. To live without purpose, or rather, for the purpose of total indolence and no meaning in life. He lived abstemiously, not quite ascetically, though oft times his fellows saw little difference between the two. In Titanus, however, he had a purpose. A real purpose. A corporation that epitomised efficiency and the primary universal law that only the strongest survived. Only the strongest should survive. The little people, the affinities of pretentiousness, indolence, and prodigality, were only meant to be controlled and directed, testament to the pathetic, non-conforming creatures that they were. To Reizer, there was little difference between control through economic power and control through force. Control was control.

The autonomy of the plebes and serfs could not be allowed to continue, other wise anarchy would thrive. It had to end, and it would, once he retrieved that moonstone. With it, Titanus could open the portal to Eodon and seize its natural wealth, the economical fuel it needed for domination of the market. The virgin valley would most certainly prove to be a lucrative investment indeed.

All that stood in Reizer’s way were Jimmy Malone and his wretched guardians. They would be dealt with soon enough.

Kneeling as he cut away the bonds of yet another powder keg with a kitchen knife he had stolen from that annoying rotund chef who spoke with a suspiciously French-sounding accent and was an epitome of gluttony, the puritan mastered disciplined haste and finesse with the dull blade, maximising its capacity in a way no other individual could. His muscles ached, but the pain was distant as he concentrated on his work.

Reizer’s plan was going well. Over the past several hours, he had stolen a number of powder kegs and hidden them throughout the ship’s recesses in such positions so that if any one of them blew, they would all go in a spectacular chain reaction that would indubitably depredate the ship beyond any hope of reparation.

Evening now aided his clandestine activities. Earlier in the day, Malone had alighted for a nearby inn with a party of protectors. Better for Reizer; it would not do if the moonstone or, regretfully, Malone were damaged in any way. He still needed them.

The Virtuosity’s repairs would be short-lived.

Water dripped on his head, slipping through a small rent in the canvas covering. He ignored it, gently taking the keg into his hands.

“Thou! What art thou doing?” a voice demanded.

Reizer quickly but prudently dropped the keg, slowly standing and turning around to face the interloper, calm and collected. The interloper would die anyway, regardless of his armaments. Before him stood a tall, sturdy warrior in plate and mail, loaded scabbard at his left hip. On his forehead was the tattoo of an entwined silver serpent. His countenance was hard and no-nonsense, as if he deemed everybody in a dubious light, questioning their behaviour. A man that seemed from disposition not unlike himself.

Reizer could respect a man like that. Unfortunately, circumstances required the stolid and stout warrior’s expiration. His hand shot for his belt, where his pistol was secreted. Of course, the warrior’s sharp, vigilant eyes discerned what he was doing in an instant, and like lightning he whipped out his heavy double-edged word and charged silently. Rather unorthodox. Most soldiers roared their way into battle like animals.

Reizer’s gun was already lifted and trained on the chest of his opponent, a bullet aimed for the heart, but he hesitated - for about one fourth of a second. A simple squeeze of the trigger and the bullet launched with the muted sound of popping corn, punching through metal armour with ease and puncturing the man’s heart. He fell back, without even so much as a cry, sword clattering beside him.

Then it was all over. Reizer looked down on the fresh cadaver almost ruefully. It was a sorry waste of a good solider, a paragon of efficiency and diligence, a stalwart conformist to the last. There were few of their kind left in the world, or here, for that matter. Perhaps in another lifetime they could have been allies in duty. Not friends, however, but allies. There was no such thing as friends. Only acquaintances, sycophants, and hangers-on. A true shame.

Not entirely satisfied with his night’s work, Reizer turned to pick up the fallen powder keg, stepping over the warrior’s cooling body and leaving the cargo hold, hopefully for the last time.

Fury rippled beneath the surface of the First Mate’s calm façade, mixed with seething molten impatience. The crew’s disgruntlement was a thing of the past, it seemed. A thing of the distant past, although the near mutiny had occurred scant hours ago. The revelation of Silverbeard’s intentions pertinent to the missing amulet had set them to their duties with impressive alacrity and enthusiasm of the sort that was fuelled by bottomless avarice and the infantile expectation of reward. In this case, immense reward. For now, they were mollified and focused on the larger picture.

Blackeye didn’t care how financially beneficial the old dog’s latest machination would be. He was focused on his own personal picture - his freedom. Leron was still searching for the orb, though to little avail. The slave’s skills at stealth - well enough for a mere mortal wanting in the art of ether manipulation - ensured that he was not caught by the other crewmembers, who believed him to be dead. But if they did happen to encounter him, Leron’s skills would be more than ample to their quick and efficient elimination.

The piteous mortal’s abilities notwithstanding, Blackeye had run out of patience. He had been serving on this accursed pirate ship with pungent-odoured piratical scum for a score of years - one score too many - and he had finally had enough. It had taken him that long just to worm his way into Silverbeard’s confidences - and he had hardly earned that ornery curmudgeon’s confidence at that - an ascendance through the ranks begot in blood, murder, and voracious mangled-cadaver consumption. Back then, Blackeye was not even sure that Silverbeard still had the orb in his possession.

The legends hat it that he had once been one of the fifteen or so lieutenants of the greatly dreaded Capt’n of the Shade Fleet…a strange idiosyncrasy of pronunciation that name was. The humans never seemed to call him ‘Captain’, but rather obstinately stuck to ‘Capt’n’. Deference to a masterful tyrant, the daemon incognito supposed. The old pirate lord had reaped his fair share of blood and spoils. Perhaps he was worthy of a little respect, even from one such as the implacable Blackeye, but it was the sort of respect one would show a worm for airing the earth. Present, but in infinitesimal doses.

The orb had apparently been used by the pirates to communicate amongst each other. The mortal fools had been totally ignorant of the orb’s greater abilities. Where there had once been many of them, there was now only one that Blackeye was aware still existed. More likely than not those that were now lost had been used and abused by the naïve and unappreciative mortal scum. Silverbeard was one such naïve fool. Blackeye had no doubt he kept the enchanted device somewhere within the dank depths of the Sea Critter.

Now it was time to end the clandestine game. The veneer of servitude would finally be ripped apart, for Blackeye’s patience had been worn thin to the point of non-existence. He was going to gain his freedom and he was going to gain it now.

Striding down the strangely empty corridor with a severe sense of purpose, Blackeye made a beeline for the Captain’s cabin. It was evening above on deck, but still the gentlemen of fortune worked, almost feverishly in their desire to reach New Magincia before the amulet thief eluded them once again. All the better for the incensed First Mate if nobody heard Silverbeard’s cries of help and more importantly agony.

The door grew in size as he approached. Surreptitiously he checked down the corridor once again to make certain nobody was in the vicinity. This had to be handled delicately.

Blackeye took a long step toward the cabin door, then froze in surprise at the sound of clashing steel and irate voices emanating from within.

“Come back from the dead, have y? I should’ve skewered ye when I had the chance! Die, scum!” the irascible captain’s voice roared, partially muted by the thick wooden door.

“I will drink your blood, old bastard!” a familiar voice retorted, hatred epitomised. “I will make you pay dearly for what I have endured!”

Blackeye growled, chagrined. That fool! Barging through the door, his dangerous suspicions were confirmed when he found Silverbeard and Leron duelling against each other with cutlasses. Both fought as if in a mad stupor, their vicious swings and swift parries fuelled by hatred and antipathy. Drawing on his magical reserves, he swatted the blades out of their hands with a simple whimsy. Their indignant and unified surprise, punctuated by a simultaneous gasp, was cut short when he subsequently smashed both ofthem into the opposite walls with overpowering telekinesis, keeping them there, spread-eagled and unable to move, though they still tired in vain, grunting with the effort.

“Blackeye! What is the meaning of this?! Answer me, ye yellow dog!” Silverbeard demanded, spitting out each word with pure enmity.

Instead, the First Mate ignored him, his coolness as he turned to face Leron belying his inner boiling rage at his minion’s disobedience. The cur had reneged on his vow of allegiance the instant he had turned his back, going in lieu straight for Silverbeard and the prospect of fulfilled vengeance at long last. Blackeye could understand the need to placate the desire for vengeance, but compared to his own problems, its significance was nothing.

Leron’s eyes widened fearfully, realising that he had been found out. “No! Wait! You don’t understand! I was searching for it in his cabin! I didn’t expect to find him here! Honest! Killing him would just be an added bonus!”

Silverbeard’s eyes flashed red with indignation. “So!” he bellowed. “Yer treachery has been proven at last, Blackeye, ye treacherous snake! BY thunder, I’m going to hack you for your chicanery! Ye lied about the prisoner’s death, all the while makin’ ‘im yer henchman behind me back! I should’ve known!” He sounded slightly abased.

Blackeye was oblivious to his blatant vitriol, focused purely on Leron and his betrayal. Pointing at the fear-stricken, humiliated husk of a man, he rasped in a sibilant, menacing voice, “You have disobeyed me. For that, you will pay, slave.”

“No!” Leron exclaimed in piteous supplication. “Don’t kill me! I swear I won’t do it again! I sw -” His pathetic plea was cut off by his ragged, agonised howl as tendrils of golden, malevolent power engulfed him, sizzling the air with their sheer intensity.

Even Silverbeard watched in cowed silence as the arcane energy caressed Leron, who screamed as his body, wracked with unbearable pain, spasmed uncontrollably. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it was all over, and the invisible bonds that held Leron pinned against the cabin wall faded, letting him drop to the floor. he still trembled in pain, groaning.

“That is just a taste off the fate I have in store for you, if you decide to cross me again.” Blackeye said sternly.

Now he returned his malignant gaze to Silverbeard, whom, despite the all too recent show, exchanged a glare every bit as menacing.

“Yer fancy parlour tricks don’t scare me, First Mate! The fate I have in store for you will be a power of times as worse!” Silverbeard spat. “Release me, and I might decide to commute yer certainly horrendous punishment!” He grinned arrogantly.

Blackeye laughed scornfully. “Oh, will you now?” he said, smiling cruelly.

For a moment, Silverbeard’s supercilious self-certainty faltered. “Help! Treachery!!!” he yelled, but Blackeye had already slammed shut the door at a thought before the words had left the old man’s mouth.

“That’s going to cost you.” Blackeye said coldly, and pointing his finger at the helpless pirate, tortured him with the same golden energy bolts he had punished Leron with.

Silverbeard’s cries were strangely satisfying. He had longed for those sounds for far too long. Screams were music to his ears. Ceasing the torture, he allowed the groaning man a few moments to recover.

“Now, to business,” Blackeye said cordially, pacing up and down before his prisoner.

“I…will…kill you for this!” Silverbeard gasped, recovering in increments.

“I have lived in your shadow for far too long, Captain.” Blackeye said, “It is time that the tables were turned!”

“Free me!” Silverbeard demanded audaciously. “Free me or I will rip you apart, regardless of your powers, and then proceed to rip apart each and every piece of you I already ripped apart!”

Another dosage of torturous energy bolts caressed him, causing him to scream.

“Now, you are going to give me something that I so richly deserve.” Blackeye said, halting his pacing and glaring at the worn old pirate with his good eye.

Silverbeard, while still pained from his last bout of energy bolts, looked at the First Mate calculatingly. “What is it you want?” He smiled shrewdly, though the gesture was shadowed with pain. “Money? Power? Rank? A ship of yer own? I can get that for ye.”

Blackeye arched the brow that covered his good eye. Since when did Silverbeard ever bargain with foes? He had probably never faced a man with as formidable powers as he before. That was why the old scum had suddenly turned to diplomacy. Never mind that fact that it was diplomacy laced with lies. Silverbeard didn’t have extra money. He didn’t have much power, except over the pathetic motley crew that served aboard ship. There was no other rank for Blackeye to attain besides that of captain, and Silverbeard would be loath to forfeit his captaincy, prisoner or not. Last of all, Silverbeard most certainly did not have any spare ships lying around.

“None of these things.” Blackeye replied.

“Dog! Spit in my face! Repudiate my generous offers!” Silverbeard roared angrily, struggling futilely against his bonds. “I warn ye…release me or suffer unimaginably!”

Blackeye sniffed haughtily. “I see that recent lessons are easily forgotten with you. I think I’ll gain your respect first.” He pointed his finger.

“Silverbeard respects no one!” Silverbeard barked, snapping at Blackeye’s finger. He suddenly became pensive, adding almost sheepishly, “Though the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet has my grudging respect, I’ll admit that.”

“That supposed to be an oxymoron?” Leron asked, having regained himself and was now standing beside his master.

Blackeye had to admit, the petty slave was resilient at the very least.

“Moron?!” Silverbeard barked indignantly. “I am no moron! You will pay for yer audacity in prodigious blood, impudent one!” He struggled once again against his unseen bonds, but to little avail. “I will…! I will…smash! Kill! Rend! Distort!”

“You will scream, and that is all.” Blackeye said frostily.

And scream poor Silverbeard did, wracked by bolts of seething energy. Leron watched, grinning with sadistic glee as he savoured his nemesis’s every howl.

Blackeye stopped and asked, “Now that you bring up the topic of the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet, I must query about a physical legacy of his that you still carry. A certain orb.”

Silverbeard’s eyes widened in surprise, though his craggy face still spasmed with pain. “I…don’t know…what…yer talk’n a…about…” he gasped, then screamed again as Blackeye resumed his bolt torture.

“Well?” he said, giving Silverbeard some respite.

Silverbeard spat feebly. “Ye’ll never f…find it…I’ve hidden it too…well.” He laughed pathetically.

Again the bolts wracked his body.

“That’s right. Singe his epidermis! Light his beard!” Leron rasped malevolently.

Blackeye whirled around, hissing at him sibilantly, “You stay out of this! Go do something constructive, like finding the orb!”

Leron nodded, though somewhat rueful, and headed for the door just as Silverbeard’s screams began anew. Despite his inner reluctance, he did not hesitate, at least not overtly anyway. He had incurred his master’s wrath all too recently for his comfort. Crossing over the splinter-ridden threshold with a brisk gait, he closed the door behind him, muting the pirate captain’s pained cries.

It was time to get to work. Though he did not serve the accursed daemon in disguise with zest - willing zest - he anted to find the damn mysterious bauble and escape this servitude as quickly as possible. Leron did not trust the daemon in the least, nor did he believe the vile creature’s promises to allow him to keep his precious life. it was very precious to him, if nobody else. He had been horribly mistreated during his sojourn here on this worthless world the native peasant scum called Britannia, and he desired nothing more than to flee back to his own home, the territory with which he was so familiar. Things had not been so complicated back then. All it had entailed was thievery and corporate agenda: steal that vital piece of technology, cut the throat of that pestilent scientist on the verge of inventing the world’s first water-fuelled car motor, and so on.

But what he wanted more than anything was revenge. Sweet, hot, complete revenge on all of his enemies. Silverbeard, Blackeye, the pirates of this damned ship, Reizer for abandoning him in this shithole, and most of all Malone. That audacious, impudent, and pretentious son of a bitch was the cause of all his misfortunes. If Leron ever got his hands on that vagrant bastard, he would make him pay dearly. If he managed to escape this primordial dump - no, once he did so - he would gain the Director’s permission to return here and exact cruel, consummated vengeance. On everyone. The entire world’s populace, preferably.

As he walked down the narrow corridor without a care in the world, oblivious to the risk of any one pirate stumbling upon him almost abruptly, he realised bitterly that he would not be able to attain his ambitions in one single decisive step. His rise to redemption and rightful power would come, but in careful, humble increments. First, the little matter of the missing orb had to be dealt with.

If he did manage to find it, then perhaps he could use it as a bargaining chip to ensure his survival. Blackeye certainly seemed to be desperate enough to be suitably manipulated for Leron’s ends. The vicious daemon would not risk its destruction before hearing his demands. He hoped. Fervently.

The wily corporate agent, high and dry, and struck on rigorous times, had been deprived of everything except his wits. In his so far short service to his new master, he had searched nearly all portions of the sub-deck levels of the ship. He had regained a goodly amount of his strength too, for Blackeye had no compunctions over him stealing other pirates’ food, despite its unhygienic and unpalatable appearance. Beggars couldn’t be choosers. He hated that proverb, and would’ve gladly murdered the scummy philosopher responsible for its inception. At least Blackeye had allowed him a weapon, the dull kitchen knife, to defend himself should he encounter any wayward pirates throughout the dank corridors during his clandestine mission. Unfortunately, none had happened to cross his path. He would not have spared them if they did.

So, the cunning Silverbeard though he had hidden the much sought for orb in a place they would never find? Time would answer that mystery. Leron wondered: where hadn’t he looked? He possessed the skill of seeking out that which was intentionally concealed.

Then the most unlikely place came to his mind. A place that no other would have thought, or dared - other than the current denizen - to look in. Smiling with satisfaction, Leron strode down the narrow corridor toward that most unlikely place.

Silverbeard rasped something incoherent and lowly sibilant, countenance wracked with intense pain from one all too recent bout of Blackeye’s arcane energy tendrils. Every incomprehensible word was a struggle for the worn, depraved pirate to get beyond his lips.

Blackeye ostentatiously put a hand behind hi sear in the fashion of one straining to hear something, his grin malevolent. He was enjoying his former superior’s abject humiliation. “What is that, Captain? I cannot hear you. Please speak up a decibel or tow.”

Silverbeard grunted with the effort, but managed to rasp something intermittently intelligible, “Your…mother…was a…wh-whore…” He spat then, though it did not make a foot of distance, so weak was he from his austere ordeal.

Blackeye scowled. “Wrong answer.”

Silverbeard gasped as once again the bolts assaulted his flesh with extreme asperity. By this point, some of the flesh on his arms was burned, and he was lathered like a horse forced to gallop several leagues. Still, the man was defiant. His obstinacy could rival a mountain.

Now Blackeye was growing irritated. The constraint on his daemonic essence was taxing his powers. It deprived him of his full abilities and limited those precious few that he still had left to him. He could not maintain his zapping of the tenacious Silverbeard forever. Perhaps it was time to resort to more drastic measures, though Blackeye was loath to do so, for if his prisoner died, he would never find the orb.

“Captain,” Blackeye said mockingly, “how long do you really think you can endure this? Tell me what I want to know, and it will be all over. I will even spare you your pathetic life as a token of my appreciation.”

Silverbeard’s smile, weak as it was, was hardly gracious. “Your…skull…will make a fine…t…tankard…dog…”

Blackeye snarled and grabbed him by his long flowing berad, drawing the man’s face close to his own. When he spoke, his voice was no longer mellifluous, “Get this straight, old man! If you do not tell me of the whereabouts of the orb by the time I count to ten, I shall rip out your beard! Think, senescent one, think not only of the pain, but your very pride cruelly yanked from your face!” This time Silverbeard’s eyes betrayed a hint of apprehension. Blackeye smiled at this. The ultimatum had made its effect. “One, two, ten!”

The muscles in Blackeye’s arms tensed to rip out the pirate’s beard, but the door swung open even as Silverbeard let out a pathetic whimper. Releasing the beard, Blackeye instinctively whirled around and saw Leron coming in, something that coruscated faintly cradled in the crook of his arm.

“I’ve found it!” he exclaimed excitedly.

“You have? Where?” Blackeye demanded, quite surprised.

“Under your mattress.” Leron said conceitedly.

Blackeye looked shocked, but then realisation dawned on his repugnant face. “So that explains that strange lump in my bed. I always did find it hard to get to sleep with that obtruding discomfort.” Blackeye glanced at Silverbeard, who looked back at him, sheepish of all things. “The wily Silverbeard hides the orb in the one place no one would think - or dare - to look: the First Mate’s cabin. I am…honoured. And abased.” He smiled wickedly, shaking his finger at Silverbeard. The pirate winced involuntarily. “You, you are very smart, you. Very, very smart. For that, your death will be all the more agonising. But first, there is the little matter with the orb.” He turned back to Leron, holding his hand out expectantly. ‘Give it to me. Now.”

Leron’s visage was shrewd and calculating. “About my little matter of freedom…”

Blackeye grabbed him by the face, lifting him into the air and hurling him into the wall. The orb bounced and rolled across the floor. “Presumptuous knave,” he growled, grasping the orb. “You will be dealt with in a similar manner.”

The daemon-in-disguise’s eye was drawn to the murky depths of the orb in his hand, in which ominous clouds seemed to roil, illuminated briefly by telltale flashes of lightning. He focused on nothing else but the orb, totally enraptured. Deeper and deeper into its infinite volume he went, until the uber-nimbus parted around a vision. It was an ancient fortress he beheld, a place of profligate essence and vile resonance, its stones worn but towers still tall and oppressive. It lay in the midst of a budding swamp, where now the mountains retreated and fell from the successive quakes that wracked Britannia. It was in that flicker that Blackeye ascertained the key to his freedom.


A sharp pain tore him from the inner world of the orb, and he turned to see Silverbeard stabbing him repeatedly in the side with a knife. The bonds must have dissipated when all his concentration had been focused on the orb. There was nothing for it then.

In a swirl of fire and crimson sparkles, he revealed his true daemonic form. Silverbeard recoiled in grave consternation, the dirk corroding in his hand.

“What in the name o’ Blimey Jones?”

Blackeye, or more accurately, the daemon turned to glare at the five pirates standing in the doorway, cutlasses and cudgels held at the ready, awestruck at the sight of a hellspawn.

“It be an overgrown imp!” one cried. “I thought they died out back in the days o’ Cabirus-what’s-his-face!”

“Wow!” another one, a youth with naivete pasted all over his unmarred childish visage, gasped in awe. “Let’s kill it!”

The pirates charged with a roar, but the daemon grabbed the dazed Leron and unfolded his proud indigo wings. He could not be allowed to tell them his secrets, and so, the daemon launched through the upper deck with his payload, disappearing into the night firmament.

The pirates looked toward their captain, struggling to rise from his knees and grunting with the effort. A unanimous predatory gleam entered their eyes at the same instant. The life of a pirate was not a pleasant one, despite its potential for vast reward. It was a cruel world, where big fish ate little fish, or when the big fish was wounded and the situation inevitably reversed itself, a startling simulacrum of the daily events that took place beneath the oceans. Right now, Silverbeard was the wounded big fish, and the profligate gentlemen of fortune that surrounded him were the hungry little fish, destined to become larger should they only decide to take the step and perform one unsavoury deed to propel their own immoral careers.

“It be the Capt’n!” the leader exclaimed, pointing at the helpless Silverbeard.

The ragged man’s cutlass was out of reach, his dirk reduced to a black heap of corroded metal on the floor beside him.

“Wow!” the same wide-eyed, naïve-faced pirate youth gasped in awe. “Let’s kill it!”

Whispers of agreement followed, and then the leader took a step toward his fallen leader, cutlass raised overhead to deliver the killing blow. With a sardonic smirk, he said, “Let me put thee out of thine misery, sir.”

“Kill me,” Silverbeard gasped, still short of breath, testament to the legacy of his ordeal, “and you will never unlock the secret of the amulet! You will never be able to carry to fruition that phenomenal thing which it offers and you will never get the wealth such a thing entails…”

The leader’s smirk faded, his face turning to pensive cogitation. Slowly, his weapon lowered, and being the conformist sheep that they were, his followers also lowered their weapons. For even one as uneducated as he, realisation was not terribly difficult to come by. Tempered with a corrupt logic driven by avarice and amoral ambition, the leader knew that without Silverbeard nobody could harness what it offered. While the whole crew knew of the nature of the offer and had their mouths watering as a result, knowing meant little if they were ignorant of exactly how they could obtain it. Only Silverbeard could help them there. Killing him would irreparably and irrevocably deny them the fantastic wealth that both the Captain and the amulet offered.

And so the leader adopted cordiality and sympathy under false pretences, smiling compassionately as he sheathed his blade. The smile was incongruous on his ugly, bellicose face, the witness of countless murders committed indubitably by his own hands. “Oops…sorry, Capt’n. We thought thou wert someone else. Good thou didst speak up when thou didst. otherwise thou wouldst have been fishbait for sure!”

Silverbeard snorted as one of the pirates gently helped him back onto his feet.

The leader looked at his lackeys expectantly. They did not respond, nonplussed by his abrupt assiduous attention. “Well? What art thou fools doing standing around here like idle gawkers? The Capt’n’s in a bad way! Get some rum and get some water!”

The unsavory men snapped to it, all the while Silverbeard glared after them askance.

Sunlight filtered through the immaculate windowpane, resplendent and warm, painting the floor in varying shades of vermilion. It was sunrise, and Jimmy was waiting and ready, more conscientious of the precious amulet tied around his neck than usual. It was testing time.

The commons was nearly empty. Findar still slept on his table, the ale stain adjacent to his cheek now hours dry. It was only Burem who was both present and cognizant in the large room, sitting at his usual place near the back of the room, legs kicked up on the table in a deceptive demeanour of complacence. He strummed a few low notes on his lute, the tune vaguely romantic and wistful.

Hopefully, Dupre and his omnipresent companion Sentri would be already waiting outside as had been agreed upon the previous day. Jimmy was about to enter the annex room from the base of the stairs when he recalled something Mister Argent had said last evening. Something about Obsidian the parrot.

Tentatively approaching the bard, Jimmy coughed into his fist ostentatiously. Burem looked up casually, raising an eyebrow in inquisition.

“So, Journalist Malone, have we found any lost treasure lately?” he asked, tone dripping with derision.

Jimmy retorted with an inscrutable smile. “Oh, maybe…” he equivocated, then a determined glint entered his eye. “But I don’t think you’d be too interested in a ‘fanciful legend’. At any rate, besides the usual salutations, I’m here to check on your repertoire.”

Burem looed at him askance. “Go on.”

“You ever heard a mean old song that goes something along the lines of ‘Blood and gore, enough to make the eyes sore…maggots and flies, testament to the scoundrel’s lies’?” Jimmy queried.

Burem frowned and slowly shook his head. “I cannot say I have.”

“Sure? ‘Merciless was he, Capt’n of the Shade, into history did he fade!’ Do you remember that?”

Burem seemed both perplexed and abased. “No…I’m afraid not. Why?” His eyes narrowed. “Where didst thou hear it?”

Jimmy smiled wryly. Argent’s Virtue of Honesty meter had just crept down a few notches. He had just been downgraded from genuinely pleasant to merely unctuous. Were there any more surprises to come, Jimmy wondered. Any imminent surprises he should dread?

“Let’s just say a little bird told me.” Jimmy replied with a mocking smirk as he turned for the annex room, Burem frowning after him.

Upon leaving the inn, he found Alcor standing next to the door, grimly taciturn as he watched the few people that walked the streets of New Magincia at six in the morning, as if expecting any one of them to transform into a bloodthirsty, avarice-driven pirate. He even watched the abundant sheep, and Jimmy could not help but chuckle at the thought of the old cliché of the wolf dressed in sheepskin seeking prey in the midst of the innocent fold. Perhaps that tale had more meaning here than he truly realised.

Rounding the rather expansive inn, he came to the back of it, where Dupre and Sentri stood by a worn old oak, bare of leaves, on a small hill. To the east, the sun rose, half its molten constitution already above the horizon made by the coruscating sea.

As usual, Dupre was in a foul mood, irritated by the weight of responsibility that came with being the incumbent commander. “What dost thou mean he did not show up?” he demanded.

Sentri shrugged. “Travis checked his quarters and found that he did not return. My guess is that the last we saw of him in the inn was right after that alteration with the paladin when he left in a huff.” Sentri said.

“Bloody gargoyle,” Dupre cursed.

“Now, now,” Sentri chided, “let us not forget our lesson from the War of the False Prophet. Kap-Lem just needs time to cool down, that is all.”


Sentri’s vigilant eye spotted Jimmy before he could hail. “Good morrow to thee, Master Malone. Hast thou brought the amulet?” he inquired politely.

“Of course,” Jimmy said with an insolent grin, but his features quickly became concerned. “What’s this I hear about Kap-Lem?”

Dupre shrugged. “He is gone. Where to, I know not. Mayhaps he flew somewhere.” he replied reproachfully.

“Er, Dupre, he is a wingless gargoyle…” Sentri said.

Dupre shot him a piqued glare. “I knew that!”

“Well, in any case, Kappy can look after himself. Let’s get down to this riddle business.” Jimmy intervened, dismissive of the issue. The sullen gargoyle’s muscle would be more than apt at keeping him safe on this backward island of all places. After all, what could harm him? Rabid sheep? Even Silverbeard’s lot would have grave difficulty taking that beast down. Jimmy winced at thinking of his friend as a beast. He was not a simple, belligerent animal to be scorned or pitied. He was a sentient, intellectual creature. A person with feelings. He hoped that his self-imposed alienation from the others would not cause permanent damage.

It was time to get down to the business of the amulet. Jimmy’s hands had been itching to test his theory out for far too long. Now he would see whether the haughty, cliché conjecture would come true.

“Let us being then.” Sentri said, stepping back and gesturing toward the tree branch.

Jimmy stepped past Dupre, the normally boisterous warrior watching cynically with arms folded. Taking the amulet from his neck, he hung the battered old thing on the thick tree branch, retreating hastily. The pseudo-gem coruscated as the amulet swung from side to side like the pendulum of a venerable grandfather clock, gradually losing momentum and hanging, for the most part, still. The air was passive today, content to let the rising sun warm its intangible constitutions and nothing more.

The green gem glinted in the sunlight, rays passing through its faceted structure, but it did little else. The demure little thing merely hung there, downcast and beaten. Jimmy frowned. Dupre snorted. Sentri tilted his head slightly to one side.

“Well, I guess Silverbeard’s just got one big misunderstanding on his hands.” Dupre said derisively. “This thing’s just a worthless piece of junk. Hardly deserving of the blood that has already been spilt over it.”

“And the blood to be spilt. Like mine.” Jimmy added wryly.

Dupre yawned. “Ah, well. Let me know if anything happens. I’m going back for a drink.” He turned on his heel.

“Wait…” Jimmy said, fighting off despair. His intuition rarely failed him. It had done him well in the dark cave where Fabozz had been trapped, craving for the much-needed but cruelly denied light. Jimmy had quite really saved his companions using the flash bulb of the camera the way he did, right when the Urali tribesmen were about to perforate them with poison darts.

“Dupre, remember that those things that represent the Virtue of Humility often have a deeper intrinsic value than what is seen on the surface.” Sentri chastised like a venerable, implacable tutor.

Dupre stopped and turned back reluctantly, grumbling, “Fine, fine. No need to become another Hawkwind on me.”

The amulet’s central pseudo-gem was flashing more vigorously, as if it was absorbing the sun’s rays, building a repository of solar energy for some special and inscrutable purpose. Jimmy’s instincts were jumping about wildly, bouncing off walls and colliding with each other like the molecules within some compressed container. Something was going to happen.

And something did happen.

An emerald beam shot forth from the gem, spreading out and expanding to form a three-dimensional wireframe image of a sickeningly familiar vehicle. Dupre and Sentri were intrigued.

“A hologram.” Jimmy said absently. “How…cliché.”

Dupre rubbed his chin. “Now where have I seen that before?” he mused openly.

“It looks like the Goodyear Blimp, only without the Goodyear sign.” Jimmy said in rumination.

Sentri snapped his fingers. “An airship! By Jove, it is the plans to an airship! Remember back in the days of Blackthorn, Dupre, when we found the smashed airship in the hidden valley of the Serpent Spine.” he said excitedly.

Dupre nodded. “The one with the cargo of glass swords scattered throughout. Yes, I do recall now. But what would Silverbeard want with an airship?”

“He could probably build one if he got his hands on this.” Jimmy said. “Can you imagine an airborne band of pirates?”

“Not a pretty thought at all.” Sentri agreed. “They’d be able to strike the villages in the hinterlands. They’d be able to strike anywhere, and the militia would be hard-pressed to stop them.”

Dupre was now severe. “Then the nature of our mission is more imperative than ever, it seems. We cannot allow Silverbeard to get his hands on the amulet, lest he become a hundred times more dangerous to the sovereignty and stability of Britannia than he already is.”

“Dazzling deduction.” Jimmy said wryly.

“Dupre, sir!” The cry brought their eyes to a tall man in armour rushing toward them, a cape trailing behind him. It was not Sir Pasar.

“Sir Walton, what is it?” Dupre asked when the man approached.

“It is Sir Vardu, sir!” he said, his normally stoic voice betraying strain.

“What of Vardu?”

“He is dead.”

The cold cadaver of Sir Vardu, valiant and impeccable knight of Serpent’s Hold, lay unmoving and supine on the cot laid out in what could only be called the ship’s primitive infirmary. His eyes stared up at the ceiling, sightless in the glaze of death. It was all too reminiscent of another recent scene, where an innocent had died only for the monopolising lust of an immoral corporation. The memory still made the bile rise in Jimmy’s throat. He had silently sworn that he would avenge the nameless young scientist’s death; he surmised that he would have to add Vardu’s name to the list of the people who needed revenging.

They stood around the hours-old corpse, Jimmy, Dupre, Sentri, Walton, Lindu, Travis and a young ensign who had apparently discovered the body. Jimmy looked sympathetically toward Lindu; sympathy was not his strongest quality, but he considered the resolute warrioress his friend, and she looked to be taking her sibling’s death hard. No, not death. Murder. Her eyes were moist and red-rimmed, though she maintained her composure. She would save weeping for later. Travis stood by her, his eyes also compassionate. The virtue looked incongruous on someone like him, but Jimmy had learned that there was always something deeper beneath the ostensible surface. The rugged and slightly audacious warrior’s mere presence lent Lindu much-needed comfort. Jimmy suspected their relationship was a bit more than merely platonic, but that was their business.

“Ensign Guvera found him in the cargo hold.” Walton said, gesturing toward the young fresh-faced officer with an obscure nod.

Guvera, wide-eyed and emanating the air of naivete so common in youth, stepped forward and spoke only to Dupre, as if fearful of making eye contact with anyone else, “Aye, sir. I was on the early three o’clock watch when I found him, lying on his back near the entrance to the cargo hold. His blood had already dried, and there was a neat little hole through his chest where the heart was. I saw no sign of the killer, sir.”

“Which means that the murder was committed several hours prior to the discovery of the body.” Walton said gravely.

Guvera sheepsihly stepped back to let the stolid knight take over the elaboration on events.

“It is also curious that several powder kegs were missing.” Walton added, and there was a pregnant pause.

“I sincerely doubt anyone alighted from the ship wit ha powder keg or two on his shoulders, or we would have heard it from the watchmen.” Sentri mused aloud. “The intruder may very well be still aboard.”

“Certainly not one of Silverbeard’s men.” Travis said.

“I’ll kill him whoever he is.” Lindu said coldly, tone acerbic in the extreme.

“This is unlikely to be the depredation of a mere pirate, unless Silverbeard’s faction has mastered the art of supreme stealth and gained a secret weapon of unparalleled lethality.” Walton said matter-of-factly. “Take a look at the nature of the wound.” He pulled the sheet that covered Vardu up to the base of his neck away, revealing the neat little hole in his chest, just as the ensign had described it.

“Looks like the work of a musket, only with a finer touch.” Dupre remarked.

Lindu snorted repugnantly at that.

“A firearm of sorts.” Walton said. “And here is the bullet that the ship’s doctor took out.” He held his hand out and opened it, revealing the polished silver bullet resting in the centre of his palm, scant more than a centimetre-and-a-half in size.

The growing suspicion that had been festering in Jimmy’s belly now exploded into dead certainty at the sight of the implement of fatality; his nemesis was aboard. That old foe, whose relentlessness rivalled that of a machine programmed to achieve a single imperturbable objective, had caught up to him yet again. Resourceful bastard, with yet more blood on his hands.

“Reizer is here.” Jimmy said.

Those in the room looked at him in perplexity, with the exception of Dupre and Sentri.

“He did this.” Jimmy said self-assuredly. “Only he has the weapon that could make an entry wound like this.”

“Thy compatriot has found thee.” Dupre said grimly. “As thou didst warn us he would, in the fullness of time. Relentless son of a pigdog…”

“We must mount a search!” Sentri proclaimed.

Showing initiative, Jimmy quickly gave him the basic details of Reizer’s physical identity, and Sentri swiftly ordered the ensign to assemble a team of men to begin a thorough search of the ship.

“We must catch this villain before anyone else dies.” Travis said with tenacious determination.

Dupre looked pensive as he scrutinised the body. “Yet perhaps this death can be rectified. We must find a healer.”

Lindu’s eyes widened in consternation. Even Travis seemed taken aback.

“Thou dost suggest resurrection?” Travis asked tentatively.

Dupre nodded. “Time is of the essence, as the old seers say. We must find a reputable healer before Sir Vardu’s soul travels too far into the Void.” he said gravely.

No one could deny the urgent undertone that resonated in his voice. While his compatriots all nodded in fearful - or acquiescent - understanding, all of this was going too far for the sceptical Jimmy. He had seen a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the flesh and glowing men who could shoot lightning bolts that reduced men to a cinder within a second, but this was going just one step too far, even for him. Journalists were renowned for hyperbole, but this took the mother of all cakes.

“Wait, wait, waaait a second! Resurrection? As in Lazarus-style resurrection?” Jimmy interrupted, incredulous.

“Aye.” Dupre replied solemnly.

Jimmy squinted an eye at him. “Resurrection like Optimus Prim who got brought back to life twice?”

Dupre nodded, countenance betraying not a hint of jest.

“Get out of town! If one can resurrect people, then why don’t you have a death rate of zero-point-zero?”

“It is not that simple, thou dost see.” Sentri said quietly. “Resurr-”

“Enough babble! If we are to resurrect my brother, we must do so now, while we still can!” Lindu cut him off sharply, shooting Jimmy a baleful glare.

Jimmy shut up, looking assiduously at the floor. He sure was good at making enemies out of his friends. All he needed now was Professor Rafkin to burst out of the wall and start shooting alpha particles out of his fingertips at him for that time when he had scoffed at the wizened scientific seer’s rule-of-thumb measurements for the ingredients of gunpowder. Boy, had Jimmy been proven wrong, and in a most explosive way.

“Let us go then!” said Dupre.

Dupre led the posse of followers down the road toward the inn, Walton carrying the black-cloth-swathed body of Sir Vardu dutifully despite the heavy burden. Jimmy marched silently with the group, Sir Delfin grumbling about something incoherent beside him. Lindu and Travis strode up near Walton, the grief-stricken warrioress grim in her reticence. The rotund, blue-uniformed figure of Captain Regara jostled beside Dupre as the garrulous naval officer babbled on as was his annoying habit, while the ruggedly handsome and audacious recipient of his verbal torrent assiduously ignored him, focused as he was on the growing inn ahead.

“This resurrection, it ain’t right, I say.” Delfin grouched, but discreetly enough so that Lindu did not hear. She was very touchy about the subject. It was here brother’s life at stake, after all. “If a man dies, they should bloody well leave his soul be. Let him rest in peace. Nothing good comes out of tampering with magic, especially not when it comes to tweaking with something as sacrosanct as life. The Void was meant to envelope souls, not lose them to the egocentricity of the living! Just look to Mondain and his minions to see the consequences of interfering with that which should not be violated. Back in my day, resurrection was a more common but-”

Jimmy ignored him, studying the timid townsfolk who watched the party pass with the ominous burden in tow. They were curious but shy, a result of their obsequious nature.

Regara fell back to Jimmy’s position, disgruntled at Dupre’s lack of response to his attempts at conversation, and the reporter groaned as he anticipated the fierce rivalry between the old sailor and the old veteran to ‘regale’ him with some boring, cliché tales.

The Scuttled Schooner’s austere yet somehow opulent - or at least incongruous - features became sharper and more defined as they approached foremost the ghastly demonic visage that overlooked the entrance high above. Regara frowned at that, muttering something under his breath uncertainly.

“That visage looks like it came from a ship’s prow of some sort.” he commented speculatively.

Jimmy smiled to himself. That made perfect sense. The inn had been supposedly built from the wreckage of a ship, after all. While the others entered but for Walton, who stood silently beside the door where the imperiously curious Sir Pasar lurked, alerted by the activity, Delfin looked at the daemon’s prow askance, as if reproaching it for the fact that it was tickling a memory that he could not for the life of him recall. Jimmy left him to his vacillation, entering the inn and stepping into the immaculate annex room.

Dupre stood there, Sentri, Regara, Lindu, and Travis holding firm behind him. Lindu appeared to be getting downright agitated; time was running out for her brother. From what Jimmy had been able to piece together, resurrection was not the easiest thing to accomplish, and understandably so. It was very costly, and not just in the monetary sense. There was only a limited time frame in which to initiate and execute the complicated and potentially dangerous ritual, and the results were fickle at best. Prior to departure, Delfin had terrified him with tales of how failed resurrections did restore life to the body, but left the mind a blank, as if the psyche were disjointed from the renewed body, thus leaving a drooling mental vegetable to eke out a meagre and worthless existence in the world.

Many factors affected the success rate of a resurrection: the condition of the cadaver in question (ashes could not be resurrected), the soul’s ‘proximity’ in the Void in relation to the world of the living (ie too distant a soul, the less likely resurrection would be successful), the skill of the practitioner, and so on. Skill of the performer of the potentially sacrilegious arcane art was of the utmost importance, and as a result the pompous fools would demand magnanimous amounts of gold before they even rendered their services.

Sargan was no there to greet them, thankfully.

“Ho! What be happening here?” cried Mister Argent from the commons. He hobbled into the annex room, coming face to face with Dupre. “Commander Dupre, it is ye who come in through my door this day! Again!” he said congenially. Jimmy would not be fooled by his veneer of cordiality this time. He did not know what the old salt had to conceal, but he wasn’t about to trust him blindly. The pretence of amicability often turned out to be the most disarming and effective weapon of them all. “Apologies about the lack of service, good sir, but Sargan’s gone trampin’ off somewhere, off to I don’t know where. He doesn’t do this during working hours, so I’m mighty incensed and more than a little worried. I mean, Sargan’s only a few masts short of a schooner, so to speak.” He chuckled nervously.

“We’re not after services, Mister Argent, just information.” said Dupre, noting Lindu’s increasingly bristly impatience. It was becoming quite palpable. “Does New Magincia have any reputable healers? Any that are capable of performing a resurrection?”

Argent’s eyes widened at that and he cradled his chin pensively. “Resurrection? Who, might I ask-”

“Thou mayest not.” Lindu snapped acrimoniously.

Argent winced, perhaps a little too hyperbolically for Jimmy’s taste and suspicion. “Sorry, ma’m.” he said apologetically, touching his forelock in a sign of respect. “Death is a cruel thing, and personal, to boot. Aye. As for resurrections, well, there is that mage that set up his lab near the northern hills of the island. Built a mighty, ominous looking obelisk of black stone too, he did, the industrious fellow. His name is Katar, and they say he is quite potent in the magical arts, but I wouldn’t seein’ ‘im, no sirree. He’s an ornery, reclusive sort, mean-eyed and possessed of precious little patience. Instead, ye might want to see…” He pondered for a moment before continuing, “Harlun would be the one. I can’t vouch for his abilities, since I’ve never seen him for services before, and they say he’s retired for some reason. All that notwithstanding, he’d be ye best option, I’d wager, unless ye would like to be turned into a toad or something equally unpleasant. He lives south o’ town, not too far from the old Schooner.”

“Thank thee, Mister Argent.” Dupre replied, and Argent reciprocated with a gesture of polite protocol.

Dupre led his companions outside, where they met Pasar and Walton, the latter of whom still held the body of Vardu without remonstration. With all solemnity so unlike his intrinsic self, Dupre laid out his plan with briskness, sending Regara back to the ship to oversee repairs and the search for the clandestine interloper. He sent Walton, Lindu, Travis and Delfin to the healer’s, while Sentri, Pasar, and Jimmy remained with him.

As the others left, he said to his posse, “As it stands, things are getting too hot too quickly for my liking. I need as many people that I am sure I can trust if we are to survive this odyssey.” Pasar looked at Jimmy askance. Obviously the ‘chivalrous’ knight regarded him, the poor helpless liability, as one of those out of the assuredly trustworthy ring. “We must find Katrina.”

“She is an old companion, a loyal and steadfast friend from our adventures many times past.” Sentri elaborated.

“Well then, let’s go hunting for some old buddy pals.” Jimmy said with a mischievous smile.

Pasar frowned at him.

This was certainly not going to be an enjoyable day.

Chapter 8
Machinations and Fruition

They briskly strode beyond the outskirts of the small and humble town, the wide expanse of the verdant island’s rolling plains and undulating hills quickly enveloping them. They passed the odd crop or two of various vegetable products: pumpkins, carrots, lettuce and such. Cows and sheep grazed freely on the abundant grass, adding to the intermittent but faint animal din.

Dupre was certain that Katrina had switched from her previous line of work, a farmer circa one-hundred-sixty-five years ago, to shepherding, and as such made the logical surmise that she was roaming nearby among the sheep and plains.

Pasar looked to the untended cattle and sheep with contempt. He could not fathom the contentedness with which such denizens could live in abject humility. It was too alien to him.

To Jimmy, the place looked empty. Not quite desolate, it was too bright and shiny, but still too devoid of people for his liking. There was an itch between his shoulder blades, an itch that implied imminent trouble. He would just have to be very watchful. He made sure he still had his dagger, then checked on his amulet and moonstone. Everything was safe about his person...for now.

They crested a hill and down below at the base a figure roamed almost languidly amidst a flock of sheep. Dupre led the descent, and as they came closer Jimmy could make out a woman with chestnut brown hair, attractive in an aster, rustic way. She did not look like much of a fighter, but then again, dressed in her humble shepherd’s attire as she was, the obsequious out appearance could certainly be deceiving. One thing, however, was that she looked incongruous without the trademark crook.

The woman noticed the group encroaching upon her proximity, then beamed at the sight of Dupre and Sentri.

“Katrina!” Dupre greeted amiably.

“Dupre! Sentri! Thou rascals! I have not seen thee in years! How goes?” the woman reciprocated, grinning broadly.

Pasar frowned at her skeptically, as if doubting that this lithe but fragile-looking woman could be a renowned hero of times long past.

The old comrades exchanged the standard salutations and inquiries on health before proceeding with the conversation.

“Not much has changed here, as thou can surely see.” Katrina said with a laugh. Then she frowned, adding, “Though in recent months we’ve had a mage settle here, a bad-tempered wizard called Katar. I don’t care for his demeanour. And some strange things have been happening of late, several sheep gone missing. More disturbingly, someone broke into my house and stole my crook!”

“Rather ominous for an idyllic place like this.” Sentri said wryly.

“Art thou in the mood for adventure?” Dupre asked.

Katrina became circumspect. “Perhaps. What does it entail?” she queried.

“Oh, a little misunderstanding with some pirates...”

Dupre’s voice trailed off as Jimmy wondered away from the group. heading for several low hills roughly northeast of his position. This place was becoming too boring. His journalistic sense demanded adventure; a possibility for a good and riveting story.

“Master Malone! Don’t travel too far!” Sentri called after him, but Jimmy waved back in dismissal, grumbling in audibly, “Yeah, yeah, I’m not a baby.”

He trekked over the hill, scoping out the landscape. A short distance ahead, a large, lumbering figure caught his eye, one too large to be human. Journalistic instincts jumping, Jimmy cautiously vectored in on the target. Well, perhaps more audaciously than cautiously.

As he came closer, the figure’s features became more defined; a large creature, partially hunch-backed, with long fangs and an inherently wicked smile. Parts of its dark brown leathery hide were covered in dark, swarthy fur, coarse and unkempt. In its might hands was a crook, a most incongruous sight. If Jimmy didn’t know any better, he would have called the creature a troll.

The monster heard his approach and recoiled, startled. It stood at least two heads taller than him. Jimmy’s dagger would not save him if the monster decided on hostile action.

“Uh, hi.” Jimmy greeted uncertainly.

“Who you?” the troll demanded gruffly, finding speech difficult.

“Jimmy Malone, Ultimate Adventures Magazine reporter extraordinaire.” Jimmy replied, flashing his most ingratiating smile.

“Mag-a-zine?” the creature repeated, grotesque and beastly visage becoming bewildered.

“Your vocabulary could stand for some improvement.” Jimmy remarked dryly, raising an eyebrow.

The troll looked at him quizzically, sniffing in repugnance. “Vo-cab-u-lar-ry? Me hear that word somewhere before, long, long time ago. But me no care! Me Tarcon, Greatest of Great Trolls! Me been many places, have many adventures! Been north, south, east, and uh...uhhh...that other direction, me forget what it’s called.”


The troll nodded his head vigorously. “Yeah. That’s it! But me no care about adventure anymore! Me Tarcon want to be shepherd now!” he said excitedly.

Jimmy looked around, noting the absence of sheep. “Yeah, well you seem to be a few sheep short of a flock.” he said.

“Me find crook in house, see through window, but door locked! So me bash it down! Now me got crook! Whee! Little sheep come to Tarcon!” The troll looked around, eagerly anticipating the arrival of sheep.

“Riiight. So, uh, can you give back the crook now? You stole it, after all. It’s not yours. The owner’s real upset about its loss.” Jimmy told the child-minded creature.

“No! My crook! Mine! Finders keepers!” Tarcon snarled, his hot, fetid breath forcing Jimmy back a step.

“Okay, okay! Easy, buddy, easy! Nobody’ll take your crook if that’s what you want.” Jimmy said carefully, trying to mollify the now heavily breathing beast.

Tarcon did calm down, testament to his volatile nature. “Me Tarcon! Me shepherd! But me have one problem. Sheep keep dis-a-ppearing. Think it because me eat them.” He shrugged almost sheepishly.

“Right. Whatever.” Jimmy replied. Then an idea occurred to him, one that would kill two birds with one stone. He’d get proof of a good story and obtain Katrina’s crook at the same time. “Hey, Tarcon. Can I take your picture?” he asked, getting his camera from his pack.

“Pic-ture? What’s that?” Tarcon asked, confused.

“This.” Jimmy snapped off a shot, using full power flash bulb.

The sheer white brilliance of the flash took the poor troll by the greatest surprise, temporarily blinded as he was, and the crook dropped as he covered his eyes with his great hands.

“My eyes! Tarcon’s eyes burning!” Tarcon howled. “You trick Tarcon! Tarcon smash you into ground when he see again, no-nice man!”

“Yoink!” Jimmy snatched the crook from the grass and bounded effortlessly away, evading one of he incensed troll’s blind swings. “And now, I bid thee adieu! See ya!” Jimmy exclaimed and fled.

“Give back crook! Thief! Thief! My crook!” Tarcon wailed after him.

As he ran, Jimmy could have almost felt sorry for the stupid troll. He re-evaluated that emotion when Tarcon roared loudly enough to wake the dead. If anything, it gave him more impetus to run.

“Me rip your head off and shove it down your neck!” the troll’s bloodthirsty howl echoed after him.

Jimmy bolted, crook in hand, rising and descending the ring of hills, headed in no direction in particular. His only concern was to escape the enraged monster intact. Panting heavily, he spotted a sparse forest of oak and evergreen, into which a path of dirt and gravel wound its way. He was lost, and he certainly did not entertain the idea of retracing his steps.

So, seeking some respite from the possible pursuit, he entered the humble wood, enveloped by dappled shadow and intermittent rays of sunlight. It was so peaceful, though it was strange that he could hear not a bird even. The scene seemed eerily familiar, the picturesque countryside and the trees, the winding path. It was almost like a surreal memory.

A stench assailed his nostrils then, a pungent odour - more like reek - wafting on the languid air currents. It smelt like burning sulfur.

Jimmy started as a cackling, hunch-back figure jumped out from behind a gnarled oak, waving a staff at him. The ugly stench and the ugly face matched; Sargan had accosted him.

“Well, well, rabbit!” the half-mad geriatric cackled, poking Jimmy with the staff. “Thou hast something that should belong to me! Gimme, or I will put a curse on thine lineage!” He brandished his odd staff threateningly.

Jimmy laughed. “Wrack off, old codger! I’ve got a troll after me! And what’s mine is mine, not yours! Don’t call me rabbit either!” he retorted, swinging the crook at his impediment.

“Grovel for my amusement, impudent one!” Sargan rasped sibilantly, his voice taking on a whole new malevolent cast.

Something spat from the tip of the staff, a purple bar of light, and Jimmy was propelled back into a tree, crumpling to the ground with a pathetic groan. Struggling to rise, he looked up, and Sargan loomed over, seeming to grow in stature and odium. His countenance seemed to melt away, as did the rest of him, dissolving into an ominous black miasma that swirled and reshaped itself in the image of another. The man who stood before him now was tall and emaciated of limb and body, his face long and equine-like, ostensibly senescent in his black robes. His gnarled fingers held the wooden staff, now a menacing ebony, and his cold, dark eyes gazed at Jimmy, betraying a glint of distant insanity and certainly avarice. A thin, twisted goatee sprouted from his bony chin.

“Lemme guess. You’re Katar?” Jimmy ventured tentatively.

“Very perceptive.” the mage replied, his sibilant voice laced with contempt and condescension. “The moonstone, rabbit. Give it to me!” he demanded forcefully.

“What moonstone?” Jimmy replied, feigning ignorance.

Katar’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “The scarred moonstone from the valley called Eodon!”

“Oh. That one.” Jimmy reached for his dagger slowly as he spoke, the crook beyond his reach. “It blew up. Sorry.”

“Liar!” Katar hissed, baring his teeth. He waved his hand, and to Jimmy’s consternation the corrupt moonstone fragment floated out of Jimmy’s pocket and into the malevolent wizard’s waiting palm on its own volition. He looked at it affectionately, then placed it within his swarthy robe. “Thou wilt pay for thine falsehood.”

Jimmy howled as tendrils of energy enveloped him for a moment, wracking his body with convulsive pain.

“Excellent. Thou hast no idea how many years of preparation went into the fruition of this final moment, purely to obtain this moonstone. The years of gathering information on the existence of other worlds, such as Earth, Eodon, and so many more. The Wisps were of superb assistance in telling me of thy eventful sojourn in the Valley, and of the grand opportunities that still lie there unchecked and unknown!”

“The Wisps!” Jimmy groaned. “Those scum! How much did it cost you?”

Katar smiled wickedlyd. “They told me everything in exchange for how to make golden, delicious crumpets. They also did a good job of luring thee here. A fine deal, I must say.”

“Those bastards! Lying sons of...” Jimmy growled. He’d been had with extreme prejudice.

“Thou hast not idea how much effort it took to bring thee here. The construction of the cosmic moongate transmitter obelisk was a particularly challenging task. Blackrock is not the most malleable of substances, especially when it comes to using magic.” Katar said, partially reminiscent. But it did its job: it shifted the moonstone destination for Britannia instead of Eodon, and now here thou art, right in my clutches. It was particularly amusing, summoning that storm to bring thee to New Magincia. It is all so...gratifying.”

“Alright, Einstein-slash-Copperfield, you’ve proven yourself to be worthy of the Nobel Prize in Hocus Pocus.” Jimmy said sarcastically. “Now are you gonna tell me all about the intricacy of your diabolical machinations like all cliche megalomaniac villains do?”

Katar tilted his head to one side in thought. “No. I think I will leave thee in suspense.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes. His fingers grasped the hilt of his hidden dagger. “I can tell this is the part where the words, ‘To Be Continued...’ pop up.” he said wryly.

Katar chuckled wickedly. “Oh, no, little rabbit.” he rasped. “There will be no continuation of this adventure for thee. Now, I must bit thee adieu, and -”

“Not without leaving you a going-away present!” Jimmy cried as he launched himself at his enemy, dagger drawn and ready to stab.

He met an invisible wall and rebounded with a loud ‘ooof’, landing back on the dirt.

Katar’s eyes were ablaze with anger and outrage now, and he lifted his staff as if to smash it down upon the reporter’s skull.

“Just for that deed of impetuous stupidity, thy death will be all the more slow and agonizing!” he snarled. “Enjoy the company of these fine fellows!”

With a wave of his staff, four monstrosities appeared in a swirling coalescence of ethereal sparkles, muscular men with no heads. Jimmy recoiled in utter shock and revulsion, frantically grabbing the crook and regaining his feet. The evil wizard disappeared with a final reverberating cackle, leaving Jimmy to his fate.

“Get the hell away from me!” Jimmy yelled as he swung the crook, striking one monster full upon the bare chest.

It recoiled, but the others closed in, arms outstretched and hands grasping for their quarry’s throat. Jimmy knocked another back, but yet another grabbed him from behind, and he thrashed wildly though futilely. The foremost prepared to pummel him to death, guided by senses unknown, when a cutlass appeared in the centre of its chest, crimson-stained.

There were cries of men, and Jimmy escaped the grasp of his captor and began bludgeoning it with the crook. The sounds of metal hacking through flesh, the blur of movement, and pervasive smell of blood accentuated the battle’s atmosphere. Soon, all four headlesses lay dead, hewn and stabbed.

Jimmy turned to face his saviours, only to groan in immense irritation. Pirates faced him, at least five, armed with cutlasses and cudgels. Their leader was a rough-and-tumble looking fellow, aged but still fierce, with a long flowing silver beard. Presumably, he was the notorious Silverbeard, the one who had been chasing him for what seemed like ages now. Jimmy had leapt from the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak.

The leader, eyes gleaming with menace and barely contained anger - a man with a massive chip on his shoulder, it seemed - stepped forward, brandishing a bloodstained cutlass.

“Now, lad, ye’ll be handin’ over that amulet now, won’t ye?” Silverbeard snarled. He didn’t make it sound like a question. “Maybe we’ll let ye keep one of yer livers!”

A not-so-intelligent looking pirate in his middle years nodded his head vehemently, smiling grotesquely, and barked, “Har!”

“I only have one.” Jimmy replied innocently.

“Shut up!” Silverbeard spat scornfully. “Hand it over, lubber!”

“What? My liver?”

“The amulet, ye blood swab! The amulet!” the pirate captain snarled.

“Oh, well, you see...” Jimmy said, momentarily bemused, then started and pointed at the sky in awe. “Oh! Look, it’s the Goodyear Blimp!” he exclaimed.

The pirates jumped in enthusiastic surprise, while Silverbeard roared, “Blimp? Airship?! Avast, lads! Someone has made an airship before us! Curses!” He looked to the sky.

“Uh, Capt’n...” said the not-so-intelligent middle-aged pirate in perplexity. “What’s a blimp look like?”

“Waaait a minute...” Silverbeard’s eyes narrowed suspiciously as he realized there was nothing in the sky, then he yelled, “Morgan, get him! Skewer him!”

Morgan was on the fleeing Jimmy’s heels in moments, faster than a deinonychus, brandishing his cutlass wildly, while Jimmy looked over his shoulder and gasped. He would not be able to outrun the crazed, sanguinary pirate, so instead he opted for another tactic. He whirled around suddenly, so suddenly in fact that Morgan was greatly surprised and skidded on his heels to a halt, and cried out in the stereotypical supplicant’s voice of desperation, “Morgan, no, wait! I have something important to tell you!”

Morgan looked at him expectantly.

“Morgan...” Jimmy said, becoming the epitome of solemnity, “I am your father!”

Morgan’s eyes widened in absolute shock. He looked as if he had been shaken to the very core of his being. “Really?” he stammered. “Wow! Me mother never knew who me father was! Papa! I’m sorry I tried to kill ya, I was just - hey, wait a second, I’m older than you...” he scratched his chin, his brain working overtime. “Now there’s something fishy about that...”

Just when Jimmy was prepared to whack him over the head with his crook, Silverbeard barged onto the scene, eyes aflame with fury and indignation. “Morgan, you have no more brains than a sea turtle! Ye never had a mother, or a father, for that matter!” he hissed.

While the piratical dullard hung his head in no small amount of abasement and shame, the irascible captain turned on the startled Jimmy, craggy, barbaric visage an epitomized thunderhead of temperamental volatility, brandishing his notched blade angrily.

“Cur! Son of a duplicitous Buccaneer’s Den whore!” Silverbeard spat, head shaking agitatedly from side to side in his fury, elongated, almost coruscating silver beard wagging with the violent motion. “I’ll cut ye, dog, even if ye ingested the bloody bauble in yer desperation! Get ‘im, boys!”

The other four pirates, including the now chagrined Morgan, closed in a circle about their quarry, shouting taunts and jeers as they circled hungrily. Jimmy looked about in trepidation, seeing no avenue of escape whatsoever. In one last desperate act, he tore the amulet from his neck, raising it high overhead for the world to see. In his other hand, he gripped tautly Katrina’s crook in a defensive posture, but it was feeble and pointless at best, much to the pirates’ scornful amusement.

Silverbeard’s eyes widened at the sight of the much coveted bauble, and he hissed malevolently, demeanour becoming nascently rapacious. “There it is, boys!” he rasped greedily.

“Come any closer, and I’ll destroy the amulet!” Jimmy cried.

It was a final act of desperation, a poor bluff at best, and the pirates knew it. One lone outlander with little affinity for combat, let alone against multiple foes (and dishonourable ones at that), armed with a shepherd’s crook against scum with knives and sanguine-stained cutlasses. Had Jimmy known that the very crook he held in his hands had once done away with daemons and lava lizards, perhaps his usually cocky confidence would’ve been boosted, but it would still have done little to affect the final outcome of the biased battle, as it took skill to wield a potent weapon. The obnoxious, trouble-prone journalist did not possess that sort of skill, unfortunately for he.

Morgan approached first, eager to revenge his earlier humiliation, leering grotesquely as he hefted his blade to slash Jimmy’s face. “Well, lad,” the old villain said, his tone both vicious and sadistic, “here goes!”

Jimmy winced as Morgan tensed his arm to strike, his heart freezing in his chest as a spray of blood burst from the centre of the scum’s breastbone, a sharpened spearhead poking through almost to its full length. Howling in surprise and anguish, Morgan’s arms flailed, his cutlass flying from his spasmodic grip.

“Aaaigh!!! There’s a spear comin’ outta me chest!” he cried, then fell forward flat on his repulsive face, the spear’s shaft revealed to Jimmy sprouting from the dead man’s back.

Silverbeard sniffed derisively, muttering something about a ‘dazzling deduction’, unmoved and unperturbed by the pitiable underling’s death, all the while the other pirates looked this way and that in their consternation.

“There!” one pirate cried, pointing at a massive red-skinned figure emerging from the thin treeline. “It’s a gargoyle!”

“Let’s kill it!” yelled a naive-visaged, youthful pirate, only to be cracked over the head with the crook in Jimmy’s possession.

Stuffing the amulet in his pocket, Jimmy grasped the crook - his final line of defence - in preparation for the piratical counterattack. A number of metres away, Kap-Lem slid fluidly into combat like a snake into pondwater, claws lashing to ward off two pirates that had foolishly opted to set upon him.

Silverbeard was lunging toward Jimmy, intent on appropriating the amulet at any cost, while the youth, partially dazed from his slight concussion, was swiftly recovering. Now wasn’t the time to be impetuous. The plucky journalist whipped out the crook, targeting the captain’s knees, but the rogue instinctively parried the blow, notching the wooden weapon. With a roar, he launched forward, but Jimmy deftly sidestepped, and Silverbeard stumbled past him, spitting oaths and imprecations before whirling around for another pass.

There was a sudden blur of metal and resplendent hue, and the tall and imperious Pasar materialized between the two, two-handed sword slashing and cutting with Silverbeard’s own swift cutlass. Silverbeard feinted, duping the arrogant knight and lulling him into over-extension, then stabbed into his torso. The blade broke at the haft, the armour only slightly scarred.

“Bah!” Silverbeard cursed in his chagrin at Pasar’s condescending smile, then turned and fled.

The youthful pirate, knife in hand, grinned smugly as Katrina confronted him, figuring that the unarmed shepherd would be easy prey. Katrina merely smiled back disconcertingly, lulling the pirate into a confused, panicked thrust of the blade, the likes of which the shepherd easily evaded. She counterattacked with a knee to the groin, and the delinquent fell back with a pained cry, frantically limping away.

As for the two pirates that had challenged Kap-Lem, one already lay broken on the ground, courtesy of the wingless gargoyle’s brute but disciplined strength, while the other had to contend with two new foes: Dupre and Sentri. Paling in the face of their combined swordsmanship - vastly superior to his own -the pirate leapt back with an intimidated yelp, muttering, “Solmon don’t get paid enough for this!” With that, he turned tail and ran back down the winding trail from whence he had come.

Pasar eyed both Jimmy and Kap-Lem as a parent would a pair of recalcitrant children, sheathing his heavy blade smoothly without even a glance.

“Well, Pasar, I never thought I’d say this,” Jimmy began just a little sullenly as Pasar readied a vitriolic tirade, “but I’m glade you were here. Thanks.”

The token of gratitude startled the knight of Serpent’s Hold so much he actually froze with his mouth open, face contorted and now thoroughly nonplussed. Then he allowed himself a small, smug smile, one that couldn’t help but grate on the proud, mostly independent journalist’s nerves. The knighted bastard knew it too, Jimmy was sure.

“My crook!” Katrina exclaimed at the sight of her versatile tool in the hands of the person she had just helped save. Taking it, she asked, “Wherever didst though find it?”

“It’s a long story.” Jimmy said miserably.

“Aye. We leave thee from our sight for just a moment, and thou dost start a whole new saga!” Sentri said with a wry smile.

Pasar still eyed Jimmy and Kap-Lem askance, having quickly recovered from the complacency caused by the journalist’s small compliment.

“Well, we’ve killed two birds with one stone with the discovery of thee,” Dupre said to Jimmy and the gargoyle, “but now we’ve got a whole new problem with the overt arrival of Silverbeard.”

“It’s worse than that, I’m afraid.” Jimmy said morosely. “Katar’s got the moonstone. He was Sargan all along.”

Dupre’s apprehension, incongruous on such a carefree persona such as his, quadrupled immediately. “Sentri, Pasar, return to the ship and render whatever thou canst. The pirates may be attacking even as we speak.” he commanded, and gone was the roguish charm and the mischievous glint in the hazelnut eyes, replaced by an uncharacteristic sobriety.

“No doubt the rabble will be.” Pasar said scornfully, turning to follow Sentri at a moderate jog down teh trail after the pirates.

Kap-Lem looked toward Jimmy, terrible countenance almost apologetic and certainly epitomizing abasement. “To be sorry. Should have stayed by your side, as Hothame requested. To be dishonoured.” the gargoyle said, hanging his head sadly.

“Hey, don’t worry about it. I got you into this mess, after all.” Jimmy replied, smiling as he patted his friend’s iron-muscled arm.

“No. To be Silverbeard who got me into this mess. To have gotten all of us. To wish to put an end to it.” Kap-Lem said grimly, a dogged resistance now entering his demonic eyes.

“Thou wilt get that chance, once we pay Katar a visit!” Dupre said.

“You’d better hurry! My guess is he won’t stick around for very long just for tea.” Jimmy interjected worriedly.

“I’ll show thee the way!” Katrina announced, turning them north to lead the way to the irascible sorcerer’s lair.

Lindu rapped on the supposed healer’s door, a frenzied knocking that was indicative of her inner turmoil and urgency. Walton stood a few paces back, unconcerned - ostensibly, anyway - as the heavy body of Sir Vardu weighed down upon him onerously. Delfin was not so garrulous, sniffing tension in the air, and not just from Lindu, while Travis reflected her dear friend’s fears, unusually reticent.

Just as Lindu was about to rap viciously again, the door opened, and a bearded man stuck his head out, graying and middle-aged, his visage one of distant sorrow or unfulfillment. It was difficult to tell which.

“Yes?” he asked a little suspiciously, eyeing the armed men and woman on his doorstep askance.

“Art thou the local healer?” Lindu demanded airily, impatient.

“Yet, but -” the healer replied uncertainly, only to be cut off by the hasty warrioress.

“We have an emergency!” Pushing her way in, her companions followed, entering the old man’saustere, almost ascetic study, where Walton placed the concealed body of Vardu in the middle of the floor.

“Resurrection. Canst thou do it?” Lindu demanded.

The man almost flinched from the palpable desperation in her eyes. “Thou dost not understand. I am retired...” he said, but Lindu’s pallid face darkened at this.

“A healer never retires! His job is one of a lifetime, for there are always those who are ill or injured!” Lindu snapped, perhaps a little too vitriolically for her liking. She was letting her nerves get to her. How cruelly ironic. A hardened, seasoned veteran like her, having seen so much death and hardship, suffering from a bout of torrential emotions.

“It is the circumstances of my retirement that thou must knowest.” the man said, his sad, melancholy gaze sweeping over his uninvited guests, as if imploring to them, and for a moment his eyes paused on Sir Delfin in a faint flicker of recognition. This passed quickly, and the man sighed. “I cannot do this. ‘Tis not safe for me to make a healing poultice, let alone attempt a resurrection of all things!”

“We can pay thee! Gold is no problem!” Lindu supplicated, then added piteously amidst a shallow sob, “Please...”

The man shook his head gently, solemn in his repudiation of all forms of coercion. “Nay. Gold is not a problem for either of us.” He gestured toward the cloaked body of Vardu, saying softly, regretfully, “This poor soul would be better off dead than risk resurrection at my inept hands.” When Lindu was about to expostulate, he shook his head more vehemently, going so far as to raise his voice, no longer amenable to her domineering, “Thou hast never heard of Harlun the Death Doctor, hast thou? The poor victim of his own medically incompetent hands, which made many more victims poorer than I suffer more terribly than I deserve to know.” The look in his eyes was distant.

Delfin stirred, his repository of depthless memories piqued at the name. “Aye, I remember thee! ‘Twas in Jhelom, nigh eighteen years ago! I was serving there...”

“And I remember thee, though thy name escapes me. Thou wouldst also remember the terrible plague that struck the wounded warriors of that own, the Town of Valour...” At Delfin’s slow nod, Harlun’s lower lip seemed to tremble for a moment. “’Twas my fault. There was a bloody pirate raid, and many of the militia were wounded...”

“Aye. That was the Shade Capt’n’s work! I remember sighting the Sanguine Serpent before I was struck by an arrow!” Delfin interjected.

“I was the only healer in town, and with so many wounded...” Harlun hung his head. When he raised it again, his eyes were moist. “I made a concoction to treat them, a beverage to help ease their pain and speed up their recovery, but the herbs from which I made it were contaminated...a plague spread, killing many of the convalescent...and it was all my fault...”

“How could thou hast known the herbs were tainted? Thou didst what thy could in an adverse situation! Thou hast no need for compunction!” Walton said.

“I should’ve known. I’m a healer, for Virtues’ sake...a healer. I’m trained to recognize these things, yet I failed...” Harlun drifted once more in his mind-numbing shame, eyes vacant. “That’s why I came here. To escape those accusing stares. To never put anyone at risk at my pernicious hands again...”

Delfin hissed repugnantly. “Look at me, man! I survived! And it was because of thee! Without thine help, that arrow surely wouldst have killed me!” he said vehemently, realizing his attempts to reason with the doctor were failing.

“Thou wert lucky.” Harlun said, staring at him sadly.

“How deceitful the Illusion of Doubt is.” Travis said, his voice uncharacteristically solemn, as grim but sapient as a venerable seer. “How it tricks us into believing how poor of virtue and ability we are, when truly we are greater than our own self-induced inhibitions.” He stared penetratingly at Harlun then, bent on the revelation of Truth. “It has wasted eighteen years of thine life in worthless second guessing, consuming thee in the end. Doubt is a deadly foe, tempered by the fires of our own self-pity and chagrin. But just as Doubt is made by our insecurities, so can it be unmade by our confidence. It is up to thee to find that confidence within the void that is thy soul.”

The diffident healer looked at them solemnly then, first at the disgruntled Delfin, then the impartial Walton, the earnest rogue Travis, the tear-stained face of Lindu, and finally, the cloaked body of Vardu. He sighed, as if a great weight was being lifted from his shoulders.

“To hide from my doubt and do nothing is to harm those I was sworn to protect so long ago. I must not let that happen again.” A determined cast set the worn healer’s face then, and he knelt beside the body, removing the cloak to reveal the cadaver’s blank countenance and bare chest. “Now witness the wonder of an ancient glory. Please, stand back.”

The companions complied, forming a loose circle around the healer and his cold charge. For a moment, Harlun’s eyes were closed, his head hung as he ran his hands to obtain the feel of the corpse. In a deep utterance, he spoke, but it was the voice of a distant entity, archaic and venerable, “IN...” There was a distant howling of winds, as if banshees were moaning a sad, sorry dirge. “MANI...” The room grew colder, the chill of visiting spirits, whether malevolent or benign only Harlun could discern. “CORP!” The howling of the spiritual winds increased in magnitude, and for a moment the ambient light seemed to dim. Both the healer and the body were enveloped in a vortex of scintillating ocean-blue stars, ripples of ethereal waves, somehow both tangible and intangible, propagating through the air. The hackles of the spectators rose, their skin prickling, as the room was invaded by an otherworldly presence.

The howling picked up in crescendo, the arcane vortex swirling more fervently around Harlun and his dead patient, the air crackling with unseen energy. For a split-second, it seemed as if Sir Vardu’s body was struck by blinding white lightning, though not a scorch marked his cold flesh. His body began to spasm then, eyes fluttering beneath lids, and before the spectators’ very eyes the neat little bullet hole in the heart of the dead knight’s chest sealed on its own volition.

His chest began to rise, up and down, and he cried out, “Mara! No! Don’t leave me!”

Lindu winced at that, and Sir Vardu’s eyes snapped open, crestfallen countenance bewildered.

Harlun rose. “It is done.” he said, his tone relieved, and more than just for the successful resurrection. His self-confidence had been restored.

Lindu cried silently, while the deeply touched Travis put his arm around her, soothing her. Delfin grumbled something incoherent, as Walton stood nonplussed at the sight of the miracle. Vardu sat up, looking at them silently, accusingly.

There were shouts and cries from outside, clashing steel and thundering cannon. Sir Walton’s head cocked in the direction of the tumult. “Silverbeard,” he said without needing to look. The sturdy knight turned to face the taciturn healer. “Thy healing abilities will be required, Harlun.”

Harlun gave a weary but grateful sigh, nodding his head in the affirmative.

With that, Walton and Delfin turned to leave the study, determined to join the fray raging outside.

Reizer crouched over the powder keg by the main mast on mid-deck, his audacious plan in the latter throes of its final phase. Allowing himself a small smile of satisfaction, he prepared the keg for its mission, unconcerned with the mayhem occurring all about him. Pirates were attacking, was the frenzied word, crewmembers dashing this way and that as shuddering reports shattered the quaint silence of the Town of Humility.

This was just the sort of distraction the resilient corporate agent needed. In the midst of the ensuing battle, none would deign to question his activities, thinking that he was merely bringing powder kegs to fuel the blasting guns. Let them think so.

With this final positioned powder keg in place, the chain reaction would be sure to take place at its ignition, as inexorable as an elaborately patterned row of dominoes collapsing one after the other with increasing rapidity.

His work done, Reizer stood and drew his pistol, disarming the safety lock. Only a short wait remained before his plans came to fruition.

Hopefully, the pirates wouldn’t set off the chain reaction prematurely.

The laboratory materialized a short distance ahead, sitting placidly atop a low, languid hill. A great black obelisk rose before it, ominous as it greeted the interlopers from afar. Jimmy led the frantic charge, bent on the apprehension of the thieving sorcerer, Katar. He was curious to find that the ground leading up to and surrounding the lab was either bare or charred, as if numerous fires had scourged the grass without mercy over a prolonged period of time. Even the sparse trees that dotted the vicinity stood naked and gnarled in their mourning, charred black and dead. The stench of sulfur and rotten eggs suddenly permeated the air, and Jimmy’s nose wrinkled involuntarily at the pungent reek’s unwanted detection.

“Almost there!” Katrina panted, pointing at the moderately-sized stone laboratory ahead.

Kap-Lem took the hurried pace in his capacious stride, unimpeded by weariness of muscles, unlike the rest of them. Only Dupre, who was trained to run in heavy plate, was enduring the pace with relative ease.

The obelisk grew larger as they approached.

“That’s the thing that brought me here!” Jimmy pointed.

As if in response, the obelisk shuddered, dull white light pouring out from rapidly forming cracks in its once smooth surface, and with a great report and a gout of billowing flame, the structure shattered into a thousand pieces, showering them with fragments of swarthy rock.

“Talk about a warm welcome!” Jimmy griped, covering his head as it rained hard rocks.

They tried the direct approach, Dupre barging in through the front door, only to be followed by the others, their weapons tensely drawn. To their great astonishment, they found the lab to be completely empty. Even the idiosyncratic stench, so synonymous with the sorcerer’s presence, was entirely absent. It was as if the wraiths of the underworld had seized all the trappings of the pernicious wizard, experimental apparatuses, potions, reagents, and what not. The floor too, stone tiles excavated without a trace, leaving only a shallow pit of foundation and dirt rimmed with stone vestiges of the once ubiquitous surface.

“What the hell kind of a lab is this?” Dupre exclaimed, immensely perplexed.

Jimmy recognized the telltale signs almost instantly. In morose resignation, he said, “We’re too late. He’s gated out with the stone.”

“Blast!” Dupre cursed in frustration.

“To see a set of stairs!” Kap-Lem pointed across the room to the far side, where in a concealed corner stone steps led down into a dark hole.

“Katrina, Kap-Lem. Wait here and watch our rear. It might be a trap.” Dupre commanded, then gestured to Jimmy to follow him.

The pair descended the steep set of stairs ominously, wincing at the unnatural cold that seemed to radiate from the cool stones, siphoning the trespassers of body heat. Below, the flickering illumination of torchlight greeted their eyes, and the duo found themselves in just one of many cavernous vaults carved from the very subterranean rock. Torches in brass sconces flamed, fed by some arcane tinder, while from afar there came a deep, rhythmic heaving of air, not unlike wind being drawn and expelled by a monumental set of bellows. Proceeding into the patterns of light and darkness, they passed numerous miscellaneous items, crates full of iron bars, esoteric reagents, a white powdery substance that Jimmy could not help but suspect to be ground bone.

Dupre gasped and froze suddenly, Jimmy following the direction of his gaze only to find the same reason of consternation. There, in the middle of one of the larger cavern egresses, lay a massive sleeping beast, one the startled journalist had only seen in fairytales. It could have only been described as possessing the body of a giant lizard, with great leathery flaps - certainly wings! - sheathing its flanks, flaccid and heaving with each monstrous breath of the leviathan. At the end of a long, sinuous neck was attached a draconian head, jaws elongated and fangs overlapping the lower lip. Horns adorned the demonic skull, just above the brow ridge of the lidded eyes. Armour of overlapping resplendent bronze scales formed the principal hide of the gargantuan lizard, scintillating in the flickering, ever-shifting torchlight.

So, Lindu hadn’t been lying, Jimmy thought in retrospect. Dragons did exist after all.

“Hmm...this can’t be good...” Jimmy whispered nervously.

“Quiet!” Dupre hissed. “Before thou dost w-”

The creature rumbled, the sound of a distant but terrible avalanche, and its jaundiced eyes snapped open, glowing with lethal intensity. Lifting its head, it regarded the intruders condescendingly, as if regarding them as a mere pestilence and nothing more.

“I am Argwai’disthar’kathas Virancor, ForeClaw of the Draconian Hordes, Destroyer of Worlds...!” the monster rumbled sibilantly. Then he added somewhat less imperiously, “But some others, like the idiotically moronic peasant scum of this resident village, know me simply as Bronzie. Bronzie the Dragon, though I cannot for the life of me fathom why...”

“Maybe it’s because you’re bronze...” Jimmy suggested.

“Silence, impudent one!” the dragon snapped, pointing a vicious-looking foreclaw at the audacious journalist. “What is it thou dost want?”

“We seek to discover the foul machinations of the evil mage that dwelt here!” Dupre proclaimed, the epitome of obstinacy as he hefted his broadsword.

Bronzie regarded him as one might’ve regarded a leech attempting to misappropriate a meagre drop of blood. “Ah...a noble ambition. But thou wilt have to go through me to discover their true nefarious nature.” He grinned wickedly, daring the puny interlopers to challenge his might.

“So! Thou art on the payroll of the sordid fiend, Katar, eh?” Jimmy bellowed dramatically, his frown one of patronizing castigation. He must have looked comical with such a pompous expression on his face, but at least he was mastering the art of Elizabethan English., not that he deemed such an archaic thing an art in the first place. “What didst he offer thee that we couldst not? Money? Power? Love?”

Durpe rolled his eyes, exasperated.

Bronzie’s voracious smile broadened. “Golden, delicious crumpets!” He smacked his lips hungrily. “Much more subtle-tasting than plain sheep or dragonslayer, and there’s no plate to chew through, either. Blasted armour gives me gingavitis once it starts rusting!”

Impatient with the rate of progress of events, Dupre stepped forth, demanding with sword for emphasis, “Stand aside, knave-beast! Know that I have served with the Avatar, and have in his company slain many of thy foul kind!”

Bronzie squinted in recognition. “Ah, yes. Thou art the drunken sot with the plethora of bastard children who caught herpes from a Buccaneer’s Den gutter whore.” The dragon’s chuckle was like the searing rasp of hot coals on flesh.

Dupre coloured, then vehemently shook his head in desperate refutation. “What vile calumny is this?!” he exclaimed in indignation.

Jimmy shook his head as would a parent silently deploring a recalcitrant child. “Dupre, buddy, I’m shocked.”

“He lies!” Dupre cried.

Bronzie chuckled wickedly. “I wouldst fain devour thee, vagrant, but I fear I would become inebriated. In any case, my duties are done here, but for one last little detail. In anticipation of thine foolhardy arrival, my kind, generous employer has asked me to leave thee a farewell gift.” The dragon’s voice deepened ominously. “Tym Vas Flam!” With that, the reptilian leviathan disappeared completely, leaving behind only his mocking, echoing laughter.

Dupre’s eyes widened in consternation, and he choked, “Run! Self-destruct!” before fleeing for the stairs.

Jimmy bolted after him with alacrity, rushing up the stairs to the surface, Katrina and Kap-Lem running at a single glance at their panicked faces. They fled, pushing hard until the laboratory was just a vague structure in the distance behind them, gasping heavily for air.

After several moments, Jimmy regained his breath and looked back, sneering derisively as he did so. “I think that dragon was just bluffing...”

There was a thunderous report, and then the lab dissolved in a mushroom cloud of ash and ruin, leaving only a crater remaining.

Jimmy sniffed. “Or maybe not...” he concluded sheepishly, even as the debris rained down in earnest.

It was the acerbic taste and smell of ash and charred wood that greeted them on their return to the heart of the once pure town of humble New Magincia, thick and wafting in the air that now seemed tainted with blood and violence. Dupre had been right to send back men to defend the inn and, of course, the village itself, for Silverbeard’s pirates had indeed struck in their usual rapacious manner.

Alcor greeted Dupre and his frustrated band, though they did not need his report to discern the fundamentals of what had transpired. Silverbeard, seeking to kill two birds with one stone, had dispatched two parties to retrieve the much coveted amulet, one to assail the Scuttled Schooner and the other to comb the sheep pastures for any sign of their quarry.

Though the only death was that of one of the pirates who had s truck the inn, a number of innocent bystanders had been injured in the fracas. Houses had been set alight or penetrated by cannonballs that had materialized from a vessel’s silhouette some distance out to sea. One such building that had been burned to the foundation was, unfortunately, the Scuttled Schooner itself, ignited in the aggressors’ mad frenzy to flush out the bearer of the amulet. Despite the loss of the inn itself, the crew and warriors of the Virtuosity had managed to fend off the assailants, certainly saving many more lives in the process.

Still, it was a scene of complete misery that assaulted Jimmy’s senses, with the brutalized but innocent people of New Magincia congregating on the streets in their astonishment and horror at the unwarranted violence that had befallen them, assisting the injured and loved ones, soothing those who had now been rendered destitute through the fulmination of their diminutive homes.

Jimmy could not help but wince and feel that he was the cause of their misery. He had inevitably brought the amulet to their peaceful little abode, Katar’s stormy influence notwithstanding. Regardless of what anybody else said, he was partially responsible for this egregious transgression. He should’ve dumped the wretched thing into the ocean when he’d had the chance. But still the pirates would have come, refusing to place stock in the trinket’s destruction. Only if the worthless piece of jewelry was destroyed before their very eyes would they concede defeat and withdraw from their relentless pursuit, but only after reducing him to a pile of entrails.

Pasar appeared as if from thin air, moving fluidly like a preying snake to intercept Commander Dupre, unimpeded in the least by his heavy, durable plate. The rogue who no longer looked the part, but rather an apathetic fighter worn down by the responsibilities and callous realities of war, glanced at the officious knight before returning his gaze to the despondent scene before him.

“Casualties, Commander: one death - being that of a detestable pirate, slain by my own hand, mind thee -” Sir Pasar began, revealing the blood on his notched sword as if to reinforce his veracity, “eleven wounded, all peasants, and three houses burned to the foundations, as well as two partially damaged. Note that the Scuttled Schooner was also burned. Of the patrons staying there, two are unaccounted for.”

Jimmy wondered whether Burem, the comely Anita, or even the domineering Mistress Belina were among those still missing. He hoped not, for their sakes. The secretive clique of merchants had survived virtually intact, ironically coalesced together on the side of the street across from the burned remains despite all that had happened, whispering to each other and casting suspicious - and poorly surreptitious - glances at any who passed them by. Not that anyone was interested in anything but their own troubles at present.

“A close bloody call, says I!” Sentri proclaimed, materializing from the flotsam and jetsam. “We may have to depart sooner than planned, old friend, for the villains have merely retreated to lick their wounds.” He squinted, disturbed by Dupre’s forlorn countenance. “I take it thine business with the sorcerer did not go well?”

“Nay. He escaped us!” Katrina interjected briskly.

Jimmy detached himself from the group upon seeing Lindu and Travis emerge from the pathetic throng, weapons still drawn though more complacently drooping by their sides. Despite Lindu’s grim, dirt-stained visage, he could see in her opaline eyes a renewed glimmer of hope, one that told him the answer to the question he had never even asked. Vardu was alive. Somehow, by some miracle, he had been revived. Every part of Jimmy’s logic screamed non-sequitur and wishful thinking, but then again, the Kurak healer Intanya had been quite adept at bringing back those on the threshold of death, even with their bodies ravaged by myrmidex mandibles as deeply cutting as Krupp steel. And there was that glimmer. Jimmy had to see Vardu walking and talking and laughing - well, perhaps not laughing, otherwise Jimmy would suspect something to have gone horribly wrong with the resurrection process - to believe it, but though he was loath to admit it, a part of him did believe. Wanted to believe. He did not desire to see Lindu mourn for the rest of her life; it did not suit her beautiful, lithe nature to be caught in that anguished cycle. He cared too much for her as a friend to want to see that become of her.

The pair of warriors seemed poised to approach him, but then Lindu’s peripheral vision caught sight of a silent but grief-stricken child standing alone in the middle of the circle, a girl of perhaps five or six whose saucer-wide eyes were moist as they desperately scanned for some sign of her missing parents. Lindu altered her course to take charge of the girl, and Travis followed suit.

“...bloody fifteen years gone up in smoke, by thunder, I can’t believe it!” a familiar venerable yet salty old voice cut across the distant buzz of the shocked congregation, and Jimmy turned to see old Mister Argent, leaning heavily on his wooden leg as he wiped his sooty forehead with a handkerchief. He no longer looked dapper, but quite dishevelled. Few remained well kempt after narrowly escaping a blazing inferno.

His tone was an odd paradoxical mixture or wryness and chagrined resignation, tempered by a great but underlying disappointment. Yet beneath even that Jimmy detected something far more subtle...urgency, perhaps?

‘Up in smoke.’ That was a killer pun, one the dry-humoured and obnoxious journalist would have laughed at had it not been so close to the veritable truth. Also, finding mirth at the misfortunes of others would have probably resulted in his horrendous death at even the hands of the usually passive folk of New Magincia.

Argent stood in the presence of several people, including Dupre, Sentri, Findar, and Burem. The bard did not look so much the part of his typical stoic and wry-humoured, obscurely cynical nature -though Findar looked much the same as others, still suffering the legacy of inebriated stupor and nearly oblivious to the events transpiring around him.

“I apologize for the string of bad luck we’ve brought to thine doorstep, Mister Argent...” Dupre said, trying to sound sympathetic to the old man’s plight, but the archaic retired sailor - and now - former proprietor shook his head slowly, as if in disbelief.

“Blast it! My life’s work gone to the devil!” Argent replied.

To pirates more like it, which amounted to the same thing in this case, Jimmy thought grimly.

The elder cast a baleful glare in Findar’s direction, scowling as he did so. “And ye! Where were ye, so-called paladin, when all of this happened? Ye come into me establishment, all proud and puffy-chested like some bantam rooster with a clutch of hens, claimin’ to be a vanquisher of evil-doers and unvirtuous knaves! Aye, that ye were,” he added, and the derision was vitriolic, “but for one detail: all ye vanquished were me beer kegs! Bah! I leave the inn for but one minute to fetch some water from the well for Anita - praise all she survived the raid - and then it falls prey to some pyromaniacal pirates, while you lilly-livered, miserable excuse for a warrior of valour just sits there drinking away!” He rasped as he breathed in anew, his chest heaving. His tone lowered half a decibel, becoming pedantic, though none of his acerbity diminished. “Weren’t you on some quest for some sorcerer? Eh! Ye did some fine questing, Sir Lout, aye! Just sitting around since the day ye arrived, little better than a rum sponge!”

Findar looked morbid, though he could not hold Argent’s fierce, reproachful gaze. If Jimmy didn’t know better, he would’ve said that the insufferable paladin had flinched. Contrition seemed incongruous on his rugged, unkempt features.

Burem looked up as Jimmy approached, sighing as he said, “Well, Jim, I guess this means I’d better resume with my itinerary and find myself another tavern to regale customers with songs and invigorating ballads...”

Jimmy shrugged helplessly. “You could always sail with us. I seriously doubt we’ll be sticking around here any longer, repairs or no.”

Burem’s face twisted into an ironic, wry half-smile. “Nay!” he expostulated with exaggerated vehemence. “I can see that trouble follows thee like iron filings to a lodestone. No, Master Malone, I think ‘twould be prudent to stay here for a few days after thine departure. Who knows,” he said resignedly, shrugging in slight repugnance, “with the Scuttled Schooner gone, I may have to sing at the Modest Damsel, though I am loath to do anything for that debaucherer, Philanser!” His face momentarily contorted into one of chagrin, then softened as he realized the possible alternative. “Ah, well. It beats walking the plank, I suppose, or being cut up into fishbait. Good luck to thee, Malone!” He gave a mock salute, then took off down the road toward what Jimmy assumed to be the Modest Damsel, his smooth and ostensibly complacent gait returned to him anew.

Jimmy couldn’t really blame the enigmatic, dry-humoured bard for not wanting to end up in a can of John West tuna spread. Neither did he himself, for that matter. It didn’t help his already frizzled nerves much that he’d almost met that cruel fate.

“If there’s anything we can do to help thee...” Dupre said, despite the fact that he knew very well there was little he could do to aid the grieved proprietor.

His mistrust notwithstanding, Jimmy’s compassion went out for the man. The compunctions stung like spearweed.

Argent gazed at the knight commander with icy blue eyes, their depths haunted by loss and tragedy. The venerable entrepreneur was marooned in a sea of despondency and despair, left high and dry as presumably most of his accrued capital over the years had fulminated with everything else. But Jimmy’s thoughts inexorably returned to the small brassbound chest sitting innocuously in that hidden stone chamber beneath the inn. Had it survived the inferno?

Stomaching the flash of abasement at his lack of sympathy, Jimmy listened as Argent replied to Dupre’s feeble offer. “Aye,” he replied in a distant voice, his eyes vacant and sightless. “Thank thee for thine sympathy, but I must have time to think...” He hobbled off pathetically, the epitome of an unfortunate soul who had lost all to foul chance.

There was a high-pitched squawk, and both Jimmy and Dupre turned to see Obsidian perched on a tree branch, flapping his wings indignantly. “I know where the treasure is! SQUAWK!!!”

As if anybody would’ve taken the word of a capricious parrot.

The Virtuosity sat there in the water, dry docked and seemingly unruffled by the all too recent piratical assault. Serene as the vessel herself might be, this was not the case for the crew and hired repairers, who worked frantically about her massive constitutions to alleviate the damage inflicted by the magical tempest. The pirate’s fresh assault notwithstanding, the repairers were working with renewed fervour around the clock at Captain Regara’s behest, fuelled by fear of another attack at any time.

“Ahoy, maties!” Regara bellowed at the sight of the company including Jimmy, Dupre, and Pasar, rushing over from his place on the dock where he had been consulting the shipwright, a melancholy fellow called Roberto. “We should be ready to get under way tomorrow morning! A bloody good thing, I have to say, what with all this harassment from storms and pirate scum.” He appeared in an excited huff, robust in his gesticulation despite his grizzled veteran’s age.

Nodding to the garrulous captain, Dupre asked, “Was there any damage caused by the attack?”

“Nay, but for a few hammered thumbs and curses caused by the unwelcome surprise.” Regara’s laugh reverberated in his listeners’ ears with unnecessary magnitude.

Pasar scowled and appeared poised to expostulate, but Dupre cut him off with a weary sigh. “For once, Captain, that is news I like to hear.”

“But for that bullhorn of a blasted laugh...” Pasar grumbled morosely.

Jimmy grinned at him, but suddenly caught something from the corner of his eye. Looking over his shoulder, he spotted Sir Findar despondently plodding after them, deliberate and slow as if obligated by some invisible leash. His face was of a dire pallor, more bleached than usual, a countenance devoid of anything but apathetic unfulfillment, a concealed shame shielded by a featureless sadness and undefined determination that, to Jimmy at least, was a cause for no small amount of concern. Maybe the drunken paladin had snapped with the conflagration of the Scuttled Schooner, and he was numb and indifferent enough to expunge the maelstrom of indiscernible emotions within him, foremost of which was the compunction of failure. He certainly looked as if he were in a stupor, as he moved with a zombie-like gait, each step subconscious but deliberate, eyes staring vacantly ahead...toward Jimmy.

The journalist was about to say something when Pasar nudged him forward none too lightly, grunting, “Up the gangplank, peasant, before thou art waylaid yet again.”

Carried metaphorically with the tide, Jimmy followed Dupre and Regara up the gangplank and onto the deck, the two lead men discussing their individual sources of apprehension while the pestilent journalist attempted to insert himself between them.

“Hey, guys, I don’t know whether you’ve noticed but -”

“Mister Malone!”

The sharp, cold voice - so businesslike and sickeningly familiar - caught Jimmy’s attention first, his head whipping toward the point of origin. Dupre and Regara followed suit, and an ominous silence permeated the once chattering crew. Men had pulled back from the main mast, forming a circumspect semi-circle while allowing for those having just ascended the gangplank to have a clear line-of-sight to the centre of the spectacle.

There stood the dark tall form of Jimmy’s nemesis, the relentless hunter whose almost demonic tenacity in cornering his quarry had kept the journalist on his toes for so damn long. Beside the macabre and inexorable machine was positioned a powder keg, innocent but assuredly deadly, especially in the hands of this dispassionate maniac.

The loner stood across a distance of half a dozen metres, right hand hanging by his side in ostensible complacency, the left holding a semi-automatic pistol targeted for the keg.

There was the slight rasp of metal as Pasar furtively drew his broadsword, but the steel chafe could not escape the malcontent’s acute hearing, nor could the surreptitious movement of the knight’s sword arm elude his keen eyesight.

“I wouldn’t if I were you.” said the man, his eyes as stoic as a stone block, his voice as cool as an icetray just extracted from the freezer. Here was a supercilious man who exuded arrogance through his simple reticence and blatant disregard for the twenty-to-one odds he was pitted against. Surrounded as he was, the interloper and blackmailer stood imperturbable in his disposition, supremely confident in the credibility - and potency - of his silent threat.

It was this confidence alone that gave pause to many seeking to overpower him, going so far as to nonplus Dupre and freeze Pasar in mid-draw. Either this man was very brave or completely foolish. Audacity was what they called it.

“One sudden move and this ship fulminates.” the man said icily. It was a warning that carried a lethal undercurrent of menace.

“Believe it.” Jimmy said, meaning it for Dupre and especially for the stubborn Pasar.

At a single glance from Dupre, Pasar sheathed his sword to the hilt, sniffing repugnantly in immediate subsequence.

“A wise choice.” the man commended, indifference epitomized.

“Reizer.” Jimmy said, simply but with a palpable sense of finality. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Believe me, it was no act of mere coincidence.” Reizer replied, his dark eyes augers penetrating the veils that masked his quarry’s deepest secrets. “Rather, a moment of expediency. You know what I want.” There was no room left for ambiguity, only the anticipation of a rudimentary answer both of them knew very well.

Between Jimmy’s shoulder blades, there was a sudden and very irritating itch. He loathed the man’s dissecting stare. “The moonstone?”

“And yourself, please.” The tone was bereft of any vestige of congeniality. “But the moonstone first, of course.”

“There’s just a little problem with that...” Jimmy said with a slight wince. “The moonstone. Uh, well...I don’t have it anymore.”

Reizer didn’t bat an eye. “You lie.” He exhaled sharply, a gesture that was indicative of his increasing impatience. “I warn you, Mister Malone, that the threat I pose is a very real one. This powder keg, when ignited, will start a chain reaction with a combined explosive magnitude that will devastate this ship.” There were some murmurs of trepidation and disbelief, but Regara’s brow furrowed in his anxiety.

“Aye, he could bloody well do it, too.” the nervous captain whispered hoarsely to Dupre. “Place the explosives in the right positions throughout the ship, and thou couldst have a bloody big funeral pyre. Just the one keg going off on deck will scrub most of us and probably take down the whole main mast, not to mention blowing a hole through all decks startin’ from the top.

“And no way we can neutralize him...” Dupre replied grimly.

“Resistance is futile, Mister Malone.” Reizer said coldly, gun pointing unwaveringly at the powder keg. He was not a man to make idle boasts.

So focused was he on the journalist that he failed to notice Sir Findar scuffling morosely up the gangplank and on deck, vacant eyes concentrated on the terrorist. The paladin lifted an arm with mechanical slowness. pointing a gauntleted finger at the man who was the centre of attention.

It was then that Reizer’s eyes shifted to regard him, quickly evaluating the armoured warrior and the potential threat he posed. The others were just realizing the sudden appearance of the bereft paladin, Dupre turning his head to peer quizzically at the interloper.

“Put your hand down if you wish to live.” Reizer commanded as Findar almost silently uttered the arcane words, “Ort Jux.”

From the tip of his finger spat forth a glowing blue bolt of light, covering the distance between its point of origin and Reizer so briskly that the entire crew nearly failed to register it. In the next moment, the corporate agent’s pistol went flying from his hand, reduced to a mangled piece of scrap that found its resting place over the gunwale and somewhere in the harbour, while Reizer grabbed his hand with a muted imprecation of indignation. Almost immediately, crewmen set into action, seeking to overwhelm the terrorist, but Reizer’s reaction time was swifter, and he nimbly bolted over the side and dived into the water, disappearing into its murky depths.

Crewmen helplessly watched from the gunwale as the last of the air bubbles rose to the rippling surface and dissipated, the waves of distortion following suit and leaving the surface of the water placid once more.

“Search the bay!” Dupre barked, the men snapping into action and rushing to and fro.

Several men were already upon the perilous powder keg, frantically attempting to disarm it, while others were dispatched by a fretful Captain Regara to sweep all parts of the ship to scour for the other strategically placed explosives.

Jimmy looked to the numbed paladin, his opinion of the man rising a couple of notches. The paladin just stared ahead toward the horizon, eyes still as empty as one of his beer mugs.

When the morning sun rose in the east as a molten ball of seething fire, the Virtuosity was already prepared for departure. However, many things had taken place since yesterday, for the events of recent turmoil would not be resolved with relative ease. To begin with, Sir Vardu had been brought back aboard, but not in a pine box, as Jimmy’s cynical side had expected. Despite the man’s dour countenance, Jimmy was pleased at his return, and more than a little amused at his befuddled expression, in addition to his immense weariness - but who would not be feeling down under the weather if they had been resurrected only the day before? Some of the crew treated him with surprise, if not on the alien journalist’s scale, as well as awe. It appeared that the miracle of resurrection had begun its inexorable dieback more than a century ago. Jimmy wondered with a hint of irony if resurrection itself could be resurrected.

Lindu, for all surprises, was not as exuberant as Jimmy would have expected. A permanent nimbus had settled on her once blithe spirit, suffocating any ray of cheer. No longer was she the resplendent wise cracker with the paradoxical mix of encouraging words and vitriolic repartee. Now she wandered the ship, eschewing the company of even her close friend Travis, her face contorted in an odd conflict between grief and joy. It was as if she questioned her choice, and as such was now caught in an endless loop of vacillation, attempting in futility to decide whether to be ecstatic or mournful. She made a good blend of both, in Jimmy’s opinion. He didn’t bother her, not only because of her right to insularity, but also to maintain his good health.

On a good note, Kap-Lem was becoming more cordial toward him once more, returning from the abyss of total reticence to his standard level of partial reticence, his amicability shadowed by a compunction he diligently tried to mask but could not succeed in entirety. Their friendship was on the mend, much to Jimmy’s relief, though it still concerned the nosy journalist that the wingless gargoyle obstinately refused all interaction with his winged counterpart, ostracizing the perplexed Graldesh completely. Again, to remain in the realm of the salubrious, Jimmy did not pry into the personal affairs of the Gargish protagonists, prudently remaining silent in his fervent hope that the sensitive issue would rectify itself in due time.

Shortly after the incident with Reizer - of whom no trace had been found, much to the trepidation of Jimmy - the mayor of New Magincia had consulted Dupre, fearful of another pirate raid. He was unlike any bureaucrat Jimmy had ever seen, not a hint of pride or vanity in the man, despite his tall and broad-shouldered stature. He was a man who exuded confidence, though understandably he was apprehensive about the security of his people, but at the same time one who sought consolidation from a man-at-arms like the bedraggled, no longer roguish commander. Dupre did his best to assure him that the pirates would not assail the town again, as they were after a different sort of plunder, and promised to send a team of soldiers and a repair detail at the conclusion of his mission (which would hopefully be very soon) to New Magincia to reimburse the village for the damage done and augment the otherwise feeble town guard.

Placated, the mayor had departed with a sincere word of gratitude and returned to giving solace to his battered people.

More surprisingly, however, was that Sir Findar had requested to come aboard on the trip to Britain, carrying nothing with him but his sword, a pouch at his belt, and the armour on his back. He expressed a need to continue with his quest to hunt down his mystery sorcerer, having become certain upon hearing of Jimmy'’ harrowing encounter that Katar was his man, and an obligation to atone for his shameful weeks-long inaction at the inn, the destruction of which he believed to be partially his fault. The man took nor accepted anymore alcohol, vehement in his determination to remain sober. Gone was the empty look from his eye, replaced by an indiscernible smoldering fire, an implacable desire for the fulfillment of some unknown errand. Jimmy found the man’s presence to be disconcerting; he could not put his finger on it, but he was picking up dire waves from the disaffected paladin - anyone, in his opinion, who could’ve stomached Sargan’s undelectable roast rabbit couldn’t be anything less.

Much to Dupre’s disappointment, Katrina had chose not to come along for the voyage. She elected to stay behind to assist in getting the idyllic, insular village back on its feet again, and with her long combat experience in the company of the Avatar, defend it from further threats, in addition to augmenting the training regimen of the local militia, who were comprised of over little more than fifteen men, most of which were scant older than adolescent boys.

Perhaps what intrigued Jimmy the most was Argent’s ostensibly humble request for a ship’s passage to Britain. His former life and livelihood now destroyed, the high and dry sailor-cum-proprietor fervently wished for a new life in Britannia’s capital, where he would put his age-tempered shrewdness and sapience to good use in re-establishing himself. Peering from his vantage point upon deck, Jimmy had witnessed Dupre compassionately grant poor Mister Argent’s meagre request, promising that Lord British would reimburse him for all his troubles. Jimmy’s interest was particularly piqued at the sight of the small, unassuming brassbound chest from the secret chamber adjacent to the late inn’s basement. So, it appeared that the unctuous old coot had managed to retrieve something from the ruins of his establishment after all, but that still left the question of just what exactly he was concealing from the rest of the world. Despite his sympathy for the man’s great loss, Jimmy could not shake the sense of suspicion and the smell of treacherous vermin. No matter how much it irked and shamed him, his unscrupulous journalistic instincts were agitated to the point of nearly bursting from their containment and pervading through every portion of his body, impelling him to undertake his trademark obnoxious investigative procedures, just like the time he had first met the Avatar in Professor Rafkin’s lab, only here there was a faint ominous tinge. This ‘sixth sense’ warned Jimmy of some indiscernible trouble. At best, the young aspiring reporter could eschew complacency and keep alert for some form of subtle, insidious subversion.

“Raise the anchor!” yelled Captain Regara, starting Jimmy out of his reverie and forcing him to return to the contemporary world, where dozens of men rushed to and fro across the repaired Virtuosity, following their commander’s orders to the letter.

The great canvas sails were unfurled, puffing till they were taut by active wind currents. The helmsman, the same innocent-eyed Ensign Guvera who had discovered the corpse of Sir Vardu, stood dutifully at the tiller, smoothly guiding the ship out of the fledging port offered by humble New Magincia under the watchful eye of the vessel’s first officer, a taciturn man whose name Jimmy had failed to capture.

Standing on the foredeck, Jimmy watched the more banal scene of the Virtuosity’s majestic departure across the waters. Dupre looked back toward the dock, grimly reticent at the unusual fact that the typically curious people of New Magincia were not crowded on the pier, waving farewell. Their absence was a rebuke meant for Dupre’s crew and contingent, an unintentional gesture of reproach for the warship that had brought their once peaceful town a terrible moment of hardship not soon to be forgotten.

Findar and Argent were out of sight, consigned to their quarters, the locations of which Jimmy had made an effort to ascertain. The deck of the Virtuosity was stereotypically busy, men as lithe as spiders nimbly climbing up and down the rigging, while other sailors diligently maintained the fine-tuned trim of the sails, altering them only at Regara or his first officer’s whimsy. Some of Dupre’s men were up on deck, while others lurked below. The reassuring and perpetual presence of Alcor was to be found on the mid-deck, the taciturn, stout bull of a man standing by the gunwale in his vigil of the distant seas. Pasar also maintained a strict vigil on the aftdeck, but on the sailors working in his midst, as if suspecting any one of them to be a potential threat to his ridiculously pompous persona. Several other familiar protagonists were also traipsing about.

Kap-Lem, in order to atone for what he believed to be shameless irresponsibility that nearly resulted in the trouble-prone journalist’s untimely demise, had taken it upon himself to lend his muscle to augment the crew’s working efficiency. Needless to say, the weary crew had graciously received his aid, despite their perplexity at the gargoyle’s ostracision of his only compatriot aboard, Graldesh. They might have figured it to be an issue of wings, but Jimmy knew better. Shaking his head and sighing with chagrin, he wondered why religious issues were never issues of stark clarity.

Two men ascended the foredeck, Sentri and a slender, tall fellow with a seemingly perpetual cynical grin on his weathered, char-stained face. He was known to the crew as Lorwin, a student of alchemy from the Lycaeum in Moonglow many leagues to the east, who was now a master of cannoneering and ballistic engineering. A chief gunner with years of experience to boast, Lorwin directed the Virtuosity’s broadside cannons, his uncanny knack for solidly striking moving targets earning him a modicum of respect from the crew. It was said that, being thoroughly abased with his lacking performance in the past two water-based engagements with the Sea Critter, he was questing for redemption with a vengeance, secretly yearning for one last encounter with his foul nemesis, Rael Paws, to settle the score.

Jimmy fervently hoped that when that inevitable confrontation came, he would be far, far away from here.

“Aye, sir, I have the watchmen on the vigil, straining their eyes and scouring the horizon for any odd vessels drifting within view, though I think Chef Le Sorbe will be somewhat dismayed in his sudden decline in carrot stock.” Unlike most of the crew, Lorwin was a truly educated man who exuded an easy-going intelligence, one marked by confidence rather than arrogance. He spoke smoothly, almost mellifluously, and never skipped or clipped a single word in his linguistics. “We won’t be caught off guard this time, I vow it!” This last art he added with an iota of wry abasement, his tone partially contrite.

“I should vehemently hope so, Lorwin.” Sentri said, never one for unctuous salutations or formality. He maintained etiquette while somehow being discreetly direct, a fine quality indeed. His tone was a pretence of castigation. “Thou wouldst not to too well under the sea with the fish.”

Catching on quickly to the mock solemnity of his superior, Lorwin flashed a carefree grin. “None of us would, to be sure.” They passed Jimmy, oblivious to his unobtrusive presence, while Lorwin elaborated on the finer technical details of the ship’s cannons and their standard protocols for battle operation.

The mood was one rife with tension, accentuated by an ambient, stifling air, more imagined by the crew than anything else, a subjective figment that meshed oddly with the salty breeze that fluttered the sails. none doubted that they were still being shadowed. Somewhere, just out of sight beyond the horizon, Silverbeard and his minions were plotting. Having come so close to victory and failing for a second time, they would indubitably be whipped up into an implacable frenzy bent on Jimmy’s destruction and the re-acquisition of the amulet he possessed.

The journalist stared out toward the sea, futilely scanning the horizon for any oddities that might have posed a potential threat, when he sensed a presence beside him. Casting a quick glance to his right, he was mildly surprised - and subsequently more guarded - to find Mister Argent standing next to him, callused hands grasped firmly on the gunwale to compensate for the inherent imbalance caused by his concealed pegleg.

“Makes ye think, don’t it?” Argent said poignantly, gazing out at the sea with widened, vacant eyes. “Where could those villains be? The bastards that burned down fifteen years of my livelihood, earned in toil, blood and bloody sweat.” he added the last as if to enunciate the perpetrators’ involvement. “I’ve been at sea for much of me life, by Hawkins I have, and to this day the sea has been a source of awe - and apprehension - for me. It’s not just the weather ye need to fear...” He laughed, a dry, almost sardonic cackle, much like the crackling of desiccated brown leaves being crushed underfoot. Despite the usual wry pleasantry, there was a certain hardness to his tone, an element never detected by Jimmy before.

Though overtly Jimmy nodded his head absently, deep within he felt a deep resounding distrust of Argent sprout suddenly like the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion. He couldn’t help but wince at the odious comparison. What was the old coot hiding? the journalist asked himself again.

“Blasted pirates,” Argent cursed, his voice vitriolic with acerbity. “I’ve dealt with them a power of times in my life on the sea, ye may lay to that! Ruthless bastards, I can tell ye. That I’ve encountered him on more than a few occasions back in my day. He was always a brisk and uncouth sort, more suited to swinging in the sun at Execution Dock than harassing innocent sailors like meself. A mite bit dastardly, that one.”

Jimmy turned to face him then, expression cynical. “You seem to know a Jimmy turned to face him then, expression cynical. “You seem to know a lot about pirates.” he remarked, perhaps a little too coldly than intended.

Argent’s reaction was a perplexing one. For a moment, the elder actually appeared nonplussed, then his countenance seemed a detection of innuendo in Jimmy’s words. He arched a dark grizzled eyebrow and said, “As one of a crew of eighteen on a merchantman, pirates weren’t too rare in my day.”

To Jimmy, the response almost seemed to be an indignant act of vindication on Argent’s part.

As if retaliating in recrimination, the former sailor added, with no small amount of acrimony, “And now I hear something about ye being the cause of all me woes.”

Jimmy didn’t bat an eye, but his heart thumped contritely in his chest. Argent was more insightful than he naively gave him credit for. “What makes you think that?” he asked in challenge, though it was a feeble one at best.

“Oh, when one has sailed as long as I have he’s bound to have developed a knack for ferreting out the grapevine. Every ship has one.” Argent smiled, a smile that lacked any vestige of warmth.

A chill ran down Jimmy’s spine. Mister Argent suddenly took on the cast of a menacing, odious figure, his once kind and altruistic face sharpening into its more defined planes and angles, weathered by age and adversity, forested by an arboreal carpet of whiskers. Gone was the dapper cheeriness in his ice blue eyes, which now riveted by their dark and ominous intensity rather than their compassionate intelligence.

Jimmy stepped back, as if expecting a blow from a notched cutlass, but then a shrill squawked split the air, and the menacing disposition of the innkeeper fled to be replaced by his original veneer of cordiality. Frantically flapping feathered wings, Obsidian swooped over the deck and dived fluidly, alighting upon the palm of Argent’s inviting hand, before the owner gently clasped his grip around the avian. Jimmy thought he caught a glimpse of metal in the parrot’s tenacious talons, and then an object fall into Argent’s other hand, what looked to be a brass key. Perhaps a key to the innocent brassbound chest that Argent had taken aboard? Jimmy was both intrigued and anxious.

Argent, however, paid him no notice. Furtively, he pocketed the metallic implement and scratched the passive Obsidian’s head.

“Good lad. I thought I’d lost ye too, so grief stricken was I that I forgot all about ye! How callous of me.” He chuckled, a man relieved at finding his own son again, and wheeled around on his primitive prosthetic limb toward the stairway leading below at the heart of the mid-deck.

Jimmy narrowed his eyes after the retreating back of the former sailor and innkeeper. The veneer had cracked, only to reveal a darker side to kindly Mister Argent’s nature that only compounded his fears.

The day waned as the sun slowly but inexorably drifted across the sky from east to west, until the ship was heading toward a shimmering molten semi-orb of vermilion, half-consumed by the horizon as the water consumed the fiery sphere that was the sun. It was a fantastical sight indeed.

Jimmy paid it no heed. The hours passed with the painful slowness of dragging years, a grating monotony that he spent most of his time miserably livening up by staying in his austere cabin. He’d explored most of the ship, taken a scarce few pictures with his camera, and had filled over half of his notebook with his indecipherable shorthand scrawl, a colourful depiction of his adventures in the realm of Britannia and the locales and protagonists he had so far encountered, albeit with just an infinitesimal tad of embellishment There was little else for him to do, though he sought out new errands and interests with intense religious fervour.

He had tried visiting Sir Vardu, but the ship’s doctor, an eternally harried - looking man called Whitley, denied him access, stating in an imperious and chagrined tone that the injured party could not have his convalescence disrupted by strangers. Jimmy snorted at that. ‘Strangers’ indeed! Just because he and Vardu didn’t have the warmest of mutual feelings didn’t mean that the happy-go-lucky reporter would enjoy seeing the staid knight suffering a horrible death of unimaginable torment.

In the latter hours of the fading light, Jimmy had resolved to stake out the less vocal Mister Argent’s cabin, but the door rarely opened all throughout the voyage. Once, when Jimmy had nonchalantly passed by, he thought he heard muffled voices from the cabin beyond. The door’s handle rattled, tampered from within, and Jimmy sought concealment behind a rain barrel positioned conveniently across from the cabin and directly under an unrepaired cleft in the wooden ceiling through which water seeped during storms. The door swung open and out had come Mister Argent, muttering what could have very well been a disgruntled stream of unparalleled invective as he hobbled over the threshold. Closing the door behind him with a brisk jerk, the sailor-cum-proprietor continued on down the narrow corridor, moderating his chagrin and resuming his former affectation of kindly, venerable grandfather.

But Jimmy hadn’t bothered to follow him. He had just remained there, crouched in his damp and cramped hiding place, more than merely perplexed. In the brief couple of moments the door had been open, Jimmy saw absolutely no one else in the cabin to account for the muted dialogue. Nothing but the parrot, Obsidian, sitting placidly on his stool, head shifting this way and that at odd angles and intervals.

Besides that mystifying incident, the equivocal Mister Argent was no where to be seen, preferring to concoct his inscrutable machinations in dark corners and impenetrable shadow.

Jimmy walked toward the galley, feeling the early pangs of hunger, sightlessly navigating the dank crisscrossing corridors while he scrutinized the tattered pages of his Ultimate Adventures Magazine notebook, scribbling a note with a pencil mutilated by teeth marks as to his suspicions of the not-so-venerable-anymore sailor-cum-proprietor. Reminiscing back to Burem’s tale of the inception of the Scuttled Schooner Inn, Jimmy now earnestly believed that Argent had callously murdered his surviving shipmates to protect whatever profligate secret he was concealing. Jimmy was absolutely certain that the explanation to dissembling Argent’s frustrating mystery lay within the small and innocuous brassbound chest.

That was where the heart of the evil dwelt, to put it melodramatically.

He still kept a tenacious hold on the rubies he had extricated from Argent’s subtle and diabolical puzzle, though he was extremely careful not to reveal them to anybody. He ominously possessed them in the same place where the corrupt moonstone had been before its inevitable theft. If Argent was to get wind of them, he’d no doubt cast aside his veneer and come crashing down on Jimmy in all his terrible, veritable form and fury.

Besides, there was an added bonus to keeping them. They’d be worth a great deal of money back on Earth, if Jimmy could manage to pawn them off without being directed toward the FBI or worse - the IRS - and become mired in allegations of gemstore robbery. Then there was the stones’ souvenir value. He sniggered disparagingly at that. Three diminutive, unprepossessing trophies that served as a collective testament and reminder of the adversity he had endured in this accursed place. Jimmy was beginning to rue the day he departed from Eodon - at least there one could find an abundance of beautiful, big-bosomed tropical girls with fine-toned bodies and fetish for outworlder strangers. No pirates, no corporate agents. Just plague, giant ants, and the ever delightfully ravenous deinonychous.

The journalist winced as he snapped the small book shut and shoved it into his pocket, whimsically deciding that the Valley wasn’t such a pleasurable paradise after all. More like a daily struggle between life and death consummated to the power of a hundred.

Stepping over the threshold, the peckish Jimmy entered the unkempt abode that was the galley, hoping to supplicate a morsel or two from the voluminous chef, a paradoxically jovial but berating man who spoke with an awfully French-sounding accent and wore a stereotypical white apron - though fitfully stained after years of service - and a dishevelled cook’s hat.

Le Sorbe was his name, and he presently stood next to a cauldron filled to the brim with bubbling brown broth, periodically stirring it with a sturdy wooden spoon gripped firmly in one beefy hand. His expression was morose, and Jimmy caught snatches of disgruntled muttering, such as ‘merde’ and other incoherent remonstrative colloquialism. When the chef sighted Jimmy approaching, his flabby, jowled face made a remarkable transition from disaffection to exuberance, his brown eyes beaming. It was not pretence either. The French cook’s temperament truly was that fickle.

“Ah, it is James!” bellowed Le Sorbe cheerily, whipping out his spoon from the roiling broth whit a light splash of hot brown liquid. “What can I do for you?” Like the weather, his obese face transformed into one of implacable suspicion, eyes narrowing down to slits. “You better not be out to steal any morsels! Oh, non!” He raised his spoon to strike a surreptitiously pilfering hand.

Jimmy cringed and took a step back. “Relax, Iron Chef. You know I always go through the proper channels to obtain my sustenance.” the journalist said in mollification.

“Oui. You better hope so...for your sake.” Le Sorbe’s subsequent broad smile broke his unjustified indignation. “Well?”

“Pangs, Iron Chef, pangs. Got a spare, rat-nibbled morsel lying around for a poor, indigent supplicant like myself? Make sure you don’t include any snails!”

The chef frowned quizzically. “Snails? Why would I do that?”

Jimmy shrugged. “I guess you’re not as French as I thought. Can’t be too bad.”

Le Sorbe sniffed, ignoring the comment. Gesturing to one of the long tables across the room, he said, “Take a seat. I’ll get you something soon enough.”

Jimmy complied with alacrity, planting his rear on one of the austere chairs around the nearest long table. It was shortly after, perhaps a moment or two, when he felt a light tap on his shoulder. Turning, he was surprised to find himself facing Lindu’s slightly more radiant countenance, though it was slightly pensive. She took a seat beside him, unusually tentative.

“Jimmy, I’d, uh...” She paused, as if scrutinizing not only the choice of her imminent words, but the nonplussed expression on her recipient’s face. She coughed in quick successive bursts to clear her throat, embarrassed, and soldiered on. “I’d like to apologize for my brusqueness before, when...” Her voice trailed off, her eyes glistening with distant anguish and contrition.

Jimmy smiled reassuringly, his gaze sympathetic. He tried to empathize and hoped he didn’t screw it up too much. “Hey that’s okay. I mean, if I were in your shoes and had a dead brother who had a chance for renewed life, and then there was some obnoxious journalist questioning me every step of the way, I’d probably stove his teeth in too.”

She smiled, but it quickly faded. Quite ironically, she was vacillating over a decision she had already made, a time which forbade any change. “Sir Vardu, erm, my brother. He’s getting better, our sovereign be praised.”

Jimmy suppressed a snort. Lord Irish or whatever his name was had very little to do with the convalescing knight’s rapid recovery. He just couldn’t understand why people - himself included, he added with some slight mortification - always referred to or praised an ostensibly higher being or deity for profound deeds they had not even had a hand in instigating.

“So why so sad?” Jimmy queried gently, letting none of his chagrin manifest itself on his ever-humorous face.

Lindu swallowed, caught in a quandary over whether to tell her friend of the crux of her inner turmoil. “More a matter of ethics than anything else, my friend. Thou asked me once why Vardu is the way he is.”

“So solemn and staid?”

Lindu nodded. “I told thee that it was his business to tell thee, not mine. I am confused now, distraught over my choice. Please, speak nothing of this to anyone else.” She looked imploringly at him, anxiously watching from the corners of her eyes for any eavesdroppers. Her tone quietened considerably.

Jimmy was genuinely touched by her display of trust in him. People though that reporters were obnoxious, heartless bastards who cared nothing for the reputations and mentalities of others, so hungry were they for a story, any story at all, whether it revolved around credible fact or a pure foundation of vilification, it mattered nothing to them. Cold, emotionless, apathetic toward the feelings of those they devoured in the tabloids, they only felt frustration and irritation at failing to obtain a scoop. Not entirely so, or at least not with Jimmy Malone.

He felt compassion for his friend’s plight. Silently, he nodded his head and beckoned for Lindu to continue.

“Many years ago, ‘twas, when Vardu was a young lieutenant in the Royal Militia. He was very precocious, a skilled warrior from the start. Many of his superiors were impressed with his abilities, including Lord British’s own bodyguard, Geoffrey, the Captain of the Royal Guard. He slew many a fiend, whether it be beast or bandit, troll or rogue, ensuring the peace and sovereignty of the realm.” She sighed wistfully in her reminiscence. “I too was held in awe at his skill, but I was more amazed at how freely and strongly cheer and joy flowed through him, as if nothing could dent his fiery spirit. He laughed a great deal then. Perhaps too much.” She smiled then, wry and longing.

Jimmy nodded in partial understanding, realizing that the fraternal twins had not been so different then.

Lindu’s eyes were moist with memory. “He was married then with three little girls. Mayhaps that was the source of his eternal excitement, what stopped him from becoming as grim and as grizzled as the veterans after years of fighting those creatures who sought nothing but our destruction. But when he came home from his second tour of duty, he found his house alight, his family trapped and screaming inside. Try as he might, he could not quench the fire, and his wife and children died. Suffocated from the smoke, the physicians said, a painless death...but Vardu swore he had heard their screams as they were burned alive. It haunts him to this day, I know. Such a valiant warrior, who with all his might had vanquished many a foe of Virtue, found himself powerless to stop a freak accident of nature.” She gamely resisted weeping openly, even before a friend, too proud to do so.

“That’s when he changed.” Jimmy said quietly.

It was her turn to nod silently, face taut with emotion. “That was the day Vardu died and became what he is today. A shell of memories, a man who loves nothing, but seeks to give his life for a cause, for the wellbeing of the realm. There are times - where I see him wade into battle, just him and his sword against a horde of headlesses - when I think he really is yearning for death, but deems it dishonourable to throw himself on his own blade. But it never comes for him.” She sighed, a tortured rasp. “I think I did him a grave disservice by bringing him back. It wasn’t my right. He was happier with his family in the Void.”

Jimmy shrugged. “Wanna kill him again?”

She shot him a withering stare, indicative of the intrinsic fire within her soul.

He raised his hands in a piteous gesture of placation. “Hey, just relax, lassie! It was a joke.” He just couldn’t help himself, he realized deep down, and he was ashamed of it.

Mollified, Lindu muttered, “Thou hast a strange sense of humour, outlander.”

Jimmy flashed his trademark ingratiating grin, though he knew all it would do was miff her. “It gets me by.”

“I’m surprised thou hast not gotten thy head knocked off yet.”

“Hey, so am I.” he replied all too earnestly. Quickly changing the topic, he said, “So, ahem, have you ever found someone special?”

It was difficult to discern in the less-than-adequate light of the galley, but it seemed for a brief instant that Lindu coloured and averted her gaze.

“I don’t allow myself. I don’t want to end up like my brother.” she answered at last.

“Ah! Methinks you’ve merely gotten the taste of unbridled freedom and are loath to lay it down for anyone or anything.” Jimmy said, a knowing glint scintillating in his mischievous eyes. “I know how that is. That’s the life of a freelance journalist. Can’t stay too long in one place, otherwise things become too banal to bear, and you end up stagnating in a pool of bureaucratic paperwork and IRS audits.” He shuddered hyperbolically at the last part.

The spark was returning to Lindu’s once vivacious disposition. “I think of myself as married to my work.”

Jimmy shrugged. “Fair enough.”

There seemed to be more in Lindu’s enigmatic, coruscating eyes this time, as if some subtle but indelibly profound change had come over her. Jimmy could’ve swore there was some deeper feeling in her visage, not only in her wonderful, penetrating eyes, almost a playful affection as she stared at him.

“ cute, mon dieu! Ami!” Le Sorbe interjected abruptly, grinning as if privy to some risque secret nobody else had the privilege of knowing. In his hand was a loaf of bread, sliced expertly into two equal halves, with some cheese in between.

Startled, Jimmy stared at him askance, snapping, “Hey, mon dieu, why don’t you go back to Paris where you belong?”

Like quicksilver, the corpulent chef’s blithe face transformed into one of immense ire. “Merde.” he muttered under his breath, the word coming out as more of a hot rasp than anything else. In a louder, patronizing tone he added, “Methinks someone won’t be getting their brunch today...” With that, he casually strode off toward the cauldron, morsel still in meaty hand, while Jimmy’s stomach grumbled in adamant protest.

Lindu only smiled in quiet amusement as Jimmy launched from his chair in a piteous attempt to supplicate the cantankerous chef, shaking her head as the recalcitrant reporter yelped from being struck by a certain heavy wooden spoon.

Deep within the shadows the sibilant, evilly sapient voice rasped in his ears, omnipresent and relentless as it drilled dictate after dictate into him, never pausing for an instant. Trapped in this ephemeral half-world of blackness and depthless pits, the fallen warrior futilely scrabbled at insubstantial walls, frantically seeking some non-existent form of extrication from his impenetrable and invisible prison.

“This malleable one can be made to perform our whimsy...” hissed the pernicious voice, echoing throughout the infinite blackness.

Suddenly, the impenetrable shadows parted, impossibly yielding to the tormented soul’s roving eye, just enough for him to discern the giant castle of stone. As it grew larger and larger, the incarcerated soul vaguely realized that somehow in his non-corporeal state he was approaching the ominous fortress, and the stench of decay and quagmire assaulted ethereal nostrils, birthed by an unseen nightmarish marsh of dark things and implacable hunger.

A tower became clear and defined in the hapless soul’s approach, spiralling around it until an arched window of blackness materialized in the smooth, archaic stone wall. Deep into the blackness he was propelled, a place of claustrophobia and apprehension, where the stench of burnt sulfur and rotting flesh was most pronounced.

Illumination...staring from above the vault, the hapless soul of the lost warrior stared upon a comatose figure lying inert on a stone slab, obscure in the jealous light. Around the body stood two figures, exuding malevolence and evil subtlety, beings that the soul vaguely recognized. There was the gaunt, tattered-robed one who reeked of ash and sulfur - always holding his gnarled ebony staff - and the dead creature with the crown.

“Despondency and decrepitude of character, a perfunctory, almost apathetic disposition toward life and obligation...” the sulfur-reeking man rasped, pleased with himself. “I am amazed he gave chase for so long. He is perfect for my needs.”

“Our needs, mortal! Never forget that!” the dead thing with crown reminded him menacingly, its voice that of crumbling, rotworm-infested wood.

“Silence!” hissed the other haughtily. “You will get that which you ask, but first comes my reward. The culmination of years of meticulous work rely on this one fortuitous occasion.”

“He is inert, useless...” the dead thing said disparagingly.

“Hardly.” came the conceited reply, tempered with an unnerving cackle that made the mad mage seem far more ominous than the rotting king. “His internal bitterness and despondency makes him the perfect tool of pliability, a soul to be twisted to my needs...he is the perfect recipient of the dark seed.”

The mad mage’s face lit up with an indeterminate fire, revealing the particulars of the wide and vacant-eyed visage lying immobile on the table. To the hapless soul’s horror, the face of the hapless specimen was his own.

Sir Findar awoke with a violent start, launching upright in his bunk and nearly striking his head on the low wooden ceiling, jagged with splinters and all. His rugged, despondent face bathed in nervous sweat, he shook away the tendrils of a nightmare that was far from the realm of terrible fantasy. A trembling hand reached for the heavy blade lying below and beside his bunk; the action was not of his own volition.

Attired in his armour still from the very nascence of the voyage, he rose mechanically like a ghoul, vainly trying to resist the compulsion that his master had irrevocably programmed within his shadowed soul. He had no choice as he automatically sheathed the dull-glinting sword in its scabbard by his thick alligator-leather belt.

Next, his other hand reached for a pouch hanging from this very belt, and from its shallow depths he drew a small vial filled with a peculiar green substance. Silver serpent venom. He hated it. Loathed its very existence and cursed the day he had first laid eyes on it. But the subsequent action was borne of part addiction, part compulsive programming, courtesy of the dark arts that had twisted his hollow soul.

He quaffed the liquid, ignoring its acerbic taste - he had become well enough accustomed to it over years of use. Too many, in fact. He had found a cache of the esoteric venom in the hideout caves of the Vas-Ke-Daralakesh following their destruction, and instead of relinquishing it to the apothecaries as was Britannian law, he kept the odious substance to himself, experimenting with it on occasion. He had marvelled at its ability to sustain his endurance and ultimately enhance his strength, had continued taking it well beyond the point of no return. What a fool he had been - through his weakness of will and bitterness for the decrepitude of the realm and the ineptitude of Lord British to mete out Justice and Order, he had succumbed to the addiction of the veritable drug, well beyond the junction of blase disposition. By then, it had been too late for redemption.

He had been an even bigger bigoted fool when he thought the venom would ensure his victory at Stonegate. With self-derision, he inwardly cursed himself, an unheard stream of vitriolic invective. Even now, from the recesses of his tortured mind to which the all-too-real nightmare had retreated, the mad mage’s voice rasped the sibilant command that had been reverberating inside his skull since his first sighting of the annoying outlander, Kill the incongruity.


Resistance was futile.

Kill the incongruity!


Futility borne of desperation. Desperation borne of futility. Hopelessness. Despondency. Apathy. Anger. Odium. All fuels for the dark seed that the mad mage had planted within him, the very same intangible poison that slowly germinated within and throughout his body, indelibly changing him in a subtle yet blindingly palpable way, forcing him to do his hated master’s capricious injunctions. The seed had been nourished and catered for covertly, though Findar had been barely aware of it on the outer fringes of his consciousness, and totally helpless to do anything about it. The mad mage had drugged him with wine and tainted food, he was certain of it, all the while maintaining the ostensibly innocuous guise of a half-insane servant.

The time was fast approaching when he would complete his inevitable mission and invariably expend his usefulness, his expediency no longer a tenable issue. The seed had become a sapling, and the sapling was on the brink of flowering...and when it did, his strength would be augmented greatly, an accretion of unnatural proportions that would merely add to the brawn boost of the serpent venom.

Kill him NOW!!!

There was no room for ambiguity. No place for viable dissention. While his mind could protest, his body could not.

Resigned to his fate, fully knowing what he had to do, Findar marched dutifully from his cabin to certain death, already a dead man walking.

Jimmy was surprised to see Vardu upon on deck near the gunwale, taking his first tentative steps in the realm of the living since his original demise. Death had been miraculously abrogated, an amazing event even to the Britannians, none of whom had witnessed the results of a successful resurrection in over a decade. No one had the money - or will - to make the profound miracle such a ubiquitous occurrence.

The journalist wryly supposed that was the trademark habit of miracles, being rarities and all. Otherwise they wouldn’t be esoterically astounding, merely mundane.

Lindu ever accompanied her brother, going so far as to support his right arm as the big man took wobbly steps, the legacy of his convalescence. Of course, where Lindu prowled, Travis would not be far behind. Dupre exchanged words with the taciturn patient, but the discussion was rendered incoherent by the distance and light cool wind blowing from the east. Even one as bedraggled by the adversities of command as Dupre appeared, from his gesticulating manner, to be somewhat exhilarated by Vardu’s return from the dead.

Apparently, the healer had waived the customary service fee for reasons unknown to Jimmy. Another reason for Dupre to be happy, he thought. More money for beer when they finally arrived in Britanny Bay.

“Well, well, well...”

Vardu turned his hand slowly to access the interloper, as did his entourage of amateur nurses. Jimmy was surprised at the gauntness of the man’s countenance. His eyes were sunken and spoke of a sadness that, while had always been there buried deep within the confines of his soul, was now manifest in all its poignant intensity, amplified by the man’s encounter with Hades. If Jimmy didn’t know better, he would have said that Vardu was a man dead rather than alive. Bloody ironic, but perhaps not so, considering his tragic history of which the aspiring journalist had been sworn to secrecy. Though Lindu had been genuine grieved at the moment of swearing him, Jimmy could read between the lines and see that it was one of those ‘upon pain of death’ pacts. There was no doubt in his mind that death would be very painful at Lindu’s hands.


Vardu did not respond to Jimmy’s cordial greeting, merely regarding him in a cold and reticent light. If anything, he still viewed the reporter as a recalcitrant pest that needed nothing but disciplining.

“Not happy to see your old buddy again after a little limbo?” Jimmy asked, feigning insult.

“No.” came Vardu’s stone cold reply.

Dupre and Travis laughed heartily.

Eyes widened in a veneer of shock, Jimmy said, “Well, can’t get much better honesty than that these days.” 

Guvera tentatively handled the tiller, the First Mate’s regimen of rigorous vigilance and pedantry boring into his back with the penetration of augers. Sir Walton and Captain Regara were also on the bridge, the relaxed silence only being broken by Regara’s occasional comment on the consign’s sailing or a word of gentle encouragement.

Suddenly, there was a creak and wooden stomping as a heavy man ascended the steps, feet thudding with imperturbable intent. Walton turned his head to regard Sir Findar, and in an instant alarm flashed at the sight of the man. He looked dishevelled and mindless, bereft of all feeling but one single undeviating goal, whatever that was. In the distance, there was an ominous dull thunder, repetitive reports caused by the pounding of monstrous waves on the sheer cliff walls of an island of obsidian that Regara had come to call Abydos. In the midst of the successive quakes that had wracked Britannia, this one of many inhospitable and ephemeral islands rose, only to sink beneath the sea gain, a wraith of the oceans.

Abydos was visible in all its terrible glory, an incongruous yet fearsome pinnacle of obsidian and granite protruding from the roiling waters, completely unfazed by the waves that futilely battered its immutable walls. It beckoned grimly for passing vessels to come to its ravenous teeth, a host of smaller sea rocks that surrounded its main bulk were, in the captain’s opinion, indubitably capable of chewing the Virtuosity’s hull to pieces.

Ignoring Walton, Findar addressed Regara in a dead monotone, “I’ll be taking command now, Captain.” It wasn’t presumptuous, just outrageous, as if the mind-addled paladin actually expected to be heeded.

Regara understandably puffed up, half in indignation and half in derisive amusement. “What in the bloody blazes dost thou think thou hast a right to take command?” he demanded.

“I must. I have no choice.” Findar took a step toward t he tiller.

Walton moved to block his path. “I suggest thou dost return to thy cabin before I am forced to neutralize thee.”

Findar gazed at him, a vacant scrutiny, and then swung his arm brutally into Walton’s sternum with enough force to send him sprawling onto the deck. In the next instant, Findar’s sword whipped out and mercilessly cut down the startled Guvera in a flurry of blood.

“Thou murdering fiend!” Regara cried, throwing himself at the renegade paladin.

Findar’s blows were automatic and efficiently debilitating, a punch to the voluminous belly doubling the captain over, then a knee to the forehead pitching him over the railing and onto the central deck below.

“Scum!” the First Mate snarled, whipping out a quick dirk and thrusting it at the interloper.

A single chop of the paladin’s titanically muscular hand broke the sailor’s arm, then the uppercut struck, the sudden impact powerful enough to snap the man’s neck like a toothpick.

From the mid-deck Dupre sighted the bloody commotion, rumbling quizzically, “What in Dungeon Doom?”

“Looks as if Findar just went bonkers. Oh, well. Guess it had to happen sooner or later.” Jimmy said cynically, shrugging.

Already a number of men had Findar surrounded, who in his grim muteness tenaciously blocked access to the tiller over Guvera’s sanguine-soaked body. Pasar, Alcor, and Delfin had him corralled in, probing at his defences, but they were impenetrable. Though expressionless and seemingly in a mindless stupor, Findar viciously fended them off with the relentlessly of a skeleton warrior, blade dancing with fantastic and inhuman prowess.

Sentri pointed to the island as the ship, virtually unmanned, drifted uncontrolled toward the hungry rocks. “We’re drifting!” he exclaimed.

Findar, strength enhanced by demonic forces, picked up an audacious - and heavy - Alcor overhead and hurled him with ease into the rigging, where the man was promptly caught like a fly in a spider’s web. Delfin was the next to be floored by Findar’s batting arm, and then Pasar, who in his arrogance overestimated his own abilities and was briskly sent tumbling down the stairs for his erroneous judgment.

“I truly regret this.” Findar said almost sincerely as Graldesh swooped and alighted to confront him. Then his eyes flashed hatred when he realized he was facing a gargoyle.

“Gargish filth! Eat death!” he spat, attacking with redoubled ferocity.

Graldesh bypassed Findar’s deadly sword blow, grabbing his arms in his great claws and squeezing. The paladin resisted, somehow matching the gargoyle’s brute strength pound-for-pound. The sword fell from his grasp, and together they wrestled, pushing back and forth amidst grunts and imprecations. The strain visibly showed in Graldesh’s face, but in Findar’s there was only contorted madness.

“DIE!!!” Findar shouted, and as if the force of his sick, fetid breath was enough to weaken his opponent, Graldesh began to buckle.

With a brutal headbutt, Graldesh vaulted backwards and smashed through the railing, falling onto the storage casks below.

“I’ll deal with this knave.” Travis said determinedly, unsheathing his blade with cool collected calm and bolting up to the foredeck despite Dupre’s shout, “Travis, no!”

Anarchy erupted on deck as the ship perilously came closer to the hateful rocks of Abydos, but in the swirl of chaos there was an eye of calm, and that calm revolved around the ensuing challenge on the tattered bridge. The wheel turning on its own volition, inexorably altering the course for a devastating collision with the lone isle, Travis and Findar duelled beside it, clashing blades with feverish tempo.

No energy was wasted on words or reason, just an exchange of blows, parry here and swipe there until either duelist faltered and was subsequently cleaved in two. Findar was implacable and possessed of inhuman strength, leaving even one as deft as Travis hard pressed to fight back. It was then in one fell blow that his blade was broken at the haft, and Travis could not dodge the consecutive blow that hewed his chest open. He crumpled, and Lindu wailed in horror.

Through bloodshot eyes glazed with madness and his own seeping sanguinity, Findar gazed helplessly as his body responded to Lindu’s appearance, her sword thrashing wildly and erratically. Her strength and speed was no match, and a punch from his hilt sent her to her knees. She looked up match, and a punch from his hilt sent her to her knees. She looked up helplessly as he lifted his trembling sword to end her life.

“I...have to!” he gasped, sweat beading his forehead and running in rivulets down his contorted face.

“Findar! Front in centre!”

Findar’s head swivelled to the source of the voice, only to see the entire point of his indelible mission. Jimmy stood before him, diminutive, hopelessly outmatched, and still he had the temerity to flash a grin, though it was one mired in bleakness.

“What took thee so long?” Findar asked quietly.

“It’s time to put a stop to this. In a few minutes, we’re going to end up on the rocks better than any fine tequila you can think of!” Jimmy exclaimed.

“I wish I could help.” Findar screamed then, his mind bombarded with the sibilant voice and a string of twisted images.

Kill the incongruity!

“What...did they do to me?” he screamed.

In his mind’s eye, he saw the robed one and the dead thing, staring down at his inert body on the slab of cold stone.

“In order to make him subject to our will, he dark seed must take advantage of his despondency and hatred. It will subvert him insidiously and enhance his strength! Then, and only then, will he do my bidding and kill the incongruity and all of his friends-to-be. None must survive to impede my conquest of the realm of the thunder lizards.” the robed one rasped confidently.

The dead king was not impressed. “Keep in mind, Katar, that I did contribute my potent arts to this project. I do expect to gain the full arcane schematics of the dark seed for duplication.” he croaked, like the flaking of desiccated flesh charred by searing heat.

“And you will!” the robed one assured him. “This hapless fellow here is merely a prototype and a means to an end - or rather, to tie a loose end that will become frayed in the near future. As far as the dark seed’s usefulness to me goes, it begins and ends with this little pawn.” He gestured contemptuously to the inert warrior with his ebony staff. “But now, I must return to the isle of humble sheep to set into motion the final cogs of my plan. Already, my little extradimensional messengers will have no doubt contacted the incongruity. He will inevitably come and give to me what is rightfully mine.”

The dead king appeared totally uninterested in the mage’s machinations. “So long as your path to glory does not cross mine.”

“Oh, of course it will not!” The robed one’s malevolent leer suggested anything but.

Ostensibly satiated, the deed king said on a different track, “Then the secret to insidious compulsion and mastery over the weak mortals will be ours! How unfortunate that the dark seed will cause irreparable damage to the subject.”

“A minor loss.”

The echoes died away, the torturous memory dispersing, shattered by Findar’s screams of horrendous agony.

Jimmy watched him, saw the blood seeping from his eyes and nose, and was horrified. Somehow, he didn’t doubt that Sargan’s - er, Katar’s - rancid rabbit had something to do with this. Definitely this was no standard case of acid indigestion.

“You’re very sick. Let me help you...” Jimmy said sympathetically.

Findar shook his head madly, straining, “Incongruity...have to kill the incongruity...!”

He swung his heavy sword, but slowed by his disorientation as he was, his quarry nimbly eluded the sharp edge. Findar’s roving eye caught Dupre and Sentri rushing up the stairs, and at his whimsy, malignant lightning bolts rained down from a clear blue sky, striking and stunning them. The same fate met any other who sought to interfere with the showdown taking place on the bridge.

Findar turned to glare at Jimmy, who gripped comatose Pasar’s cumbersome broadsword in unsure hands, the weight of the weapon too much for his wiry frame to cope with.

“I don’t want to fight with you!” he pleaded.

“Then STOP me!!!” Findar snarled.

“How? What do I do?” Jimmy cried.

“STOP ME, or we’ll all DIE!!!” Findar yelled, lunging with an overhead blow.

Jimmy stumbled back, the strike missing his nose by inches, and bumped into the gunwale behind him. Cul-de-sac.

“You’re not making it any easier!” Jimmy recriminated, feebly swinging the broadsword at his adversary, but it slipped out of hands inundated by nervous sweat, only to clutter at the paladin’s feet.

Findar stormed him, brandishing his lethal blade, and Jimmy fell over the gunwale with a cry, disappearing entirely.

“No. No!” Findar gasped, anxiously approaching the side to peer over. It then occurred to him that he had heard no splash.

Suddenly, Jimmy swung over the railing behind him, gloating, “Ha ha! Fooled you!” He smashed a piece of timber over the back of Findar’s head, but it merely snapped in two.

Findar turned on him then, the madness of a bull in sanguine eyes, and he grunted, “Not effective enough! The venom makes me too strong!”

The punch to the stomach expelled every iota of breath that had resided in Jimmy’s lungs, and before he could even cringe or voice a cry of expostulation he found himself being picked up high into the air, only to be hurled onto the deck again with a hard thud.

He lay there at his predator’s feet, all the strength having been leaked away from his muscles with that final debilitating blow, gripping his stomach in pain.

“Ugh...couldn’t you have gone easier on a beginner?” Jimmy croaked through clenched teeth, sweaty countenance taut.

Findar’s sword trembled in the madman’s hand, as deep within he struggled against the demons of his mind, totally oblivious to Abydos, the isle of lethal obsidian that grew more discernible with each passing moment.

“Thou...thou had a chance to finish me. Is that all thou dost have? Britannia is in peril!” Findar gasped.

Ironically, he seemed to be in more pain than Jimmy, which probably had something to do with the blodo that was seeping from his nose, eyes, and other orifices.

“Believe me, fruitcake...I tried...” Jimmy groaned.

The sword clattered to the ground, and to Findar’s bloody eyes there came a brief moment of lucidity as he was granted an ephemeral respite from his eternal contest of eternal wills.

“In Honour, thou canst find Virtue. Virtue!” Findar wailed again, clasping his head in a muscular vice. “Where hast my Virtue gone?! That’s how they did it! Fiends! Maniacs! Damn thee all!”

“Now all we need is a half-buried Statue of Liberty and a desolate beach and this scene will look pretty familiar...” Jimmy quipped weakly as he tried to regain his feet, to little avail.

Findar glared at him, eyes horrible orbs glazed over with a film of blood and incomprehensible suffering. “Monsters,” he said, his voice surprisingly clear and incongruous, coming from a face that was contorted with rage and anarchy. “They made me a destroy the very land I loved in life...but you must save them, must go to the realm of the thunder lizards and stop the robed one, the maddest one of them all...”

Jimmy didn’t have a clue what the oaf was talking about, nor did he have the time to even consider it, seeing that he was teetering on the brink of life and death at the capricious hands of a person who should have been attired in a white jacket with nice, extra-long sleeves instead of sturdy steel plate.

There was a sudden red blur before his eyes, and Kap-Lem materialized between the two of them, fierce and menacing in his defensive combat stance, spears slung across his back. That was the trigger for a new bout of madness on Sir Findar’s part, one of unparalleled ferocity, and with a roar the crazed paladin lunged at his long-time nemesis.

Kap-Lem was ready, and with his own modicum of brute strength and animalistic ferocity met his adversary’s unbridled challenge. They wrestled and duelled hand-to-hand, intent on merciless combat and not an iota less, leaving no quarter for surrender.

“How ironic, Gargish ironic it is that I have become just like thee...a savage animal filled with hate and the desire to hurt all that is innocent...” Findar laughed bitterly as he grappled with Kap-Lem, their visages only inches apart, each smelling the other’s breath and sweat.

“To be wrong.” Kap-Lem said coldly, his deep rumble unheated by rage or a lust for vengeance, just the resolve to put an end to the threat. “To see you have descended further than I ever did. To say I found redemption, where you will not!”

“Impudent gargoyle filth!” Findar spat vindictively, baring his teeth even more ferociously than Kap-Lem. “Thou shouldst have seen how I hunted down thy bandit friends, how they died and begged for mercy on my great sword. But for thy leader and thyself, none escaped. None were spared! A supreme irony it is indeed for thee to be killed by thy own secret weapon, the drug!”

Kap-Lem’s eyes narrowed at hearing the word ‘drug’, but he said not a word, concentrating instead on overthrowing his implacable foe.

As the pair battled interminably, Jimmy came to his feet with the aid of the railing, his stomach spasming in protest. Standing over Guvera’s mutilated body, he grabbed the wheel and turned the ship hard to port, perilously close to the guardian rocks of Abydos.

Though one problem was solved, there was yet another to be resolved as Kap-Lem and the maddened Findar battled mere paces away, exchanging fists and terrible, lacerating blows. Kap-Lem ignored the derogatory epithets spat at him from the paladin’s bloodied mouth, focused on repelling the brutal assaults of the indefatigable madman.

“Thou didst never have the ferocity to beat me, thou mangy cur!” Findar rasped, his voice slurred by leaking lifeblood and intoxicated stupor.

“To say that this time I have a real cause!” Kap-Lem retorted, and then with grim resolve he launched himself at his foe, the abruptness of offensive taking Findar by surprise.

Ramming him into the gunwale, Kap-Lem pinned the wildly thrashing warrior down despite the savage blows to his head, preparing to finish the malcontent once and for all. With a might left hook, the wingless gargoyle sent Findar pitching over the side, but a flailing, gauntleted hand caught his wrist in the grip of a vice, tenaciously refusing to capitulate its desperate purchase.

Kap-Lem strained not to pitch overboard and join his nemesis in a watery grave, grimacing with the effort as he teetered with an unstable torque. Hanging alongside the starboard bow with one hand alone, Findar stared up at him wrathfully, completely numbed to his own danger.

“It is not over yet...” he whispered hoarsely, as if he were on the last fumes of his dynamic fuel, blood seeping profusely from the orifices on his face, including the pores of his skin. “For if I must die, then I shall take thee with me!”

A flash of metal and a spray of blood and bone, and the madman abruptly released his grip, falling into the odd and unremitting ocean, to be lost forever.

Kap-Lem leaned against the gunwale, panting with exertion, only now coming to grips with how close he had brushed death. Beside him stood Dupre, a heavy double-edged sword in the firm grip of one hand, dripping with the sanguinity of a corrupted hero.

The atmosphere aboard the Virtuosity following the tragic incident of the attempted hijacking was subdued and sombre. A permanent gloom had settled on the hearts of the passengers and crew, while a terrible sense of foreboding pervaded their minds. They had all endured so many hardships, more than was natural, but just how much more could they take? The asperity of the voyage was taking its toll, that much was indubitable.

Guvera, Travis, and the First Mate had been buried at sea, seaman fashion, as dictated by the funeral protocols of those who roamed the seas. Lindu had merely stood there staring out to sea, having no tears left to cry.

Those engaged in the fierce battle with Findar had suffered only superficial injuries, the worst being Pasar’s temporary concussion and some lacerations on the coarse skin of Graldesh’s arms and chest. Both were back on their feet soon enough with Doctor Whitley’s blessing.

There was little anybody could do to mitigate the ambience of doom and gloom floating about the ship like a relentless nimbus. Jimmy had related all of which the maddened Findar had told him before his demise to Dupre, though he kept the part about the ‘realm of the thunder lizards’ to himself. The common speculation between himself and Dupre was that, somehow, Findar had been transformed into Katar’s unwitting sleeper agent with the undeviating objective of eliminating Jimmy and the entire Virtuosity crew. Katar was truly a thorough, Machiavellan sort, an epitome of meticulous and pedantic machination-maker and evil-doer. Jimmy almost felt honoured that he was getting so much attention from his enemies. If only women gave him that sort of attention...excluding the parts with the malicious intention of causing his untoward death.

And now it seemed that Katar had somehow traipsed off to Eodon to execute whatever diabolical master plan he had incubating in that iniquitous mind of his. But that would have to be another story, for Jimmy had more immediate concerns to contend with.

The pirates were still pursuing. Regara was certain of that almost to the point of paranoia, constantly attesting to the fact that the ‘bilge scum’, as he referred to them, were just over the horizon behind them. As superstitious as he was, fearing a new disaster, the captain now stood at the helm of his vessel personally, securing himself in the knowledge that perhaps with him in direct control, whatever could go wrong could not or would at least be mitigated. The entire crew was alert, expecting pirates to materialize from the salty, uninviting water that surrounded them at every moment. The hush was palpable, and the tension bit the tongue with acerbity. It was enough to drive a man insane.

Doing his very best to survive under these very conditions without soiling himself at the mere squeak of a mouse, number one on Jimmy’s agenda was to find and thank Kap-Lem for his assistance. He scoured the upper decks, but upon failing to sight his insular Gargish friend, searched the regions of the lower decks that he was still allowed entry to. Fearful of further sabotage attempts by putative infiltrators, sleeper agents and pirate scum, Dupre had drastically increased security. The move only complemented the crew’s disposition, a morose one at best, so that now they looked upon all with suspicion and remained adamantly reticent, even looking at him askance, as if beginning to realize that he was the harbinger of all their woes.

Well, they were right, after a fashion, Jimmy admitted to himself sheepishly.

Hastily keeping his distance from the black looks of his formerly garrulous counterpart, he resumed his search, and to his eventual delight, soon found his quarry in the galley, sitting at one of the long tables. Across from him was Sentri, the veteran just rising with a few parting words. With a nod of his head, Sentri set off toward the door, passing by Jimmy with another brisk nod before disappearing.

“What was that about?” Jimmy said as he glided over to appropriate the seat Sentri had occupied.

Kap-Lem, partially startled, responded with some degree of bemusement, “To have wanted to commend me on my efforts in saving the ship.” He shrugged as if in self-deprecation. “To be sorry I could not do more to save the lives of those who died.”

“You did a good job, Kappy. Trust me on that one.” Then Jimmy added with a reassuring grin, “I’m a living testament to that.”

“To interpret that as thanks for Kap-Lem saving Jimmy’s life?” Kap-Lem asked, arching his brow ridge tentatively as if not entirely sure of himself.

“How perceptive.” Jimmy replied in mock irony. “Of course it was! Because of you, I get to live one more day to pester who knows how many poor souls with obnoxious, prying journalistic inquiries and interrogatives.”

Kap-Lem nodded slowly, still uncertain of himself, and subsequently exhaled like a set of bellows expelling air into the disciplined inferno of a furnace. The air seemed hot like a furnace too. “To be...rethinking. To have discovered that things are no longer as black and white as they once seemed.” he rumbled in a low, conciliatory tone typical of what Jimmy assumed to be an introspective gargoyle.

“But you’re still pissed at being forcibly separated from Hothame?”

“To say you put things in alien words, but yes, to say I am in no good way about abandoning him.”

“But you didn’t!” Jimmy said vehemently. “You had no choice in the matter. Neither did he, or I. I’m sure he understands. You’ll get your chance to see him again. Trust me on that.”

Kap-Lem sighed forlornly. “To have not even had a chance to explain why I was leaving, or even to say farewell. To feel that I have dishonoured both myself and Hothame. “He looked at Jimmy through those intimidating demonic eyes, but in their fiery depths there was sincerity. “To no longer blame you for that, however.”

Though outwardly Jimmy frowned, within his soul he exhaled in a desperate sigh of relief. He owed this creature much, twice his saviour. He was yet to pay him back. But Kap-Lem was no creature or monster. Ostensibly, he looked to be, but intrinsically, he was a more sublime person than most people in the world, both here and on Earth. It was not judicious to call something alien a ‘monster’ or ‘beast’ only for appearance. That was the modus operandi of shallow people, those who lacked integrity, and contrary to what others thought of him - disparagingly, for the most part - Jimmy had a few of his own surprises pertaining to morality and nobility despite his unorthodox view on life.

“Well, I’m glad.” was all he said, both parties rather embarrassed and mortified by the whole issue.

A banging of pots disrupted the air of abasement, and the voluminous presence - Le Sorbe both in the physical and abstract constitutions - encroached upon them. In his meaty hand he held a plate laden with some cooked chunks of reddish-brown meat. The aroma wasn’t Jimmy’s concept of quintessential palatability, but Kap-Lem’s nostrils positively flared.

“Here’s a fine feast for a hero! Some prepared horsemeat just for thee!” Le Sorbe said ebulliently. He laid it down before Kap-Lem’s nose, the gargoyle’s mouth watering at the sight and smell of what he perceived to be a delectable feast, but what Jimmy would have begged to differ over. There was a rumble, and he wasn’t sure whether that was from Kap-Lem or his peckish stomach. Almost immediately the gargoyle began devouring the meal voraciously.

“Since when does this place serve horsemeat? Ain’t that a little incongruous on the menu?”

Le Sorbe shrugged. “Graldesh loves it, so that’s why we have it.”

A low growl emanated from Kap-Lem at the mention of the name, but the fickle chef misconstrued it to be a sign of contentedness on the gargoyle’s part.

Jimmy knew better. While it appeared that Kap-Lem had been able to reconcile with some of his dilemmas on the voyage, he just could not make peace with Graldesh. And it was all because of something as superficial as religious ideology.

The gentle swaying of the deck beneath his feet didn’t bother Mister Argent in the slightest. He had weathered far worse; some of the most pernicious storms and murderous tempests he could boast having endured, could Mister Argent. He was no landsman.

Being holed up in a small, cramped cabin didn’t bother Argent much either, despite his age. The Virtuosity was a timid and docile sheep compared to some of the vessels he had served on, oh so many years a go. More than a decade-and-a-half ago, to be sure. A retired seaman of unorthodox sorts, his career had been a profitable and egregiously risky one, but such was the case for all seamen.

It wasn’t for the sea’s tenderness and compassion that he had suffered such hardship and was as crusty as he was, not in the least. Still, he had no regrets for his past life. It had been a full one, but the past was the past, and all that was left to do was one tiny final task.

Probably a mighty gargantuan understatement he had made there, Argent thought with a self-deprecatory smirk, but so long as he still maintained a hold of the opportunity and tools to see his plans came to fruition, nothing else mattered.

Not even that annoying outlander who spoke as if he came from another realm entirely, more likely than not from another world in fact. That was inconsequential, for outworlders were far more vulnerable than natives for all their lack of protocol and demeanour, and Argent knew that for a bloody damn good fact. He too was an outworlder, having been marooned on this medieval realm of might and magic many revolutions ago, though virtually none were aware of it but Obsidian. The accursed piece of scarred onyx had failed him when he needed it most.

Little mattered now, but for his final clandestine goal, where years of duplicity, chicanery, and depraved deeds would at long last culminate in his richly deserved apogee. It was useless to dwell on the fact that he had been left high and dry on this remote planet because of a capricious piece of stone a century or so ago, and even more futile to rue the treacherous years that followed. For Argent did not regret a single moment of his unorthodox life, with perhaps the slight exception of having lost his leg as a direct result of his more controversial nature.

Now that circumstances made it necessary for him to implement the final constituent of his machination, he had to move briskly to prevent his old minions from thwarting him and stealing his rightful reward. Master Malone, as he had derisively called him these days, was both a Virtue-send and an obnoxious impediment, but Argent would be damned to hell before he allowed chagrin to befall him due to a technicality. It had been because of Master Malone that Argent ascertained one of his old proteges was on the trail, and that his fine establishment was now reduced to ashes, like as not still smoldering in that pitiable village of peasants.

Oh, well. It had never been a profitable endeavour anyway, in terms of currency, but did serve its purpose for concealing his egregious identity.

Argent stared at the little unprepossessing brassbound chest lying on his bunk, as innocent as a fifteen-year old virgin from New Magincia. He produced the fragile brass key from his belt pouch, turning to flash an appreciative stain-toothed grin at Obsidian, who sat complacently on his perch, staring at his master through beady eyes.

“SQUAWK!!! Cave of Wonders!” the abrupt bird squawked.

“Now, now,” Argent admonished gently, wagging his finger at the comical avian. “Let’s not go saying anything out of line, eh? We don’t want anyone stumbling upon yer li’l secret...otherwise, it’s the sharp-toothed lizards for ye!” The smile never touched his ice blue eyes, and beneath the congeniality there was an ominous hardness.

If parrots could have swallowed in fear, Obsidian did so, clamping his curved beak shut almost immediately.

“Good lad.”

Argent returned to the chest. Master Malone had cut a thin sliver into his veneer, revealing the murky duplicity and falsehood beneath, but it would do him little service. Punctuality was no more.

Carefully, he inserted the key into the lock and twisted. Hearing a click, he flipped open the lid and peered into the dark interior.

“How did you ever get that on your forehead?”

Vardu nearly winced at the query, having concerted all of his assiduous attention on the duel taking place between Alcor and Pasar. He turned fractionally to stare at Jimmy as if he were a detestable invader, or worse, irritable swamp gnat before deigning to respond. Not that it was much of a response.

“A minor...erring from the distant past.” he said impassively.

Jimmy whistled spontaneously, not a sound made with any real purpose. He was the epitome of verbosity, was Sir Vardu. Then, from that very same well of spontaneity spawned a mischievous grin. Wha-hey! Vardu, old buddy, old friend! A bit of a playboy back in your younger days, were you?” He briefly considered playfully punching the great knight’s shoulder, but decided against it as Vardu’s countenance blackened in increasing frustration. “Had a few more drinks than you should have with the boys, couldn’t hold your liquor, passed out, and then woke up with that snake on your forehead?”

Though the look in his eyes was one of smoldering warning, Jimmy’s intuition told him that he’d damn nearly hit the hail on the head. Vardu sighed, and the stone-chiselled face suddenly softened as his gaze became distant and wistful, as if caught hopelessly in reverie.

“That was the same night I met Mara.”

Jimmy raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t sure whether Vardu was aware of the fact that Lindu had told him the tragic story of his wife and children, but he didn’t want to be presumptuous.

“She often jested at how disciplined I was. ‘What a stickler for conformity you are, Vardu, always with thy armour on and never with a wench by thy side, unlike most of thy comrades’, she used to say. She was the first one to truly make me happy.” He sighed raggedly. “She was the one to give me the tattoo, in fact, after getting me as a drunk as a troll on Buccaneer’s Brandy.” For a fleeting half-moment, Jimmy thought he caught a light, paradoxical smile on Sir Vardu’s face, caught between happiness and chagrin caused by the pain of a long gone era. His eyes were vaguely moist. “Aye, she was beautiful...”

Jimmy serious doubted whether Vardu, as taciturn and staid as he was, opened up to anybody unless his mind was on a drift deep in the middle of the ocean, and the Pacific at that. Not even his own family, of who he presumed Lindu to be the only remainder.

Vardu looked at the nonplussed Jimmy, surprised at his own sudden abrupt self-revelation to a virtual stranger, and one looked upon with more than a little personal discomfiture at that.

“I have a favour to ask of thee.”

It was all Jimmy could do not to twitch from astonishment and uncertainty, and even more to keep it from his usually humorous visage, which was caught between stony indifference and total blankness. Since when did this man, who looked down upon with what one could only call a notch shy of imperious contempt, require of a measly, obnoxious reporter? How was he of all people supposed to oblige him? He guessed there was only one way to find out.

“My sister, Lindu. She needs thine help.”

Jimmy nodded silently, the gesture beckoning for Vardu to continue.

“Travis - her friend, and I suspect, a little more.” he added with a slight narrowing of the eyes, reverting to his curt etiquette.

Jimmy nodded, this time in understanding.

“She needs company, and more - sympathy, a shoulder to weep upon. I am unsuited to the task, having shed my tears years ago. I have none left to shed, and my sympathy is of an odd sort.” Vardu said solemnly. “Thou, however, hast an affinity for her. She needs that affinity now. She can try to be as impassive and stoic and immutable as she likes, but in the end, she is still human, as are we all.” He added, as if in sincere and concerned afterthought, “It takes something truly tragic to turn someone’s heart to stone. I do not wish that to happen her. Her ebullience and gaiety makes her who she is. It would not be right to have two ‘stonefaces’ in the family.” He looked at Jimmy testily.

Jimmy recoiled in alarm. Now how had he found out that little cognomen? That was immaterial at any point, as immaterial as making disparaging observations - aloud - on Pasar’s fighting style, which had assumed a determined gait that desperately craved for redemption for his failure the other day, if not more so. Vardu was asking him - no, supplicating - to aid his emotionally ailing sister, toward whom he had become so distant because of his own insurmountable angst.

“I’ll do it.” he replied unambiguously, his words bona fide.

“She’ll most likely be up on deck.” Vardu said. As Jimmy turned to leave, he said one last thing, “And Malone...thank thee.”

Jimmy smiled, though it belied his inner sadness. How ironic it was to have a man who had cheated death, only to seek it, perhaps even subconsciously, finding that the world of the living no longer had a place for him. It was quintessentially bleak.

Oh, well. There were still some jovial things in life - like Pasar, who had just suffered a nasty spill on the duelling mat, courtesy of an over-the-shoulder throw by the burly Alcor. Jimmy kept the image of Pasar’s abased face in his mind. It was one of the few things that could still make him smile these days. Bloody days indeed.

The grayness of twilight provided a strangely relaxing ambience, coupled with the sound of the waves swirling incessantly about the sailing ship. She took it in her stride, the Virtuosity did, unimpeded and unharried and despite all the difficulties that had befallen her. The breeze was cool and salty, with the potent taste of seawater in the air. The perennial tension could be almost said to be mitigated by the tranquility of encroaching evening, but Jimmy thought it prudent not to go too far with his conjecturing.

The crew worked as they ever did, though to a markedly lesser degree, but nonetheless it was not the norm. Seamen were a very superstitious lot, and perhaps they had every right to be considering the eventful journey in retrospect. Once was happenstance, twice was coincidence. Thrice was conspiracy, or in the sailors’ eyes, malediction of the most pernicious sort.

The pirates were lurking about somewhere in the obscure twilight, hungry for livers and thirsty for blood. For Jimmy’s liver and lifeblood in particular.

Lindu stood by the gunwale, looking out to sea. She was completely insular, and out of her usual light mail and tanned leather, opting to feel the cool touch of the sea breeze in her largely green garments, a shirt and tight-fitting breeches. Her sword, however, hung by her side as always.

Jimmy approached her carefully, taking furtive steps in an effort to catch her off guard. It rarely worked, but to his increasing astonishment, his stealth was holding up as he crossed the threshold of detection, approximately three feet, undetected. He approached by her side, leaning on the gunwale barely a few inches from her left shoulder.


She stared ahead vacantly, not deigning to respond.

“Did I catch you by surprise?” Jimmy asked hopefully in an attempt to draw her out of her shell of self-pity and mourning.

“No. I heard thee a league off.” she answered in a glum monotone, still staring out to sea. “But I deemed the threat negligible.”

Jimmy frowned, feigning pique. “Vardu sent me to check on you.” he said on a completely different but paradoxically pertinent track.

“I’m surprised he still has any compassion left in him.” she replied, almost bitterly.

“Hey, at least he’s trying to commiserate. He does it in an odd way, but he does care about you, if you take the time to pierce the veneer of stony indifference.” Jimmy said solemnly, all vestiges of his formerly humorous self driven into the recesses of his perplexing personality. Contrary to what others thought about him (disparagingly), he could be sobre when the moment required such a level disposition. The problem was, from Jimmy’s perception, the events that arose rarely warranted the need of deadpan, dreary solemnity. The case of Lindu, his fast friend, was a different matter entirely.

“He cares,” he continued, “and he doesn’t want you, his sister, presumably his only remaining living relative on Earth - er, Britannia - to become as cold and joyless as him. It’s a fate most terrible to be sure, one that I wouldn’t dare to contemplate, and one that clashes with your ebullient nature.”

She stared at him, an unasked question in her sad and glistening eyes.

“I know Travis meant a lot to you, but he died defending his nation and his sovereign. It happens to all of us in the end, whether from the sword, disease, or senescence. But the worst sort of death,” he added, and this with a palpable tinge of vehemence, “is the insidious kind, that which destroys us gradually without the victim even realizing, and even if they do, they have neither the courage nor the will to prevent it, so mired in self-pity and self-reproach are they. It’s a death of intrinsic character, the dousing of the bright flame that is the lively soul, replacing life with staid, living death and cynical misery, a smoldering substitute.” He sighed then, battling the poignancy of the moment but swiftly losing out. “Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t do it to yourself. It may be a callous thing to say, but you have to mourn, and move one. Vardu’s fate isn’t yours. You mean too much to the people you deal with -” except those she slew for a living, of course, but they were a depraved and morally decrepit lot anyway “-your friends, Vardu. Me.”

She trembled, whether from the cold or grief, or both, Jimmy could not say. Her eyes were moist once more.

“Thank thee, old friend. Thank thee.” she answered distantly, her eyes still staring off at some subjective object of mournful fixation. “Being a warrior, one might think thou dost become inhuman, like Vardu. Insensitive to other’s woes. But it doesn’t, not unless thou dost allow it to. Thank thee for thy sympathy, Jimmy.”

She smiled, and to Jimmy’s great surprise - and perhaps a little consternation - leaned against him with her shoulder as she gazed at the first stars of twilight manifesting themselves as faintly shimmering pinpricks of light, the epitome of vulnerability.

Tentatively, he lifted his arm and placed it around her, watching the stars with her.

Contrary to cliches, and fanatically loyal to ironies, Jimmy Malone did not wake up with the voluptuous yet athletic form of Lindu sleeping next to him. Not that he wasn’t the sort of guy who had an aversion to the opposite sex, quite the opposite, but his character prohibited him from stooping to that level with ladyfriends he regarded in a platonic light.

Nay, poor Jimmy, resigned to his part self-induced, part circumstantial life of celibacy, ever since his dear Vanessa (well, she hadn’t been that dear to him, rather conceited, in retrospect) had abandoned him what seemed like eons ago, with little more than an email delivering the crushing news as her parting gift.

Jimmy arose from his austere bed, having long since become used to the perennial swaying of the deck beneath his feet, and went about his usual monotonous routine of performing what bare minimum ablutions he could with a bucket of semi-clean water. After more than a week and a few days on this wretchedly medieval world, he couldn’t exactly say he felt or smelt clean. Wondering briefly how the natives coped with such hygienic privation, he concluded that the state was probably ubiquitous and hence accepted as an everyday part of life.

He was suddenly reminded of Japanese submarine crew on months-long underwater tours of duty, being so unkempt and layered with filth that they could actually scrape off copious amounts of dead skin with a stick. Shivering at the thought and fervently hoping that his sojourn aboard the Virtuosity would suffer no such filth-inducing protraction, Jimmy finished tidying his moderately unkempt self and attire, rubbed the vestiges of itchy sand from his eyes, and headed out the door.

The layout of the belowdecks of the ship was firmly engraved in his near photographic memory, the result of diligent hours spent exploring, hence he could easily traverse the belly of the ship get from Point A to Point B blindfolded. Indulging in reverie as his automated subconscious assumed control of his locomotion, Jimmy reflected on the disposition of Lindu in the past several days. If anything, she seemed to be softening up toward him of late, as if there who some genuine affection that went beyond mere amicability.

“Ah, if it isn’t the young lodestone of trouble himself!”

Jimmy was startled not only by the weathered and patronizing voice, but by the fact that he had reached teh abovedeck without even realizing it. Now he found himself ambushed by the implacable Sir Delfin, the fickle curmudgeon no doubt predating for prey to tell his anecdotes.

“Oh, uh, hi...” Jimmy replied tentatively, eyes darting from side to side in a vain attempt to find some avenue of escape.

“I’ve been looking for thee of late.” Delfin said, smiling the cunning smile of a cat with a machination in mind. “Thou knowest, with all the mayhem thou hast been running into - or should I say, running into thee - thou wilt be able to tell as many stories as I at age thirty!” He gave a hearty, ebullient laugh at that, not that Jimmy nor anyone else found the jest amusing.

“Yeah, well -” Jimmy said, only to be cut off by the venerable veteran.

“I don’t know whether to thank thee or kill thee for all the trouble thou hast brought us.”

Jimmy winced at that. It appeared to be general belief that he was a beacon for untoward things to happen these days, as he had feared.

“I’ve never quite been so knocked about in more than a few years, not since that time since we were chasing the Shade Capt’n’s Sanguine Serpent off the western coast of Britannia, near Dungeon Destard.” Delfin said, rubbing his shoulder with embellished discomfort. “Lad, I’d swear her daemon’s head prow was more intimidating than the Red Dragon the Shade Capt’n duelled with mighty magics. Glowed hatefully, its eyes did, with an odium to match the shards of the Shadowlords, I tell thee. That prow the poor Scuttled Schooner Inn had was sure a fine replica, I’d say. Looked awful like it, but for the odious eyes, it did. Damn shame that Mister Argent lost everything to those damned pirates.” Delfin’s countenance hardened for a moment as his reverie deepened into memories of asperity in the service. “Of all the scourges of Britannia, pirates would have to be the most pernicious, truculent, pestilent curs that ever existed, worse than even those dimly remembered orc scum.”

Eager to find respite, Jimmy answered all too perfunctorily, “Yeah, that’s all well and good, Delfin, but -” He froze then, mind spinning in spontaneous revelation. “What did you just say?”

Delfin arched an eyebrow in curiosity. “What? About the time I vanquished single-handedly a terrible fire elemental with my piss alone?”

“No, not that, the -!” Jimmy shook his head vehemently, but Delfin barreled on, eager to expend his inexhaustible supply of historical and wise anecdotes.

“The time I was swallowed whole by a hungry sea serpent only to be ejected out the opposite end, having survived the corrosive digestive juices of its maw...?” Delfin asked hopefully.

“No! About the inn!” Jimmy exclaimed, chagrin peaking.

“Oh...that.” the old knight replied, as if disappointed that the date of anecdote was not considerably more prehistoric. He shrugged and answered, rather curtly and succinctly, “The prow at Mister Argent’s reminded me of the prow of the Sanguine Serpent.”

Jimmy’s heart began to beat faster. “But that would mean...oh, dear!” he gave a truncated gasp, replacing the profanity with a euphemism for the last word. He bolted, headed for belowdecks, with an urgency tantamount to pursuit by demons.

“Overly brisk lad, wait!” Delfin called after him. “I didn’t tell thee about the time I accidentally triggered a civil war when I broke a no-drawing-of-swords pact trying to slay a pesky poisonous marshland snake!”


Delfin turned his grizzled head to confront the source of the birdlike cry, which happened to be followed by the hybridized thud of a leather boot heel on wood as the well as the familiar hard clack of hardwood on deck.

Jimmy rushed through the eerily empty corridors below, oblivious to the recent events taking place above. Adrenaline pumping through his veins, the sweat of trepidation seeping from his pores en masse, he dreaded the confirmation of his worst fears. If true, it would be one hell of a terrible coincidence and misfortune to have befallen the luckless journalist. If false, Jimmy had one more reason to believe his detesters on the account of his overactive imagination and proclivity for egregious hyperbole.

Without discretion or caution, Jimmy approached - charged - Mister Argent’s cabin, only to freeze in midstep at seeing the door left wide open. That certainly wasn’t like the of late secretive and insular proprietor. Entering with a slightly greater modicum of wariness, he crossed the threshold and found the smallish interior to be devoid of any life. Even the perky Obsidian was missing, the cabin some how more insidious in the bird’s absence.

On the bed was the small brassbound chest, lying innocently and wide open, much like the abandoned cabin itself. In his consternation, Jimmy approached slowly, mouth dry and as parched as if he had been trekking through the Sahara without water rations for weeks. His apprehension reaching its apogee, he peered into its murky depths. No demons of Pandora’s Box leapt out at him to tear out his juggular and bring sickness, famine, and senescence to the world. No, for the contents within were far more terrible than that.

Inside, on the aged and worn felt interior of the small and unassuming brassbound chest, lay a folded red flag and a black hood.

“This is certainly a fine ship, eh, Sir Delfin?” said Mister Argent cordially, staring out at the crew indefatigably working about her various sections. “Almost a match fer me own, before she shit the shoals.”

“Aye, most definitely.” Sir Delfin agreed, somewhat gratified at finally having a person of his own age to indulge in conversations of deep reminiscence with. “Not nearly as good as the Liberal Star, I’d dare say though, back in the days when I served as a trooper in the Home Guard Fleet.”

Argent’s ice blue eyes twinkled in recognition. “Aye, is that so? That was old Captain Jeroshar’s vessel, weren’t it?”

Delfin nodded in partial surprise. “Aye, that was so. How didst thou know?”

Argent’s eyes drifted to one side as he responded, “Oh, all seasoned men of the sea knew of him, veterans at least. We met on a number occasions, he and I did, to be sure.” He smiled vaguely. “A darn good man and tough soldier, he was, safeguardin’ the seas from gentlemen of fortune, a tenacious thwarter of the opportunists that rode the waves, and you may lay to that!”

“I see.” Delfin said, not entirely satisfied. His eagle’s eye for pedantic observation picked out the odd sabre-like sword at his belt, a most incongruous thing indeed to be found on the innocuous and begrieved proprietor, as well as the thick and ostensibly archaic tome in the crook of his arm. “Interesting blade thou dost have there.”

“Called Thoringil, it is.” Argent replied almost smugly.

“SQUAWK! Lightning Sword! SQUAWK!” cried the blue-green parrot on his left shoulder.

“I see.” Delfin answered, though his voice was strained. “Just what was thy ship’s name again, for I cannot recall thy mention of it?” he asked curiously.

“Oh, just the Sanguine Serpent.”

“Thou art the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet!” Delfin exclaimed, pointing at the bewildered Mister Argent, loudly enough for all to hear.

All sounds of work and commotion ceased as the crew unanimously turned to witness the peculiar conversation. The seamen, frozen in the middle of their duties, some on the rigging, others on deck throughout the vessel, began to laugh as one, low at first but rapidly increasing in crescendo, familiar as they were with the old pirates’ legend.

Bemused and confused, Argent frowned and took a step back from Sir Delfin in the midst of the uproarious laughter, asking innocently, his parrot fleeing to the air at his sudden movement, “Whatever gave ye that idea?”

In the next instant, the sabre was out of its scabbard, vibrating with a replenished vigour that had not been addressed in many years. Its burnished and seemingly whetted surface crackled with unseen energy, and then the astonished Delfin was propelled backward with an indignant bellow, enveloped in the seething caress of jagged blue bolts of tamed lightning.

The laughter quickly turned to surprised and fearful cries, the tense ambience to chaos as the lightning turned on the crew, spitting from the rapacious blade, At the unspoken behest of Mister Argent, the hateful bolts struck indiscriminately, stunning but not killing those it touched. Seamen on the riggings were knocked off screaming, only to land on the hard deck below or atop each other.

The complacent warriors, Pasar, Alcor, and Walton, drew their swords only to be neutralized and sent to their knees by the debilitating lightning that launched from the blade, which emitted a vibrant hum-cum-crackle.

Argent whirled about, malevolently lashing out with his iniquitous weapon, grimly nullifying all potential hostile threats. At a whimsy, the thick and cumbersome tome in his hand flipped open, yellowed and dog-eared pages turning on their own volition to a listing of runic words, more esoteric than even the Britannian script itself.

From the weathered sea veteran’s mouth uttered arcane words of odious undertone and purpose, their very constitution iniquitous, and amidst the hum-crackle of Thoringil there was an odd keening. Suddenly, Argent was sheathed in a near-invisible bubble that only revealed its presence when struck, manifesting itself to deflect Dupre’s vicious blow aimed at immobilizing Argent’s emaciated sword arm.

Argent turned on him, smiling victoriously. “Thank ye for your hospitality, Dupre, but I must assume command now.”

Dupre, crouched low in attack stance, exclaimed, “Now, Sentri!”

Anticipating the putative assault from his rear, Argent revolved to meet his foe, only to find that the putative attacker did not exist. Then they were upon him: Dupre, Sentri, Graldesh, Lindu, and Kap-Lem, all beating down on him fervently with their weapons.

The tamed lightning circled him, grasping them all in its painful caress, and they collapsed in convulsions.

“Very good, Dupre, but you’ve still failed to reveal your futility, by pun intended.” Argent said scornfully with a condescending grin.

“Ahoy, gentleman of fortune!” cried a voice as Argent moved toward the foredeck, where a gaggle of apprehensive crewmembers armed with a menagerie of weapons - including cudgels, hammers, and rope rigging - had made a last stand with Captain Regara at their head.

Argent deigned to look over his shoulder, only to widen his eyes in astonishment at the sight of Lorwin, armed with a lit brand hovering perilously close to the fuse of a primed cannon aimed directly at the former pirate master.

The next moment was comprised of a thunderous report and a billowing of acrid smoke as the smooth cannon ball was launched with all due force at unassuming Mister Argent. It simply disintegrated upon contact with his invisible shield, vapourizing into mere black specks, and with it vapourized all hope of the Virtuosity crew overpowering the inimical tyrant.

Argent stood there for a brief iota of time, nonplussed as he seemed to re-evaluate the potency of the reagentless magical tome in the safe crook of his arm. Then Lorwin was convulsing on the ground, as were the rest of his gunnery crew, bathed in seething, crackling energy.

The duplicitous former proprietor-cum-pirate returned his avaricious gaze to the helm, where the brave men stood at Regara’s back, fully aware of the futility of their audacity.

“Now, Capt’n,” Argent said, his voice deathly cold, with only the subtle breeze to serve as his claque, and even that now carried a tinge of foreboding, “I believe that I’ll be assuming command, as Admiral.” His tone left no room for ambiguity. His sword and spellbook would be his enforcers, and his domineering presence as his psychological weapon to mold the minds of his victims, rendered amenable by witless fear and despondency.

“Never!” Regara spat. “I’ve had my fair share of scraps with villains of thy ilk, and I ain’t afraid of thee, Shade Capt’n or no!”

“I see.” Argent replied calmly, too calmly for peace of mind. “Acquiescence would be advised, if ye ain’t too fond of abject prostraction before me. But ye needn’t be willing to serve me to still serve me, and ye may lay to that!”

With a single utterance, “por xen”, Regara’s legs began to engage in odd and erratic movements, much to his indignation, that soon became co-ordinated choreography of a calibre suitable to that of the Royal Arts and Theatre Guild in Britain.

“What in the name of Virtue?” Regara exclaimed in outrage. “Stop this at once, thou fiendish bastard!”

“Who will make me?” Argent demanded, grinning sadistically as Regara’s energetic dance increased in tempo.

“Alright, Argent, the gig is up! Enough of the venerable proprietor pretence and out with the Shade Capt’n!” Jimmy yelled as he emerged impetuously from the decks below, his throat catching at the scene of mayhem before him.

The bedraggled visages of his fallen companions greeted him with reproachful glares, and he swallowed in abasement at the realization that he had just made a total ass of himself.

“Oh...looks like I wasn’t the first one to break the bad news.”

“Yes, indeed.” Argent answered malignantly, hefting his enchanted sabre in Jimmy’s direction. “I have to hand it to ye, outworlder, ye were on to me trail for quite some time...first with the rubies, then the brassbound chest...A right fine nuisance ye were, lad, I’ll be taking back those rubies.”

Jimmy’s eyes darted from one side to the other nervously. “What if I told you that I swallowed them?”

Argent snorted. “Then there’s only two ways of gettin’ them, and ye can be sure that I won’t be waitin’ and wadin’ through shit for one of ‘em, lad.” He gestured to his sword for emphasis.

Jimmy produced the diminutive but precious gems from his pocket with alacrity, and much to his consternation they floated from his hand and into the waiting palm of the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet.

It was then the perturbed journalist noticed Regara in the background performing his vigorous choreographic debut, sweat inundating his forehead. He frowned in surprised chagrin, wondering as to why the captain though this to be a wonderful time for in vogue dancing.

Argent sneered as he turned his gaze to the tiring captain, arrogantly dismissing Jimmy as any real danger, and uttered an alien monosyllable. Jimmy couldn’t be certain whether his imagination was over-embellishing again - as it usually did - but he could’ve sworn that his astute observation detected a strange glow briefly suffuse the thick tome Argent nursed in the crook of his arm.

Abrupt, Captain Regara ceased his capering, collapsing onto the deck, his chest heaving for air as he gripped his bosom. Some of his crew attempted to aid the ailing sea veteran, but there was little they could do.

Mister Argent chuckled, a wicked dry rustling of desiccated leaves. It was a laugh that made Jimmy shudder.

“Tsk-tsk, Capt’n. I would recommend ye to get some more exercise. Yer heart could sure use it.” The Shade Capt’n’s stare was quintessentially contemptuous, the same ilk of stare that Jimmy had been given by the likes of the unscrupulous corporate scum Reizer and Fiona, particularly Fiona. Those ice blue eyes could have frozen a raging volcano with their sheer frigidity, Jimmy was doubtless.

“ a butcher...” Regara croaked through sporadic pants.

“Now, now, Capt’n,” Argent spat the last word hatefully, “I’d be a little sweeter with me tongue, otherwise you might just be doing a tour on the whole of Sosaria, considerin’ that we’ve all seen yer fine choreographical skills.”

“What in the devil is going on here?”

Argent whirled round surprisingly quickly for a man with a crude prosthetic to face the interloper, coiled like a spitting cobra ready to strike from a distance with his dreaded lightning.

Whitney, the irascible, no-nonsense doctor stood there, having just emerged from belowdecks. Vardu was at his back, as were a brace of sailors, armed and astonished at the sight of the entire Virtuosity crew at the mercy of the once innocuous proprietor.

“Vardu...Whitley...don’t assail him...thou wilt be killed...” Dupre groaned as he struggled to raise himself with the support of the gunwale.

“Wise advice.” Argent sliced in imperiously, bearing his supercilious gaze upon the few remaining defenders of the ship’s sovereignty. “Drop yer weapons and don’t give me any sauce, or I’ll show ye the colour of yer insides.” His grip tightened on Thoringil the Lightning Sword.

“Fine, just let me tend to these men!” Whitley demanded, undaunted by the menacing figure staring down upon him as if he were some insignificant insect.

“That’s thrifty with me, doctor. I’ve always said healthy sailors were efficient sailors.” Argent smiled, but there was no warmth in the shallow gesture. “And I need all the efficiency I can get from yer menagerie of bilge rats, otherwise overboard they go to feed the sharks!”

With a shaky hand Dupre directed Whitley to tend to the more severely stunned victims first, mainly those crewmen who had been shocked and fallen from the rigging. He then glared at Argent, still unsteady on his feet and requiring the support of the gunwale.

“What dost thou want?” he demanded.

“Fear not, Commander Dupre. I only need to borrow this fine vessel for a while, preferably with your help.” Argent replied unctuously, the sapient yet benevolent proprietor again, though the sabre in his hand was nothing short of incongruous. “Of course, if you have any objections...”

“Thou art damn right I do! What is the meaning of this?” Dupre snapped.

“You’ll learn soon enough.”

“We won’t have any part in this!”

Argent snorted. “I’d reconsider in earnest if I were ye, commander. There are the lives of yer men to take into account. If yer all not willing to co-operate, then bloody well by thunder I’ll run the entire ship meself!” He pointed to the thick tome self-assuredly, not a dubious fibre in his forceful manner.

“Good Virtue, man! What didst thou do to these poor men?” Whitley exclaimed in horror as he knelt over one sailor whose pain-wracked body was still convulsing.

“Oh, just a little shock, it was.” Argent replied innocently. “The pain will fade soon enough. Just be thankful they didn’t get a taste of me full brew, otherwise they’d be joinin’ a barbecue.” The profligate man laughed sardonically at his own macabre jest.

“That wasn’t very funny.” Jimmy said.

Argent shrugged. “Humour is entirely subjective, I suppose.” His weathered visage hardened in personal resolve of the kind that had been tempered over many years of patient waiting. “But enough jest. Tell me, gents. Are ye up for a treasure hunt?” 

Mister Argent had all the tenderness and compassion of a slave driver out of a cliche movie depicting the construction of the pyramids of Giza out of Hollywood, forcing the bedraggled men to work to extremes in order to meet his insane expectation.

As he had said before, the effects of Thoringil were short-lived, though the memories bitter judging by the baleful but discreet glares some of the victims gave the sadist weapon, which now hung dormant at the tyrant’s leather belt. Unconvinced, Whitley insisted upon keeping an assiduous vigil on the condition of the men afflicted. Argent did not resist, ratifying the doctor’s fervent wish with a condescending smile, in addition to his truism, “Healthy sailors are efficient sailors.”

The ancient Capt’n of the Shade Fleet stood on the bridge, Captain Regara bristling next to him like a bee-stung ox at being relegated to ‘feisty First Mate’. His putative powers no where in sight, the Shade Capt’n looked vulnerable, but it was merely a lulling facade. Truth to tell, he did not need that magic sabre at his belt, for the thick tome nursed safely in the crook of his arm like an innocent babe was more than capable of reducing the entire ship to hash, from all accounts. The spellbook was far from innocent, yet to Jimmy’s bemusement it elicited the fearful awe of a number of Britannians, in particular Sir Delfin’s.

In spite of the cruel debilitating blow dealt to him during Argent’s coup and the resulting harboured resentment, part of the reason Delfin was awestruck was no doubt due to prior experience, having witnessed its raw potency years ago.

Jimmy was certainly more inclined to believe the old timer’s embellished tales now.

There was something strange and fantastical about a spellbook that did not require reagents - the stereotypical ingredients to any magical brew, no doubt, including the eye of a newt, marrow of an infant, and frog gizzards, according to Jimmy’s reckoning - or a mysterious but essential force called mana, what appeared to be the intrinsic capacity for spellcasting.

In any case, furnished with the arcane tome as he was, there was little anyone could do to breach Argent’s magical defences. No amount of scheming could work, and one could swear that the old bastard had eyes in the back of his grizzled head. If a poor fellow happened not to be diligent or assiduous enough in his duties, he would be castigated, not just with scathing words, but a scathing jolt of energy from good old Thoringil.

In fact, it seemed to Jimmy (and just about everybody else) that Argent’s subjective perception of ‘indolence’ was far worse than furtive collusion. All Argent cared about was getting to his ‘precious hoard’ before his ‘ungrateful protege’ did, whose name remained unsaid.

That was why it appeared that the warriors travelling to and fro about the ship armed to the teeth with weapons, bristling like cats piqued by an elusive mouse, did not concern Mister Argent a whit. It was an entirely meaningless gesture of defiance on their part, something which the pernicious sea tyrant found immensely amusing.

On the warship, Argent had unrolled an archaic, dog-eared map, yellowed with age and exposure to the elements. True to his word, the crew of the commandeered Virtuosity were traipsing across the heartless ocean in pursuit of some unspeakable treasure. It was Argent’s obsession, it appeared; his ice blue eyes flared with a nasty flame whenever the word was mentioned, his disposition jealous and anxious both. No amount of protestation on Regara’s part could convince the pirate otherwise, and it only took Argent’s implicit threat to make Regara perform another choreographic marvel to silence the verbose, outspoken captain.

“Aye, with these winds we’ll be there in a couple of days, to be sure. Nuthin’ like being punctual ahead of worthless, scurvy-ridden rum thieves and ungrateful proteges.” Argent said in a dapper fashion, surveying the sails with all the satisfaction of an implacable, omnivorous rat, which was certainly partial at optimum. “But she could use a bit more puff to her, I’d say.” He looked at the tome, opening to an archaic page on its own volition. A brief, faint white glow suffused it, and then there came a gustful shock.

The winds suddenly picked up in their ferocity, so much so that Jimmy grabbed onto a nearby rail for fear of being carried off by the abrupt airstream. The men climbing the rigging, as spry as spiders, had a doubly lamentable plight, the force of the wind stronger higher up, and the one man in the watch basket atop the main mast huddled in fear and sought support from whatever firmly planted edge he could.

The sails strained against the wind, the canvas giving an audible groan amid the frightened cries of men in consternation. Jimmy saw Dupre lunging toward the foredeck, buffeted by the winds, his intent to berate Mister Argent unmistakable.

A man on the rigging was holding on by one failing hand alone, his legs picked up into the air by the rapacious wind.

The wind pacified as abruptly as it had begun its tantrum, though there was a noticeable difference in the motion of the ship that hinted at the arcane.

“Pardon me, fellas.” Argent said with a condescending chuckle.

“Thou didst that on purpose!” Dupre growled, pointing an accusing finger at Argent.

“Nay, it weren’t me. That spell’s always been a little too volatile for its own good, a bit like gunpowder.” replied the sea tyrant, though the patronizing smile did not leave his craggy, evil countenance. He looked about him and nodded curtly. “Superb. We’ll be there quicker now and cut our time in half at this pace!”

“By the Principles, he’s right!” Regara cried, looking over the gunwale. “We’re almost skidding across the sea!” He looked at Argent incredulously, but decided against making comment, probably a disparaging one at that.

Jimmy stared in wonder. The ship was travelling smoothly, with less rocking than was normal, almost like a primitive hydrofoil. Argent was truly unstoppable with that inimical book in his possession. If they were to have any hope of retaking the ship, they had to get it out of his hands first, by very surreptitious undertakings.

“If thy book grants thee so much power and independence, why not just run the entire ship thyself?” Lindu demanded, her rage at her companions’ brutal subjugation simmering beneath the surface.

Argent smiled amiably in reply. “Because, my ripe little tart, who would haul me hoard back to the ship? Who would unload it again?” He snorted scornfully. “Lass, the tome can do a lot of things, but my hard-earned super ain’t small enough to haul by telekinesis alone. I get willing slaves to do that for me, the right old chaps of alacrity.

“So thou wilt have us bear the yoke of thy bloodsoaked earnings?” Sentri asked, barely keeping his own brand of contempt in check.

“Very perceptive.” Argent nodded condescendingly. His eyes narrowed in discontentment, gaze sweeping to optically deplore the idleness of those around him, namely Sentri, Lindu, and Dupre. “I don’t recall hollering for a moot of any brand, younkers. Work brings freedom, and belays painful consequences.” He gestured to both Thoringil and the tome.

“Thou dost not intend to let us live beyond the fruition of thy person, dost thou?” Dupre asked gravely. He already knew the answers.

Argent’s weathered countenance epitomized a visual euphemism, and his mouth opened in response, the corners uplifting in the beginnings of an unnerving grin, “Now, now, Commander Dupre. Just what sort of a villain do ye take me for? Once ye’ve loaded the gold and what not, and it’s safe in the belly of this fine ship here, I’m gonna clap ye somewhere safe ashore. You have my affidavit on that!” He raised his left hand in mock sincerity.

“Affidavits are usually written and signed.” Sentri said cynically, unconvinced of Argent’s rectitude, and rightfully so.

“Thy signature is not much better than that written in our blood!” Lindu said acidly.

Argent’s mouth transformed into a thin line of frustration, and he released a ragged, exasperated sigh. “And this is how me altruistic generosity is rewarded? By thunder, I was ready to release ye after ye’d done me a favour or two for me barbecued inn, and maybe then have you killed by some rabid trolls. But now, after this outrageous brandishing of the ribald colours, I think I’ll be as merciful as Hurricane Amys herself, the feisty tart, though I’ll say freely that she is not nearly as feisty as ye, woman, and ye may lay to that.” He turned in his anger and yelled at the rest of the crew, “All of you!”

His roving caught the dogwatchman in the lookout basket atop the main mast, only now braving to tentatively peer over the brim following the arcane gale that had nearly blown him into the water. “Ye indolent slacker!” Argent bellowed in his indiscriminate fury, his tome flying open and the pages turning at the volition of his iniquitous mind. “Get down from there and put yer back into it!”

“We need a watchman or else the pirates will be upon us!” Regara protested in defence of the perplexed and fearful man in the basket, but to no avail.

“I care nothing for the likes of them lilly-livered swabs! With my speed, I’ll reach the island before them, and not any later! But as for indolence, this is my reply!” Argent spat venomously.

A brief glow suffused the spellbook, and then the man was lifted from the basket and into the air, as if plucked by the invisible talons of a great bird, crying out in his fright, and he hovered there for a moment, the focus of an apprehensive audience below. With a jerk of Argent’s left hand, he was hurled into the ice cold water, and the ship - travelling as swiftly as it was - quickly left him in its wake.

Sentri prepared to jump overboard, wordless in his determination to save the hapless sailor, but Argent anticipated the move and reacted faster, a fireball launching from thin air to strike, engulf, and kill the drowning soul.

“That ought to warm the lazy rat’s cold laurels!” Argent laughed wickedly, while the people on deck stared at him silently, murder and a fiery desire for vengeance in their eyes.

“Thou heartless, pitiless bastard! Kill my men, wilt thou?” Regara fumed, lashing out at the tyrant’s head.

The blow never even came close. Instead, the air around the enraged captain exploded into a fury of sparks. Regara fell to the deck, convulsing as tendrils of energy crawled across his limbs and body, and he gripped his chest in his agony. Dupre and his allies were helpless to do anything, as was the reset of the enraptured crew.

“Stop it! Thou art killing him!” Lindu cried.

Argent whirled round, letting Regara gasp in pain like a fish stranded out of water, and snarled, “Now, ye loafers, I have a job for ye! Take ye gunnery crew, for irritating me with that cannon ball, to the brig, and lock ‘em up tight, or ye’ll be at the bottom of the sea locked tight in a treasure chest!” Madness flickered in his ice blue eyes like a flame swept by violent winds, aggravated all the more. “In fact, I’ll go with ye to make sure ye do the job right!” He barked at Dupre, Sentri, and Lindu to move, following them with threats and all sorts of uncouth profanity spewing from the foul orifice that was his mouth, leaving the stricken Captain Regara to the desperate hands of Doctor Whitley, and the charred corpse of the dogwatchman to the roiling sea.

Jimmy watched, mortified at his helplessness to do anything to save his friends. He could see that others were too: Kap-Lem stood nearby, demonic visage pensive as he contemplated their plight. Pasar stood near the foredeck, looking back and forth between Whitley, who was still frantically but futilely trying to revive Regara, and Argent as he rounded up Lorwin and the five other members of his gunnery team to incarcerate them belowdecks. The knight clenched his jaw, frustrated to no end at his utter inability to resist the pirate lord’s magic might.

For once, Jimmy sympathized with him. Concerned with the scene unfolding on the foredeck, he ascended to see how Whitley was faring, along with several other sailors fearing for their beloved captain’s life. Whitley knelt over Regara’s inert body, his visage worn and resigned to a fate that had befallen so many of his patients in his time.

“How is he?” Jimmy asked, though he already knew the answer.

“He’s dead, Jim.” Whitley said morosely. “He’s old heart couldn’t take it.”

“That bastard! That vicious bastard!” one sailor cried in a mixture of grief and hatred. “I’ll kill the bastard!”

Several others voiced their agreement, though they were less vehement for fear of the reappearance of Argent and more so, his lightning sword.

“Hush, Chapman. It won’t do good to get thyself killed with the Captain.” Whitley said seriously, rising to his feet with all the solemnity of a monk. “Thou canst not fight the pirate. Not yet.”

“What’s this seditious gathering, eh?” Argent’s menacing voice demanded, and the small group turned to see him standing there at the entrance to the lower decks, alone.

“Where is Dupre and the others?” Jimmy countered.

“Oh, I had one of my characteristic changes of heart and decided to lock them all up for irritating me.” Argent answered with an oily smile that spoke volumes of his not-so-genteel nature. “Since I’ve noticed that ye all have such loyalty to each other, and how ye scum are always impeding me every injunction, I thought I’d up the ante and provide some torture fodder for myself. Call it a whip or call it incentive, I couldn’t care less, but if you cross me again, I will make their final days most unpleasant, so much so that ye’ll all hear it, to be sure. Thems that have died will be the lucky ones. The beautiful young harlot will be first. Now, get back to work, scum!” he yelled.

The crew acquiesced, and partly mollified, Argent marched up to the bridge, where Whitley, Jimmy, and Pasar waited for him over the cooling body of Regara.

“He’s dead. His blood is on thy hands.” Whitley said in unambiguous condemnation, staring the tyrant fearlessly in the eye.

Argent was unmoved. “Throw him overboard.” He glared at Jimmy and Pasar. “That will be yer job, slaves.”

The pair reluctantly complied, Jimmy picking the body up by the feet while Pasar grimly took the head, and with a swing fed the once proud captain’s body to the relentless waves. Jimmy never would forget the splash and the disappearance of the good sailor’s body as the waters rapaciously swallowed him up.

He swore to himself then that Argent would pay. By thunder, he would.

The strange wind propelled the ship through the waves faster than he had ever seen the ship go, or any other ship he had seen in his lifetime staining the sea with the blood of victims. Looking out ahead, Captain Silverbeard could barely discern the black speck on the horizon that was the Virtuosity. The odd wind had appeared suddenly, just as suddenly as that brutal tempest, in retrospect, and Silverbeard had to wonder whether the two had been brewed in the same stewpot.

In any case, he was in a bubbling stewpot of his own, perhaps more volatile and potentially explosive than any magics he had ever witnessed in his lifetime. The crew that was left to him after repeated battles of attrition was just over twenty-one men, and each of them as treacherous as a viper, with the exception of Rael Paws, who was so dense that Silverbeard doubted the man-like - better yet, troll-like - brute could envision much beyond his stomach, his manhood, and his guns. Cannons and superb aim were about his only forte, whereas everything else was a liability.

As for the rest of the crew, the irascible captain knew he retained his title but for the sole reason of the implacable avarice of his underlings: so fervent were they about appropriating the amulet, so desperate were they to construct an airship, so believing were they in its ability to reap untold profits baptized in blood, that their usually subjective, personal goals and machinations were cemented into a unifying force dedicated to the relentless accomplishment of the criterion set for success.

It was unsteady ground to set one’s foundation for command, Silverbeard knew, but such was the life of a pirate captain, and such were the woes of one certain Captain Silverbeard, a gentleman of fortune who’s irascibility could never have been called a virtue.

He thought it odd that the vessel was not heading due west for Britain any longer, but had turned abruptly for the southwest. There was nothing there but for a series of desolate, mildly forested islets. The most significant threat to the pirates in that vicinity was the Isle of Deeds, home of the knights of Serpent Hold, their presence the very reason why so few pirates retained lairs in the numerous remote caves throughout the smattered island chain. Still, why should their prey head for the fortified safety of Serpent’s Hold, when Britain was the more direct route to impenetrable security?

It didn’t make a whit of sense, but Silverbeard didn’t care. Neither did his crew, for that matter. They laboured as if in a drug-induced stupor, zealous for imminent battle and looting, or whetted their cutlasses and knives, having no qualms about shedding blood this day, or the next, or even the next hundred if that’s what the waiting game demanded.

Solmon was at the helm now, as Morgan had passed over into the better world of feeding the vultures, the worthless dog, guiding the ship effortlessly across the sea. The magic wind ruffled his hair, but he cared nothing for it. The wind was perhaps the greatest boon the pirates had been undeservedly granted on this accursed arduous voyage, and each and every one of the scalliwags intended to seize maximum advantage from it.

“We’re slower than them by half a knot, Capt’n.” Solmon reported, avaricious excitement barely contained by his undisciplined person. “But, by thunder, I’ll work my men till they can rival the relentlessness of the undead to make up for it! I bet my share of all the loot to be comin’ to our coffers for it, and Hawkins take me now if I’m lying!”

The conniving cur took the ‘encouraging’ words right out of Silverbeard’s profane mouth, which was partly open in preparation for delivering his scathing brand of incentive.

Hearing the words of his ringleader, the skanky little weasel Slimey Will acted in the interests of improving the men’s work ethic, “Work faster, you scum! Hal, you blockheaded rum thief, if I catch you pausing for breath again, I’ll skewer ya! Ronco...!”

Having been virtually supplanted in his job as scourge-wielding slave driver, Silverbeard was caught in a quandary, perplexed to no small degree. In all his life, his men had never worked with so indefatigable an alacrity, never so - ‘sincerely’ was a word the old pirate fiend was loath to use to describe his scummy fellows - energetically was a better word for it, he decided. It was not fear that drove his men this time, but anticipation.

The anticipation of a new life as a new breed of pirates - air pirates, who would carve in stone and write in the blood of their victims their fearsome legend, greater than all the pirate figures of history, including Hawkins and the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet.

“Carry on, helmsman.” Silverbeard said with uncharacteristic coolness, letting the anxious crew and the magic wind do the work.

“First a malevolent magic storm, now a benign magic wind that aids us in the pursuit of our quarry! I don’t like the smell of it. Aye, not one bloody bit.” Mole said with all the wariness and prejudice of an unscrupulous Machiavellan inquisitor, looking askance at those things that were invisible to his mortal eyes.

“Aye, that it does, matey!” his bosom buddy, Blacktooth, said in eager agreement, then he test the air more assiduously with several concerted sniffs. An abased expression marred his already repulsive face when he amended, “No, wait, that’s just me armpits. Bloody typical.” He looked as if he were about to spontaneously weep again.

Verne scowled in cogitation, suspecting an ancient figure from old history to be behind the deed. “There are some islands near here, if I do recall.” he said carefully.

“Aye.” Mole answered. “We be heading for the Isle of Deeds, or more likely, the scattered chain of islands nearby, if that is where the blasted old bastard Silverbeard is taking us.”

Perhaps, Verne wondered, if the magic storm - such a brutal and abrupt freak of nature as it was - and now this arcane wind were somehow related. He was aware of the legends of the Shade Capt’n’s manifest, and in particular his personal arcane inventory. To his seventeen great captains he gave each a magical orb, artifacts from a long gone era, ‘twas said, pilfered and pillaged from distant realms. These orbs were capable of communication over vast distances, enabling co-ordination to a degree unheard of in any navy, be it legitimate or comprised of sea scoundrels, thus explaining the sanguine efficiency and great reapings of the Shade Fleet. Then there was the Shade Capt’n’s magical weapons, putative weapons whose existence was propagated by hearsay and the purported eyewitness accounts of victims.

Supposedly, he wielded a sabre that could spit lightning at foes, and had in his possession a potent spellbook that required absolutely no reagents or mana.

Verne took such stories of potent and tremendous magic on the part of the Shade Capt’n with a grain of salt, believing them to be a part of the natural course of embellishing evolution that occurred with all myths and legends over protracted periods of time.

But now, with this surely unnatural wind propelling them across the ocean closer and closer to the putative chain of small islands in the southern nether portions of the Great Sea, and considering that it followed the recent bout with that terrible arcane storm, could this sequence of unnerving events be anything but the intervention of the Shade Capt’n?

Verne refused to believe that the old tyrant had survived the treachery of his underlings at the Isle of the Avatar, hoped in fact that he was dead, for all sane men of the sea, whether they were foreign or aboriginal, had at least a token of deeply ingrained fear and respect for the Shade Capt’n, and Verne was certainly no different. Yet part of his mind entertained the outlandish idea that somehow, somewhere, the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet still lived and still yearned for his stashed hoard, a coalescence of ill-gotten booty to rival the greatest hoard of the fiercest dragon in Britannian history, whichever that may have been.

The fact that all these magical goings-on of late were occurring only consolidated Verne’s belief that Silverbeard knew very well the location of the treasure, and thus it was a sensible notion that the Shade Capt’n would have emerged from hiding to thwart their attempts to retrieve it. If he still lived, which Verne fervently prayed not.

The one incongruity in all of Verne’s reasoning was the question as to why Silverbeard was expending his precious time tenaciously pursuing a royal navy warship - obviously wounded, otherwise it would not be running - from one point to the next, being ravaged and repulsed each time only to resiliently reform and return. Perhaps the navy vessel crew had part of the key to finding the treasure, maybe even the Shade Capt’n’s legendary map.

It mattered nothing what Verne surmised, so long as Silverbeard or the navy ship - it did not matter which - led him to the loot. The rest of them could only pray that the Shade Capt’n, or worse, his wraith, did not come crashing down upon them all in a terrible and sanguinary vengeance, the dishonourable scavengers that they all were.

“What wilt thou do with the gold once thou hast gotten thy share?” Blacktooth queried his friend curiously.

Verne’s eyes narrowed in smoldering anger. He could not believe the presumptuousness of the half-wit. He had the temerity to speak as if the treasure was as good as in their hands. The idiocy and disrespect of youths these days was astounding.

“Hmmm...spend it on grog and wenches, I guess.” Mole said, shrugging. “Thyself?” he reciprocated.

“Well, I’ve always thought me standing among me mates were never pretty high, to be sure. Plus I’d be fulfilling me own dream to get a solid gold house.” Blacktooth replied, smiling proudly at his dream that was, at least from his perspective, close to fruition.

“I cannot believe the foolishness of the two of ye!” Verne exclaimed, incredulous. Now, he thought Mole’s idea of spending several dozen pounds of gold and jewels on drink and harlots to be prodigal and impractical enough, but Blacktooth’s aspiration of owning a solid gold house was just...ludicrous. “Grog and wenches, a solid gold house.” he mimicked the two toadies derisively, performing a fair imitation of their ridiculous voices and emphasizing the intrinsic asininity. “Really! Is that the limit of your vision?”

“Well, no offence, Capt’n, but we don’t have a magic telescope, unlike some people.” Blacktooth retorted, his inadequate attempt at subtle innuendo.

“I didn’t mean that literally, lumberhead!” Verne barked in exasperation. He threw up his hands. “Bah! I capitulate! Let idiocy take you where it will, and see how happier you can get for it.” Not very much, like as not, though these two cretins didn’t know it.

“Well, what wilt thou do with thy share, eh?” Mole countered, folding his arms conceitedly.

Verne was genuinely caught unprepared for that particular question. In truth, what he probably would have done with it was set aside a stash for his own retirement purposes - government pensions were hardly what he considered philanthropic, hardly enough to purchase moldy bread, in fact, so a little money hidden away from the Britannian Tax Council and other such insidious thieves would go far toward securing his remaining future. Another portion he would use to invest in something at least moderately lucrative, like an inn of some sort. The rest would go toward his newfound piety, such as donations to the shrines and the destitute folk of Paws, to improve his Virtues of Sacrifice and Compassion. By the Principles, he had lost so many eighths in his past several decades as scum and scalliwag that one really had to question whether redemption was possible, but he had to try. Unlike the scalliwags all about him, he would do that at the very least.

The vice of pride had to be discarded, or he’d face a horde of revenging daemons as Old Magincia did eons ago...smiling to himself, he realized the perfect site for his proposed inn. New Magincia, the Town of Humility. Setting up residence there and leading an obsequious life as an innkeeper would definitely do well toward mitigating years of cumulative and crimson sin. As for the other Vices...

“What’s so funny?” Blacktooth demanded, as if discomfited because he had not been informed of some petty secret.

“Thou hast not answered.” Mole said impatiently.

“I would do more than you louts would be able to comprehend!” Verne snapped.

“Let me take a guess...” Mole said, tone bordering on insubordination. “Thou wouldst give money to the poor, turn into a pious old monk, and spread the gospel of the Eight Virtues?” An unnerving and mocking smile spread across his weathered yet delinquent face.

Verne’s heart froze and a chill ran down his spine. How had they found him out? He had dissembled well enough in the presence of all those around him, those of lesser intelligence anyway, and that included Blacktooth and Mole, or at least so he had previously thought. With the skeleton out of the sea chest, he would never be able to garner enough respect to direct the ours to success...their fear and willingness to obey had evaporated like a lone drop of water in the desert around Vesper.

It was then that he realized the two oafs were laughing uproariously, audaciously making jests at his expense, and increasingly disparaging ones at that. Yet it was only jest; Mole hadn’t been serious. None of them knew his idiosyncratic secret, his best kept so far.

“Nah, not Capt’n Verne! Never the likes of that old slave driver!” Mole laughed boisterously. “He wouldn’t give a penny to the poor to save his life! Oh, never that! If a beggar were rolling on fire across the street, he wouldn’t stop to piss on him! Ha ha!”

“Yeah,” Blacktooth managed between deep-throated laughs, shaking his shoulders uncontrollably each time, his confidence increasing in smug increments as the captain stood there seemingly nonplussed, “that old bastard wouldn’t heft a moneybag even if it cost ‘im the entrance to paradise!”

Much to his chagrin, Verne began to laugh as well, so relieved was he that his secret was still safe, a hoarse laugh, rougher than a preacher’s futon, but it was laughter all the same. Encouraged by this sign, the crescendo of the two thugs’ laughter increased, as did the derision of their jibes - that was, until Verne’s capricious temper turned on them like volatile quicksilver.

“Old bastard, is it? Slave driver, am I?” he roared furiously, and in an instant all aboard the ship were silenced, Mole and Blacktooth included. “You scum and dregs! I’ll teach you bilge rats what a real bastard and slave driver is like, pigdog! Har!”

Mole evaded his blows, but Blacktooth was not nimble enough to jink, and thus was dealt a jarring blow to the forehead.

“Back to work, ye scurvy scum, before I send ye off on a one-way ticket to the boneyard!” Verne cursed vitriolically, aiming a kick for whatever part of Blacktooth’s anatomy would elicit the greatest pain, but the swarthy young pirate had learned his previous lesson and with renewed spryness bounded away beyond the range of his wrathful better.

The enraged captain considered pursuing when the helmsman, Smoothface, hailed him. The taciturn fellow was one of the few people among his crew Verne even remotely trusted, yet he was wise not to take his trust too far. Only a naive fool would trust a pirate, any pirate, with his life, and such fools ended up with knives in their backs more often than not. Like his namesake, Smoothface’s visage was as smooth as marble, unblemished by scars or any sort of undelectable excrescence, almost possessing an ageless quality. It was difficult to place any sort of age on him; Verne swore he was over thirty summers, but he couldn’t be sure, and he didn’t care to ask. But what was far more difficult to discern was the pirate’s feelings at any one time; his plain, marble face always had that same impassive, stoic, immutable expression, as if he had seen everything and experienced all and had become blase and banal both.

It mattered not the circumstance, whether he be at the helm like now, or in the midst of battle, the expression never changed. Like as not, it wouldn’t even if he was skewered, as they all would be eventually.

“See that speck in the distance? That be the Sea Critter.” he said, pointing at the barely discernible mar in the otherwise unblemished sparkling horizon that was the west. Like as not, the sun would be setting soon.

“Can they see us?” Verne asked, a hint of concern in his tone.

“If we can see them, they can see us, to be sure, sir.” Smoothface replied, the epitome of a courteous soldier speaking with civility and discipline to his superior. Well, the piratical equivalent of such an epitome anyway. “Funny thing is, though, they don’t seem to care. As if they ain’t watching nothin’.”

Eager with gold fever, like as not, and oblivious to all else, Verne mused scornfully. Silverbeard’s complacence would cost him dearly. Verne would see to that for certain.

“They know they have the prize in sight, I’d wager, the greedy mongrels.” Verne said contemptibly, but with a tinge of avarice himself. “They know it well, they do, and they can taste it.”

“As do we, Capt’n.” Smoothface replied, and for once, there was a flash of covetousness in his otherwise staid monotone.

Verne smiled in knowing satisfaction. So, the fellow was a bona fide pirate after all. Such a duplicitous scurvy schemer, this Smoothface was, dissembling beneath a veneer of cool indifference. The pirate vernacular was incongruous.

“Aye, lad. We most certainly do.” Verne answered, doing the Virtue of Honesty proud as he stared ahead, the molten sun finally on its setting course as if to announce the long-awaited denouement of a tale arduously protracted.

The finish would no doubt be spectacular, a finale of golden resplendence to be remembered.

All throughout the night Jimmy had plotted and connived to find a way to overthrow Mister Argent, and all night the crew of the Virtuosity was forced to work toward the threshold of quintessential diligence by that very same merciless tyrant. There were so many ways of insurrection, and every one so useless. Perhaps when he visited the brig below to ensure that none of the crewmembers had conspired to emancipate the prisoners therein as he regularly did, a barrel could be thrown on his head and then Kap-Lem and Graldesh could break his kneecaps. As banana peel could be placed ‘accidentally’ on the landing before the stairs that descended toward the mid-deck, so that poor Mister Argent could slip and break his neck.

Jimmy had thought of everything short of surprising the old curmudgeon with an enthusiastic ‘Boo!’ and hopefully giving him a cardiac arrest at the same time, but he doubted that tactic would result in much of anything beyond his own heart’s severe ventricular fibrillation caused by judicious exposure to lightning.

Desperation could make one concoct very asinine schemes indeed. Jimmy had caught a few winks of sleep, which was more than he could say for the rest of his companions, though he hoped Argent hadn’t noticed his absence to indulge in ‘indolent recuperation’, as the pirate scum termed respite from the labours he often inconsiderately set. Yet Argent’s eye was sharper than an eagle with 30/20 vision; he would’ve noticed a hair out of place on a fellow’s fringe, let alone a missing crewmember.

As Jimmy helped Delfin - who was curiously reticent, for a much welcome change - haul some powder kegs over to the gunwale, he couldn’t help but wonder whether Argent was preparing some mortifying punishment in secret, a malevolent surprise of sorts. The villain was certainly diabolical.

A number of hours earlier, Argent had given the injunction to load three boats with supplies, including hemp, powder kegs, a swivel gun (a smaller, portable version of a broadside cannon), as well as cannonballs and miscellaneous building tools. While initially a perplexing tactic, Jimmy surmised that Argent wasn’t so ignorant of the pursuing pirates just beyond the yonder eastern horizon, and was preparing a temporary base on the ‘treasure island’ to ward off the loot-thieving scoundrels. Not that his spellbook couldn’t swiftly and easily do the job for him, but he still needed labourers to haul the treasure to the ship, and the labourers needed defences, not so priviliged to have such a supremely potent magical tome in their possession.

“Land ho!” the helmsman, a grim-faced sailor who went by Forgan, yelled almost forlornly, as if he was aware that the end of his life was drawing nigh.

There it was, the destination that more than a few had died for over the past several days, and many more would in the days to come, Jimmy brooded with ominous surety. A small island, one with vision could see that clearly even from this distance. Not quite a densely forested place, but neither was it sparse, A light canopy of trees lay beyond what Jimmy presumed to be a deceptively tranquil beach.

The breeze had a deathly chill to it, a caress that bit into exposed skin and even that concealed beneath worn jumpers and coats. A harbinger of doom.

Argent’s eyes widened with covetous joy, teeth bared in a hideous rictus of a smile. “By the powers, so it be!”

Standing just behind and to the side of Forgan, Argent opened his tome and in a low and ominous tone uttered the arcane words that wove the ethereal flows that permeated both reality and unreality, a disturbing keen humming through the air as if a resonant piece of metal hand been struck against a hard surface.

The ship slowed gradually, momentum decreasing as the magic wind that had been driving it for what seemed like an eternity but was in truth just under two days abated and let the mundane, gentler gusts fuel the vessel’s impetus. Still, the ship’s speed was too great for a prudent approach of the island, and every seasoned sailor and crewman aboard knew it.

“We’re travelling too fast, by the Virtues!” Forgan cried suddenly, his morose countenance transforming into one of dire trepidation. “We’ll end up beached on the shoals if we don’t trim those sails!”

“Too late for that, me son.” Argent smiled mirthlessly. “We’ve got company.” He gestured to aft, but did not deign to look himself, unless that book of his gave him clairvoyance as well.

Jimmy looked, as did his shipmates, and his heart tried to burst from his thoracic cavity. Silverbeard was here at last, his ship approaching fast, almost as quickly as the island the rapidly grew in size with each disconcerting moment. They were going much too fast.

“We must prepare defences!” Walton exclaimed from mid-deck, while Argent muttered discontentedly to himself something about an ‘unchecked wind spell epicentre’ and an ‘unreliable, scurvy-ridden magebook’.

“Release the gunnery crew, damn thee!” Pasar demanded audaciously.

“Who are ye to tell me how to run me ship, eh, pompous scum rat?” Argent snapped impatiently, mellifluous voice replaced with a vitriolic rasp. His eyes glared hellish flame at Pasar and his seditious band despite their ice blue hue. “I’ll teach ye to disobey the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet!” He swept his murderous glare across the ocean toward the fast-approaching pirate ship. “Treacherous, mutinous, backstabbing dogs! Just because I was the one who betrayed the location of the moot so I could have me treasure and not a copper less doesn’t mean ye have to try thievin’ it back! Curs! I’ll teach thee all!”

Jimmy recognized that look and was mortified to feel the instinctive urge to seek cover. Immediately.

Almost ceremoniously but with quintessential pomposity, Argent produced his legendary and terribly feared black hood and lifted it above for all to see, not that Silverbeard’s louts would be close enough to see it, but they soon would be. Several sailors on deck actually cringed. In a single smooth motion, the black hood was on his head once more, and the intimidating Argent became the dreaded Capt’n of the Shade Fleet, emerged from retirement after a fifteen year hiatus.

It was then that Forgan struck, doing what every person had wanted to do for far too protracted a period of time, swinging his arm into the back of the base of the fiend’s neck. The blow caught him at his most vulnerable, all that he could incant in his defence being a pained and indignant yowl, and he staggered forward. A stunning, potent blow to the jaw struck the Shade Capt’n with enough force that he pitched over the side, disappearing beneath the waters without a whit of mourning from the crew he had so suddenly departed.

“Good work, man!” Pasar commended, a tense and frustrated twist to his already ragged voice caused by the climactic moment. Yet there was still another threat looming on the horizon, literally. Much closer than that, actually. The pirate ship closed, a shark sensing discombobulation in its latest meal, hideously grinning Jolly Roger flying high for all the world to see.

“Free the prisoners!” Pasar yelled. “Slow this ship down, I say. Trim the sails, for Virtues sake!”

“Too late for that now.” Forgan said dourly.

As if to emphasize his statement of imminent doom, the entire ship rattled from the keep up to the mast, men stumbling every which way. There was a terrible shearing sound, wood grinding on rock and soil, and the Virtuosity twisted as if in a horrified convulsion, its starboard side turned partially to face the closing pirate vessel. To add to its crippled state, stuck in the water and shoal as it was like trapped fat trout, the ship listed several precious degrees to port.

Over the cries of startled and panicking men, Jimmy detected Dupre’s deep, confident voice - not so boisterous carefree any longer - distribute commands. He, Sentri, Lindu, and Lorwin’s gunnery team had been emancipated from their confinement in the cramped brig, and were now hastily rushing about in preparation for the onset of the rapacious gentlemen of fortune.

“Abandon ship!” Dupre yelled, a touch louder and more strained than could be called stoic. “Get into those loaded boats! We’ll need supplies to defend ourselves! Thou first, Jimmy!” He turned to Lorwin. “Thou I need as well, but canst thou have thy men divert the attention of Silverbeard’s gunners, otherwise our boats will be sitting ducks in the open water?”

“Aye, sir.” Lorwin said. “I’d like to stay with ‘em, sir -”

“No!” Dupre said firmly with a vehement shake of his head. Thunder roared and a cannonball whistled overhead. Men exclaimed in surprise and fear. “Tell them to abandon the ship as soon as they think they have no choice, but thou must come with us!”

Lorwin acquiesced with a nod, slow, but still a sign of acknowledgment, and rushed to issue the orders.

Graldesh accosted Dupre as men rushed to the boats, enclosing his arm - the entire diameter of his upper arm - in one great clawed fist as gently as he could for a creature of his monstrous size.

“To say I will help with last-ditch defence effort.” Graldesh offered, glancing at the men who frenetically readied the starboard broadside guns.

“Fine, old friend, but don’t throw thine life away needlessly.” Dupre said, concerned for the loyal soldier’s life.

Graldesh smiled, a gesture that would have been misconstrued by many of the ignorant as a hostile snarl, but which Dupre knew to be a sincere show of faith.

“Good luck.” Dupre said as Graldesh pulled away to assist the gunnery team.

Another peace-shattering report followed by a cannonball, which smashed the main mast and rained giant splinters upon the deck below. One of the Virtuosity’s guns returned fire, punching a hole - though above the waterline - in the fore port side of the offending vessel. The pirates responded with harsh alacrity, scoring a gout in the vessel’s lower starboard side, allowing water to flood copiously into the lower compartments of the Virtuosity.

Jimmy leapt into the boat with Lindu, Vardu, Delfin and Alcor, which also happened to be laden with supplies vital to their last stand on the island. Their escape vehicle was hastily lowered into the water, the foamy surface a facade of serenity with the thunderous reports exploding all about them.

“Row, outlander! Row like thou hast never rowed before!” Lindu said, providing Jimmy with an oar.

“Okay, but I’m not much a fan of wild rapids.” Jimmy replied, tentatively taking the oar and lending his dubious strength in propelling the boat forward across the water.

The splash of oars, the roar of cannons, and the cries of men were all they heard as the boat seemed to lurch forward, the frenzied paddling driving them inch by inch toward the shores of the island haven. Looking over his shoulder, Jimmy saw two other boats following them, though he could not identify the passengers in all the mayhem, and another boat was about to be lowered.

It was then that disaster struck, a cannonball whistling through the air to crash into the Virtuosity’s belly and strike its concentrated store of powder kegs. The subsequent explosion reduced the once proud vessel to a shower of charred debris, twisted wreckage the only remnant of the Royal Navy battleship.

They could only gape in shock, the ship’s sudden departure a final blow to them all. No words were spoken. Their only chance for survival now was to reach the island and hopefully find a defensible position.

Now the pirates’ guns were targeting them, and the debris of the Virtuosity had barely even settled.

Zealous bastards, Jimmy thought with no small amount of acerbity, and their predators’ enthusiasm was accentuated by an explosion of water scant metres from the starboard side of their boat. The beach was tantalizingly close now; Jimmy could only hope they all would make it, but the probability looked slim.

The air was colder than before, as if to epitomize their peril, and the amulet that hung from the back of his neck burned his chest the way ice did when grasped for too long.

He glanced over his shoulder for an instant and was surprised to spot a smaller speck on the horizon behind the pirate ship; another seagoing vessel, from the looks of it, though he couldn’t discern its type or allegiance from such a great distance.

He wanted to shout his sighting, but someone, probably Alcor, barked, “Brace for impact!”

The jar came abruptly, the bow dipping under and pitching them over into the salty water. When they rose again, the boat was fused solidly by the water and inundated sand beneath, trapped like a rabbit in a rabbittrap. They took what supplies they could, food, powder kegs, rope, and the swivel gun, and waded through the half-shin deep water, another all too near explosion of water injecting them with impetus.

Hearing his feet crunch on sand, Jimmy was elated, but he knew it wasn’t over yet. The treeline of semi-dense foliage up ahead would provide suitable shelter from wayward cannonballs, and swiftly did they reach its safe coverage. The others were coming, what few remained, hauling some more supplies, reaching the trees as their companions beckoned to them urgently.

The booming, morale-shaking cannonfire soon stopped; obviously the pirates were smart enough to realize firing blindly into the trees would only overheat their guns and nothing more. That meant the vicious blighters would be sending a landing party soon.

Jimmy brisked his eyes over the survivors of the Virtuosity, as ragged and tired a bunch as they were. Dupre, Sentri, Lindu, Delfin, Alcor, Pasar, Walton, Kap-Lem, Lorwin, Chapman, Forgan, Whitley, Vardu, Le Sorbe and himself. They were all that remained to thwart the eternally grim machinations of Silverbeard and his not-so-merry men.

They definitely didn’t look the part; sunken eyes, dirty visages, and despondent countenances hardly constituted as the strengths of intractable heroes who were supposed to fight tooth and nail against all odds and emerge righteously victorious. They appeared weary and blase, worse; like men who had ventured through hell without respite and come out deprived of all mirth and joy.

Whitley was grimly stoic, however, his dishevelled and somewhat dirt-marred countenance firm in its unyielding determination to see justice be done. So was Lindu, and Vardu, of course. Le Sorbe looked as feisty as ever, though with an acrimonious touch to it, grieved over the loss of his beloved galley.

“They’ll be sending men over soon.” Dupre said in a hollow voice, stating the obvious. For whatever reason, leaders always felt the need to iterate what was plainly palpable, lest someone a few straws short of a bale missed the point entirely. “We must find a defensible position and endure imminent siege.”

“Looks to me as if we have company coming.” said morose Pasar, not so noble-like any more in his disorderly state, pointing beyond the approaching pirate ship.

The second ship that Jimmy had sighted before had closed some considerable distance relative to the island, though now it attempted to steer clear of the pirate ship and keep a wide birth, Silverbeard’s men only now registering its presence. Atop its mast undulated the profligate Jolly Roger.

Jimmy sighed raggedly. More pirates. How beneficent.

“Allies?” Walton asked tentatively.

Chapman snorted. “Rivals, like as not, and judging how they’re turning away to find another way to approach the isle.” He squinted. “Hmm...” He clicked his tongue ominously. “That looks to be the Wave Raider, Capt’n Verne’s ship.”

“Odd. We haven’t heard a peep out of that scoundrel for a while now, not since before thou didst get assigned to the Virtuosity, sir.” Forgan did the favour of elaborating, with reference to Dupre. “It ‘twas as if he disappeared off the face of Sosaria.”

“Well, so long as he buys us time, however unintentionally.” Dupre said.

“Don’t worry, sir.” Chapman said with an unpleasant smile. “Silverbeard and Verne get on like fire and water.”

Which was good for their own survivalist interests, thought Jimmy, and it was as if a dim ray of hope had pierced the nimbus looming over their heads.

“Oh, uh, sir...” Forgan interjected suddenly, somewhat uncertain of how to phrase his next sentence. “Another plus for us, if thou art interested.” With a hyperbolic cough, he produced with a crude flourish the tarnished map that Argent had once so jealously guarded for an untold number of years. “The Shade Capt’n’s map. He left it with me, sir, since I was steering for the island. Left it with me, and obviously forgot it in all the excitement.”

“I doubt that mighty powerful whallop thou didst give him did much good for the old villain’s memory either.” Chapman added with a bitter laugh. He hated the pirate tyrant with a passion these days, the fiery antipathy resulting from Captain Regara’s cruel demise at his hands.

Dupre raised a curious eyebrow, but it was Sentri who did raise the remotely incredulous question, “Thou art suggesting that we dost go on a treasure hunt?”

“I dost think it fit, with all we have been through of late.” said Pasar pompously, surprising them all with his words.

Delfin grumbled something vaguely about the ‘conceited lord brat’ and his inherent desire to ‘enhance the opulent trappings of the Hold’, in addition to numerous other strings of disaffected invective that Jimmy fervently thought he was better off not having heard.

“Don’t lose thy head, my lord.” Dupre said with a tinge of disapproval and derision. “We’ve still got pirates to vanquish.”

Without injunction, he turned his indifferent back to the sea and the two pirate ships jockeying to outmaneuver one another. The others followed in dutiful silence. For a time they traversed the island’s hinterland wilderness, and to Jimmy’s surprise - and he suspected to everyone else’s - the foliage became thicker and more jungle-like, hotter and humid. The island was larger than it looked from the outside. During the brief trek, Jimmy noted that Kap-Lem was more reticent than even the time he castigated Jimmy for his forcible separation from Hothame, as if a great, onerous weight bore on his mind. He didn’t have the opportunity to inquire; he doubted the gargoyle would have answered freely if he did anyway.

It was when they came to a small flowing stream that Delfin, strangely muted by all the tragic events that had thus far occurred in the past few hours, spoke suddenly. Everyone instantly recognized the tone as one of the veteran’s reminiscent preludes to a paradoxically long anecdote, and there was a unanimous sigh.

“I remember this place.” Delfin said, both voice and gaze distant in reverie.

Dupre frowned in cautious surprise. “Thou dost really?”

“Aye, I do!” Delfin answered vehemently this time, nodding his head vigorously. “This be Rickets Isle! I was here more than forty and five years ago. It’s named after this old pirate called Captain Rickets, called such because he hated milk, cheese, and cows. Mooed too much for his liking, he used to say. He built a stockade and palisade wall as well, he did, for it was there that me force commander, Sergeant Rogers, had our First Royal Enforcer Division lay siege to him and his scalliwags. Got him, too, elicited an unconditional surrender, did we. I captured the bastard myself single-handed-”

“The stockade! Where is it?” Dupre said, the cast of his face changing from apathetic to intrigued and eager, tempered with a renewed surge of hope.

Delfin blinked as if emerging from a coma, his countenance perplexed at the interruption, and replied, “Up ahead, in a small clearing under the stockade, and there’s even a small well from which to draw water. I can show the way.”

And so the old veteran did, his companions following him with alacrity, for his ramblings about past events proving advantageous.

Yes, Jimmy thought, actually managing a light smile this time, that dim ray had just gotten a whole lot brighter.


Chapter 9
Stand Off

They emerged from the foliage after several more minutes of following Delfin’s lead, and to their sorry eyes was a most precious and relieving sight indeed. The stockade sat atop the gentle rising slope of a hillock devoid of any vegetation but some sparse struggling grass, dilapidated but still possessing enough integrity to thwart a potential siege. The palisade walls rose from the ground like jagged teeth, gapped in several places as if a great fist had knocked out those particular wooden stakes long ago.

“Ah, almost as I remember it, but for neglect and all.” Delfin said reminiscently, gazing wistfully in ancient remembrance at the archaic stockade.

As they embarked to ascend the gentle slope, there came an alarming buzz-cum-hum in the foliage behind them, as if a nest of bees had been agitated and were now hunting for the instigators of their ire. Dupre and the survivors of the Virtuosity exchanged apprehensive glances, some of the knights fondling the pommels of their swords.

“Draw weapons!” Dupre commanded sharply.

No sooner had the injunction rolled off his tongue than pirates began bursting from the trees as a howling, disorganized throng of ruffians brandishing cutlasses and cudgels. There were at least a dozen of them, and Jimmy immediately recognized the irascible, thuggish Silverbeard at their head, flaming eyes having locked on his person, or rather more accurately, his chest, as if he could see through the hapless journalist’s clothing and the invaluable amulet beneath.

The world slowed to a tantalizing near halt, both Jimmy’s heart and the boots of his enemies thudding in his head while every other sound was strangely muted, then the idiosyncratically selective silence shattered in the form of another throng of dishevelled scalliwags who crashed directly into the rear of the first. There was mass confusion, the throbbing crowed erupting into a cruel melee as pirate drew the blood of pirate.

Dupre and his band of survivors were left virtually untouched by the mayhem and they seized upon the opportunity instantly, letting the pirates eviscerate each other while they beat a hasty retreat to the stockade. Jimmy took one last lingering look at the chaos below, sighting a domineering figure with long, wavy dark hair wade into combat, barking orders at what the reporter assumed to be the second group of rival pirates. His face was not quite equine but was worn with age and eroded by a life of vice and treachery, his lantern jaw jutting out as if he expected nothing but everything to go the way he demanded. An insufferable, indomitable spirit indeed.

Then Jimmy was pulled by the shoulder and almost dragged up the hill, squeezing through the constituent stakes of the palisade wall. It was from here that several men, Pasar, Walton, and Sentri, vigilantly surveyed the battle raging below, lest the enemy persist in running them down.

The stockade was in a curious position atop the low hill; in two directions, from the way they had come and another gently descending slope that led all the way to the beach, they had superb visibility. The other flanks had the foliage cleared for a number of metres, only to meet with tree- and scrubline.

Peering down toward the beach and the sea beyond, Jimmy could see a pirate ship sail into view - he wasn’t sure which faction it belonged to.

“Come on!” Dupre demanded hoarsely, grabbing his shoulder again. “Inside the fort!”

Jimmy acquiesced for his own safety, leaving the fray to others.

At the base of the hillock with the ominous stockade overlooking them in dire silence, two factions waged desperate and callous battle for survival. Captain Silverbeard roared the profanities of indignation and truculent rage, belligerently waving his sword like a flag, only this flag sprayed blood when it touched flesh. He knew now who had engaged him; the scum, Captain Verne, his old rival who was probably still bitter since the glorious day Silverbeard had thrashed him on the deck of the Sanguine Serpent in a dazzling display of fencing finesse and swordsmanship, thus winning the favour of the ancient and awesome Capt’n of the Shade Fleet.

Silverbeard cursed himself for not heeding the warning words of the late Vigil Pew about their persistent shadow, but he had no time to find a scapegoat now. At least Vigil Pew was rotting in the sandy streets of Vesper, all the good him being correct all along had done him, the impudent fool.

Men danced all about him, a sordid dance that more often than not ended with their blood spilled on the grass, courtesy of a wildly swinging cutlass or stabbing dirk. He waded through the chaotic, confused mob, smiting any who had the audacity to challenge his old but powerful arm.

One of Verne’s young troupe of fools, a swarthy black man with an even blacker tooth that appeared inconspicuous in the midst of a row of pearl-white teeth, leapt into his path with an insufferable shout and taunt. The presumptuous brat brandished a notched sabre amateurishly, as if expecting Silverbeard to be intimidated by the bellicose gesture. Somehow, the boy’s countenance reminded him of a youthful Blackeye. This enraged the brutal pirate captain even more so than being accosted, and with a bellow he lifted his blade to clash it with that of his young and outmatched foe. There was no finesse to the way pirates fought when it came to duelling; a definite style did not exist, countering every honourable fibre to be found in the etiquette of sword duelling that was adhered to by ostentatious, pretentious twats who had the arrogant nerve to call themselves nobles. This was just fast and furious, the victor eing solely determined by strength and swiftness of arm, treachery of the wielder, and in a good number of cases (though not in this particular one) how many blighters challenged the one opponent at once.

Where fencing in the official arena was a refined art, this exchange of steel was crude and barbarous. Yet, while fencing enraptured the audience with its finesse and proficiency, this type of duel could also be said to possess its own mesmerizing quality amidst all the ostensibly uncoordinated blows taken and delivered, if only for the unnerving sense of foreboding and anticipation of the victor.

The swarthy boy was cocky, having the temerity to strike first with his decrepit blade. Silverbeard parried each blow and riposted, his arm gaining momentum as though he drew energy from his aggressor’s misguided enthusiasm, his own blows reinforced with belligerent roars and wild oaths of hate. Fury intensifying, Silverbeard shamelessly seized full advantage of his opponent’s experience, feinting high and then cutting low, slashing the whelp’s ribs. The brat cried as if he lacked a pair, sabre dropping, and the callous captain slashed with wanton sanguinary proclivity, arms, legs, chest, stomach.

His foe collapsed, bleeding from a dozen wounds, and Silverbeard loomed to deliver the not-so-gentle coup de grace.

“Blacktooth, no!” came the ragged cry, and a bald fellow materialized between Silverbeard and the badly wounded party. Hatred flashed in his eyes, an unbridled ire that could have rivalled any of Silverbeard’s most destructive tantrums. “I’ll take care of thee, dog!” he spat at Silverbeard, his tongue caustic and loathing, and then he lunged precipitately.

Silverbeard’s contemptuous smile contradicted the sadism in his eyes, and all it required was a mighty fist-and-pommel to the jaw and the would-be hero fell beside his friend, dazed and defenceless.

“Who will take care of me?” Silverbeard asked, his contorted visage belying the equanimity of his condescending tone.

“I will, Silverbeard, ye scurvy schooner stealer!”

Silverbeard’s roving eye caught his nemesis, Verne, stalking toward him stoically, though his eyes were ablaze with the light of avaricious anticipation, and the chance for vengeance.

“Mole, drag Blacktooth out of here, now, so I can gut this mange-ridden piece of filth!” Verne barked officiously, ostensibly uncaring of the swarthy man’s plight, though Silverbeard could have sworn he detected a tinge of commiseration in the notorious captain’s voice.


Mole complied with urgent alacrity, unminding of the blood that marred his hands as he dragged his sliced friend away from the battle scene.

Verne raised his bloodstained cutlass. This battle was just between them. Silverbeard would kill any dog who cheated him of the satisfaction of his own blade drinking the bastard’s blood.

“Where’s the treasure, Silverbeard?” Verne demanded. Strands of his long hair stuck to his forehead with the aid of viscous sweat.

Silverbeard secretly wished for the hair to impair Verne’s vision, so as to make it simpler and quicker to eviscerate him. His eyes narrowed and he snarled, “Ye’ll nae get the amulet, mongrel! It’s mine! I rightfully stole it first!”

For but an infinitesimal portion of a moment, Verne appeared perplexed, and Silverbeard launched himself ferociously, blade swishing like an irritated horse’s tail attempting to swat tiny gnats. Verne was nimble with his sharp steel, perhaps more nimble than that fateful day the two of them had battled on the deck of the Sanguine Serpent more than a decade-and-a-half ago. Silverbeard had won, of course. He prided himself on that, while Verne was still indubitably mortified.

“I whipped ye once before an’ I ken do it again, by thunder and rain!” Silverbeard barked as their cutlasses met and locked in a lethal dance.

“And by the Principle of Truth, I’ll redeem meself by carvin’ a victory out of your sorry hide, pigdog!” Verne retorted, evading a slash for his head.

Slimey Will witnessed the battle from a short distance away, having knifed some hapless soul in the back with one of his shrewd dirks, and resolved to aid his leader and - perchance - get a juicier share of the future loot to come once they had that elusive amulet. He ran to assist Silverbeard, crying out, “I’ll help thee, capt’n!”

“I don’t need yer help!” Silverbeard snapped and, without even pausing to look, delivered a vicious elbow to Slimey Will’s nose, bowling him over and then resuming his assault on Verne. “Yer as good as fishbait, swab! I shall use yer head as a doorstop, and yer hair as fishing line!”

Their swords clashed and clashed again, both combatants’ teeth bared like rabid animals, exchanging almost as many insults as they did blows, and then some. The duel seemed interminable, indefatigable, all other sounds of clamour and din relegated to muteness in the wake of this confrontation’s ostentatious priority.

A crack split the air and the encompassing muteness, and even as their bubble of subjective isolation disintegrated Silverbeard thought and fervently hoped he had struck Verne’s skull. This was hardly the case, for Verne stood before him, already drawing his arm to riposte.

Priorities changed, and as men cried out in consternation and horror, the captains unanimously turned to the treeline where the others were pointing at, awestruck like dumb New Magincian peasants at the sight of anything larger and more colourful than a sheep. The air tangibly and visibly rippled with spine-tingling, hair-raising magic, as a black hooded figure with a pegleg wielding a sword and a thick tome rose up from the foliage, a brilliant blue aura encompassing him and magnifying his menace and venerability.

Both captains gaped in unabashed astonishment and more than just a little hint of fear.

“The Capt’n of the Shade Fleet...” was the hoarse, hushed, and fearful whispers of the men, both Silverbeard’s and Verne’s, as the terrifying figure of history and superstition - the larger part being superstition - loomed before them.

“It cannot be...” Silverbeard muttered in staunch disbelief. “He died at the Betrayal...” Yet, there the tyrant was, his very resplendent aura burning the pirate’s eyes.

Verne just stood there, frozen in shock.

“Ungrateful cur! Treacherous swabs! Come to take away my rightful treasure, have ye, scum?” The voice boomed and the very land seemed to reverberate with each titanically stentorian word. “I curse ye all, motherless swine, I curse ye lineage in both directions, I cure all ye exploits for yer wretched, duplicitous ways! None shall have my rightful treasure, NONE, and nae will ye dogs any of ye have it, by THUNDER!” That roar shocked them all to the bone, and even the palisade wall atop the hillock seemed to waver in fear.

It had to be a wraith, thought Silverbeard desperately, too desperately for his preference of pride. It had to be a wraith. But was that better than a live Capt’n of the Shade Fleet, or worse?

Beside him, Verne’s eyes were wide open in more than fear, much more than that mundane emotion. He looked as if his heart had been torn out by a cruel ethereal hand, and was even now callously crushing it without remorse. “Oh, Virtues!” he moaned feverishly. “Are you punishing me for all my years of being a black-hearted scoundrel?”

The ghost glared at him then, obviously possessed of acute hearing, and pointed its sabre. “Captain Verne, ye lilly-livered rum lout! You were never good enough to join my entourage, and yer life sure as flamin’ brimstone ain’t worth spit now for your sacrilege. Taste my thunderous wrath!”

Verne snapped, dropping his sword and fleeing, screaming all the way about avenging principles and virtues bringing retribution. Silverbeard smiled smugly at his old foe’s debacle - his crew, some of which were still here, would never follow him again - but that smile was wiped clean off his ugly face when the ghost pointed the sabre, wrapped in its pulsating blue glow, at him.

“Silverbeard!” the Shade Capt’n boomed, and beneath the hood Silverbeard knew the countenance was hardly clement. “Ungrateful, greedy protege! Come to take away me rightful treasure, scum? Thought I’d forgottin’ yer treacherous ways? Ye’ll nae forget this, by THUNDER!!!”

All of Silverbeard’s fears washed away in an instant when he realized the implications of his old mentor’s words. Not the promises of horrendous eternal torment or raining thunder and what not, but the treasure. The Treasure, the very same treasure the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet had stashed away in some hitherto unknown location, which he thought forever lost...on this little island! For so many years, and in the past several weeks over which he’d spent his time hunting for the amulet, that he’d never though to think about that old legend, so to speak. But now...what a great boon this was. The amulet and the Treasure in one place, within his very grasp!

Any remaining shred of Silverbeard’s reverence and deep-rooted fear for the legendary pirate lord dissipated like rising steam, to be replaced by a fiery, unshakeable resolve to obtain both the amulet and the Treasure, wraith or no wraith! At any cost!

Silverbeard lifted his cutlass in defiance, to the horror and the incredulity of his men and Verne’s. Then the thunder rained down.

As the ground was torn asunder, men ran every which way. A moderate distance off - although not distant enough for safety - from the mayhem, Mole stood with inert Blacktooth over his shoulder, shaking his head vehemently.

“No treasure is worth this!” he cried. “If the old wraith wants it, let him keep it! We’re gettin’ back to the high seas!” To his men, those who hadn’t already been struck down by the malevolent magics of the spiteful ghost, he barked, “Back to the ship before we’re all hashed!”

He ran with Blacktooth draped over his shoulder, disappearing into the foliage, to be followed by his routed shipmates.

Rael Paws guided the Sea Critter along the shore at a prudent distance, watching assiduously for shoals. He wasn’t a bright fellow, everyone was aware of that mortifying fact (including himself, though he often seemed and was oblivious to the outside world), but he knew his forte like the palm of his hand, perhaps even better. Even the most dense men had a way of purely mastering an art after years of countless repetition, and the two prime trades that Rael Paws had learned to the core and beyond were sailing ships and big guns.

Bot where his passion, besides killing and thieving the rightful manifest of lawful merchant ships, but the big guns were no doubt the greater of the pair. He positively loved it when things went BOOOM, relished the acrid scent of gunpowder and charred corpses, and savoured the heat of a steaming big broadside gun that had just discharged its devastating payload.

Much beyond those aspects of life, Rael’s mind did not venture. It was dubious that his mind had the capacity to do so. Yet despite his mental density and total amorality, Rael was pensive, filled with diffidence and apprehension, as if that perpetual, peripheral buzz in the air that had bothered the chief gunner for the past power of moments was the harbinger of a doom too terrible for even one as smart as Silverbeard to contemplate, let alone Rael, his mindless grinning bulldog.

He recalled the Capt’n’s brusque words, how he remembered the island, ‘Rickets Island’ it was named, after some lubber-headed pirate who loathed cows and dairy products to the bone. There was a place on the north-north-west side of the little island, he had said, where the beach led up to a clear ‘causeway’ where an artificial glade lay in sight from the sea at the base of a gentle hillock, upon the apogee of which stood a formidable stockade. Silverbeard wanted to take it, or at least prevent the escapees of the shattered Virtuosity from holing up inside, so he had ordered that Rael Paws stand the ship by to bombard the stockade when signalled if the righteous navymen took it. The signal would be a plume of smoke caused by a campfire.

Rael Paws sighted the gently rising causeway leading away from the beach from the sea off to port. He still felt uneasy about leaving his aft bare to the rival ship that had suddenly arrived, which had hastily done an about face and retreated to the other side of the island. That notwithstanding, Rael felt tense and vulnerable, expecting a surprise attack any moment from any or all quarters.

The island no longer seemed so small to Rael. Upon closer inspection, it had a surprising amount of foliage and rocky regions, the latter of which clustered on the peripherals of the island, grim stones hardened by an eternity of being pounded by surf and breakers. A promontory not too distant from the causeway in question stabbed into the sea, diminutive and humble as it was, as if the island had thrust an accusing finger at the sinful crew of the Sea Critter and made a momentous decree, For thy years of vice and knavery, thou wilt be punished forthwith, death!

The decree echoed in Rael’s head even as he positioned the ship with ginger precision at just the right distance from the island so as to enable them to effectively bombard the stockade, and now he issued the order to his five remaining crew - the rest had traipsed off with Silverbeard to hew the noble navymen - to let loose the anchor.

The reverberating voice was obnoxiously officious and pompous, much like that deadpan, no-nonsense judge in Yew who had sentenced him to death by hanging as a young lad for the mere crime of stoving a carpenter’s head in for not cutting the fine grain Yew board to the degree of quality he so deceitfully claimed. Rael had been fortunate that he had been a bid lad, even in his tumultuous youth. The gallows broke due to his excessive weight, all muscle, and he had proceeded to bash in the heads of all the lawmen who dared to prevent his fortuitous emancipation, but not before hunting down that bastard judge and sticking his head through a tree trunk as he rightfully deserved.

The reverie was disrupted by a faint commotion that drifted across the gusty wind from the clearing, where he could vaguely discern men engaged in combat. There was a sudden crack that split the air, the hackles on Rael rising, and the odd intangible incessant buzz intensified in an abrupt burst. On the shore, this was complemented by the literal explosion of a resplendent blue aura, sparkling in fury and arcane menace. Rael started, heart thumping, wondering whether the island was haunted. The terrified moans of men carried over the wind, and despite his intense trepidation, Rael resolved to fight the light-bathed apparition in his own idiosyncratic way.

“Okay, boogyman, we’ll see how thou dost take a dose of my darling big boomers!” Rael said to himself with childish curiosity, his confidence increasing in increments as he approached the port broadside cannons, his fear replaced by malevolent intent and glee. “BOOM time!” he yelled, and his men snapped to attention.

“Do ye think the dead are weaker than the living, dogs?” the wraith boomed malignantly, sword rising and falling, rising and falling, and with each fluid, symbolic stroke forked lightning lanced from teh cloudless sky to char the grass and tear the earth asunder.

Men ran this way and that, crying out piteously for their worthless lives, while others still turned to Silverbeard, who stood in confrontational poise like an immutable stone monument, unfazed by the tempestuous tirade of the ghost before him even as soil fulminated around him.

“Think twice, half-wit! When you curs struck me down, I became more powerful than ye can possibly imagine, powerful enough to destroy ye ALL, BY THUNDER!!!” the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet bellowed, voice reaching a new terrible crescendo, and in the background there was a momentous crashing and rumbling din, as if a volcano were on the brink of catastrophic eruption, like Vesuvius and its hapless victims Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Cutlass gripped in hand, audacious Silverbeard, suffering the delirium of gold stupor, raised his blade and shouted at his men, “Skewer the old fossil!” He charged, though his minions slunk back, panic-stricken with mind-numbing fear.

A report from a distance, a familiar whistling, and Silverbeard’s foolish charge was abruptly ended when the apparition before him disintegrated in a fierce explosion, the force of which knocked the argent-bearded captain onto his austere posterior. When the dust and smoke dissipated, the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet was no more, his aura gone and his thunder abrogated. Incongruous tranquility returned to the glade.

Yet still his men cried in fear and fled, deeming the very spot where the monster had appeared as taboo and cursed. Pirates were a superstitious lot, after all.

“Get back here, ye yellow dogs!” Silverbeard yelled after them furiously, to no avail.

If anything, his rage only gave them more impetus to run.

Cowards. Silverbeard thought contemptuously.

He turned to look at the stockade snug atop the hillock, virtually unscathed, and bellowed hatefully, “Don’t get too cosy in there, gentlemen!” He spat the word as if it were comprised of stinging wasps. “Especially you, amulet thief!” He pointed at the stockade for vehement emphasis. “I’ll be back, and when I muster me men I’ll stove in yer blockhouse like a rum pudgeon! Them that dies will be the lucky ones!”

With that, he stormed off into the trees after his minions, shouting curses all the way.

“Remind me to call up Argent if ever I want a spectacular fireworks display.” Jimmy said wryly at the conclusion of the odd battle below.

They were inside the wooden blockhouse itself, sitting or standing around on edge in anticipation of a renewed assault at any moment.

“So, the Shade Capt’n didn’t cark it after all.” Forgan said grimly, staring at his fist disparagingly. “And somehow I doubt that cannonball fixed him neither.”

Chapman shrugged, his countenance producing a vindictive grin. “At least now I might have a chance at laying into him. I got a few scores to settle with that son of a Den’s whore.” He flexed his hands, clenching and unclenching them.

“I wouldn’t count on that chance.” Sentri said gravely. “Like as not, he’d strike thee down before thou didst even have an inkling he was behind thee.”

“I’m more concerned about the mundane threat, the pirates.” Pasar said self-righteously, though logic was on his side this time instead of just mule-headed pride. “If Argent is so powerful, then why simply withdraw without a real fight? I’d say he is waiting for us to tear each other to shreds, then he’ll move in and pick up the pieces.”

“And the treasure, too.” Walton added dryly.

“Right, Sir Pasar.” Dupre said in agreement, nodding his head gravely. His expression was morose at best. “We must deal with Silverbeard first, then worry about Argent. Forgan has already proved that he is not invincible, but we must be doubly, no, triply alert! Defence is the issue at hand here!”

“We have some supplies here.” Alcor, out of reticent character, sliced in expertly. “I’ve been in more than a few sieges in my life, and not on the besieging side either. The palisade wall can impede any pirate charge.” He gestured to the swivel gun lying on the ground amidst the powder kegs. “I’d suggest at an initial line of action that we mount this swivel gun in the window there facing the causeway to blast the enemy on the approach.”

“Good, man, good.” Dupre said. “Jimmy, Kap-Lem, Chapman, Forgan, arrange our equipment into organized piles, powder here, cannonballs there, and so forth.”

They snapped to it, while Dupre pulled the others aside to further organize the little garrison of the fort. There was a need for vigilant sentinels, for complacency would end in their throats sliced out here in this inhospitable place. Lindu, Vardu, and Delfin were assigned to that imperative task. Upon Dupre’s inquiry on Vardu’s condition, the burly knight replied in a terse fashion that he was ‘fine’ and fit to undertake the duty at hand. Alcor was already mounting the swivel gun in the window, loading and priming it for a scrap.

To Whitley, Dupre said, “Doctor, I trust thy veteran’s experience hast not deserted thee?”

Whitley glared at him admonishingly. “Hardly, Commander. I’m still fit to frighten the Brigands of Boure’dain, and with pirates it shalt be no different.”

“Excellent. Thou shalt be our chief medical officer and defender of the house once the pirates surmount that palisade. Myself, Pasar, Lindu, Vardu, Delfin and Alcor will take the battle outside if necessary.”

They prayed it would not come to that, but all likelihood was t hat the superior numbers of the pirates would mean their entry into the fort was quite probable.

Le Sorbe, who was so forlorn and incongruous without his precious galley, was assigned as Master of the Rations, and along with Jimmy (who was deemed a liability in combat - didn’t they know he’d fought far worse foes than a mismatched gaggle of pirate thugs? - much to his chagrin) would stay within the blockhouse in the event of siege to distribute supplies if required in the chaos, and if necessary would serve as the last line of defence should the pirates breach both the outer and inner defences. Chapman would man the swivel gun. As for the others, namely Sentri, Kap-Lem, Lorwin, Walton, and Forgan, Dupre had quite disparate plans.

“So long as the pirate’s ship still floats, we’re as good as cadavers strewn all over the island.” Dupre said gravely. “Lorwin, thy skills in ballistics are of the essence to my machinations.”

Lorwin listened with keen interest, eager to exact revenge on the villains who had slain so many of his friends. “What dost thou have in mind?”

“Catapult.” said Dupre tersely. “Canst thou make one?”

Lorwin smiled coldly, realization of salvation and vengeance dawning upon his macabre mind. “I already have the dimensions in my head, and some base materials - bits and pieces that I scrounged from our weapons supplies before the Virtuosity perished, though we’ll need much more wood - to do it. It will be crude at best, but -”

“So long as it has the range! Thou hast the tools thou dost need.” Dupre gestured to the hacksaw, hammer, nails and rope organized into neat little piles on an aging table, courtesy of Jimmy Malone and his cohorts. The annoying journalist flashed a toothy, ingratiating smile in his direction and waved avidly. Dupre simply ignored him and continued, “One powder keg should be sufficient, but take another just in case. That’ll leave us one to defend the fort. Canst thou do it?”

Lorwin nodded confidently. “But of course, commander?”

“How long will it take?”

Lorwin frowned for a moment, replying, “I could build a crude catapult within a day or so, with Kap-Lem’s brute strength and the aid of Walton and the others.”

“That’s why I provided them.” Dupre said, nodding righteously.

“The problem is elevation.” Lorwin said. “Launching from the shore won’t be good enough. Keg won’t make half the distance.”

Dupre called, “Delfin, thy memory would be useful.”

Forgan spoke up as the archaic warrior appeared beside a cogitating Sentri, unfurling Argent’s treasure map and displaying it to the small group. “I was perusing through this map before, sir, during the fight between the pirates, and I couldn’t help but notice this promontory here near the stockade.” He stabbed a finger at the stained and wrinkled map. Curiously, their position - the fort - was not marked, a hole in the ancient paper in its place instead. The promontory was depicted as a rocky finger thrusting into the sea.

Delfin gave an affirmative verification. “Aye. That’s Axeman’s Promontory, if I do recall. That’s where we executed Rickets and his surviving men. A grisly scene it was, too.”

“Oh? And I suppose thou didst bring down the axe thyself?” Forgan asked skeptically.

Delfin shook his head, chagrined. “Nae. That was Rogers, and he used a sword, not an axe.” For once he didn’t continue with the interminable tale, much to everybody’s relief.

“Excellent.” Dupre said, referring to the position of the promontory. “Thou shouldst leave under cover of darkness and work through the night, if possible. Though I sincerely doubt Silverbeard’s men will be on the prowl from now till dusk, not after the fright they got recently, thou shouldst still be wary.” He looked at Forgan, a spontaneous whim arising from thin air. “Give me the treasure map.”

Momentarily perplexed, the sailor ceded the dog-eared article.

Dupre pocketed it. “It wouldst not do if Silverbeard got his hands on this. I expect an assault in the morning, at latest, once the scoundrel rallies his men, accompanied by bombardment from the sea.”

The remainder of the day was spent organizing the fort and maintaining a strict vigil in case Silverbeard rallied his men earlier than expected. The ship sat in the distance in the placid waters, ominous and eliciting a tense ambience within the stockade itself. Little could be done about it right now.

The well, a small hole rimmed with some metal, was still working, though the rope had to be replaced. Once a small enough container to fit down the well had been found, they drew some water and enjoyed a frugal meal of goat’s cheese, hardbread, and jerky. Not the most delectable meal Jimmy had ever enjoyed, but hunger made the best sauce.

Outside, the sun began to set, splashing a menacing cast of red-vermilion over the horizon. Jimmy took it as an omen, and a bad omen at that, as if the deep sanguinity bespoke of much blood to be spilled in the coming hours. Hopefully, it would be more of the pirates’ than their own. Hopefully.

It was at about this time that Jimmy caught the pensive Kap-Lem in his insular corner, sitting in almost meditative poise though his eyes were wide open and seemingly staring at nothingness. He dared to sit down beside his beastly friend. The wingless gargoyle did not stir. Detecting no overt sign of hostility, Jimmy interrupted Kap-Lem’s troubled reverie.

“Something wrong?” Jimmy inquired, genuinely concerned.

His eyes resumed focus, the gargoyle turning his demonic head slowly to gaze at Jimmy. The reporter no longer felt uncomfortable with that auger-like stare bearing down on him; the involuntary backbone shiver was now gone, testament to Jimmy’s feeling of security and trust in Kap-Lem.

“To feel...compunction.” Kap-Lem answered lamentably. “And shame. To know I did not treat Graldesh fairly for his piety. To greatly admire his brave sacrifice, yet now I cannot tell him these things. To be very sorry about that.” The creature sighed, a deep hissing like superheated steam rising from water boiling.

“Don’t blame yourself. We’re all victims of our social conditioning.” Jimmy said with a helpless shrug.

The way Kap-Lem frowned at him, it seemed as if whether he were vacillating over how to take that particularly ambiguous statement. “To now understand that piety does not make a being, but that a being makes the piety.” he continued carefully, uncertain of his words.

Jimmy nodded vehemently. “Religion and piety are subjective, Kap-Lem. That’s why we have so many religious conflicts, wars fought in the name of otherwise non-existent deities. Respecting the other’s belief is what is most important.”

“To say that imposition of tenets is wrong. To understand that now, and to meditate and ask Graldesh’s soul for amnesty.”

Jimmy’s countenance was poignant. “Maybe he isn’t dead after all. He has wings. Maybe he managed to fly away in time.”

Kap-Lem looked dubious. “To be determined to live up to his memory. To be determined to destroy pirate ship!” He bared his fangs in anger.

Jimmy shivered involuntarily at the bellicose sight. He would not much like to e the target of this particular gargoyle’s ire, or any other, for that matter.

“You’ll get your chance.” Jimmy said encouragingly. “We’ll all get our chance to pay back Silverbeard and his merry men. Big time.”

“Kap-Lem, it’s time to leave.”

Jimmy gazed up at the interloper in the dying light. It was Sentri, his expression stolid in preparation for the rigours that were to come.

Kap-Lem arose with alacrity, taking his spears with him. “To be ready.” he answered, and a fierce resolve was palpable in his intrinsically hoarse voice.

Sentri nodded in satisfaction and led him out of the blockhouse where the others were waiting, carrying the prerequisite tools to hastily design and construct the crude catapult that was meant to destroy the pirate ship that had been a looming predator once and for all.

They departed under the cover of darkness.

Crickets, or something worse, like as not, sang irritatingly repetitive, uninspired serenades as one of Britannia’s moons, Felucca, bathed the uninviting beach in white-blue luminosity. Silverbeard sat on an overturned crate, glaring murderously at his crew, their public speaker Solmon, in particular, The scum returned his venomous stare in earnest.

The indolent, despondent louts were camped around a large crackling bonfire, imbibing rather dejectedly what was remaining of their rum rations. They hardly looked the sort to stage a mutiny, but Silverbeard was painfully cognizant of the fact that they were only a hair’s breadth away from spilling his blood and turning the Sea Critter about and back to Buccaneer’s Den, all for nothing, Hawkins be vilified.

Not to far off, the surf pounded against shore and rock, enunciating Silverbeard’s headache to an even greater degree, much to his chagrin. He could still hear the thunder reverberate in his head, the thunder of that accursed ghost, his former master. His skull seemed to throb, but his fear had been allayed - no, clean swept away into oblivion, more like it - by the realization that the treasure was somewhere on this little, treacherous island. Not just any treasure, but the Treasure! The treasure of the notoriously nefarious Capt’n of the Shade Fleet, the meanest scoundrel to ever sail the Great Sea, a surely vast hoard unparallelled in size and value. And these absolute fools were too concerned with self-pity and cowardice to take advantage of the fact.

They were on the verge of deposing him by violent and very possibly sanguinary means, and not even the potential power of the amulet would sway them this time. But Captain Silverbeard still had a shot in his locker, by the Shade Capt’n’ thunder he did.

“Ye spineless mongrels! We’re so close to gettin’ what we want, and now yer about to turn right round and runback to the sewer you were spawned in as if the devils of Old Magincia were after ye?” Silverbaerd spat contemptuously.

There was a dangerous glint in Solmon’s world weary eyes, in all of the pirates’ eyes, actually. He had pushed them too far, he knew, debased them gratuitously and took their passivity for granted, but now they had snapped and their usual inherent fear of him was irrevocably overruled by chagrin and self-preservation.

“Damn thee and thy scurvy trinket, Silverbeard!” Solmon retorted in a most loathsome tone, intimidation and the effects of such gone to the acrid wind emanating from a burning house. “Nuthin’ is worth this, not even that bloody amulet thou dost keep rattling on about as if it’s the paragon of Virtue and what not.” He spat scornfully, the phlegm-riddled blob just landing before Silverbeard’s booted feet.

Silverbeard glared at the spittle integrating into the sand, as if the metaphoric heat in his eyes could have sizzled the physical manifestation of insolence. Solmon rose to his feet in challenge, and Silverbeard impetuously reciprocated, hand shooting to the hilt of his cutlass.

“I say we cut our losses and get outta here! The island is cursed!” Solmon said, and there were accompanying cries of “Aye!” and “Har!” behind him.

Slimey Will, sitting as close to the bonfire as he could without incinerating himself, stared hatefully at Silverbeard, one hand tenderly rubbing his nose. His countenance was transmuted into a perpetual petulant crease, as if he were trapped midway between a destructive tantrum and a fit of piteous sobbing, and all he could do was vacillate interminably between the unfavourable pair.

The flickering flame cast a malevolent glare on Slimey Will’s already repulsive visage, and Silverbeard was immediately reminded of a rat baring its teeth at him from a gutter. When he factored into the equation the throwing knife that the pirate almost subconsciously toyed with in his other hand, he consolidated the epithet with rabid rat.

“I say we cut the bastard captain!” Slimey Will exclaimed, and similar cries issued behind him, though these were fewer and anxiously anonymous. Old habits were somewhat difficult to break, and memories were fresh and as warm as loaves from the baker’s oven. Obeisance to Silverbeard had been expected in his apogee, with brutal measures executed if the unspoken mandate was not adhered to, back in the apex of his captaincy. These days were far from that, but it was immaterial. A new apogee was at hand.

“He broke me nose!” Slimey Will added, almost as a side note, as if he were ashamed of the fact.

Bah, bloody well he should be! Silverbeard brooded discontentedly at the memory of the scrawny sycophant attempting to steal his rightful kill. Swab.

“ already looked broken to me. I just set it back into place with me elbow. I hope I wasn’t none too gentle.” Silverbeard said condescendingly, mimicking a fretful mother’s tone, though it was a poor imitation.

Slimey Will snarled at him wordlessly.

“No more pickin’ on Will, Silverbeard.” Solmon said gravely, his eyes cold. “That’s part of the new way.”

Silverbeard glared at him menacingly, but before he could make vitriolic comment, one pirate called Hal cried out, “And so’s stickin’ Silverbeard’s head on a pike and leaving his corpse to rot!”

Silverbeard hissed in nascent fury. “So, Hal, ye’ve got sauce after all to say something disrespectful to my face. Would you care to say it a little closer?”

A blockheaded swab named Trunk stood, shaking his cudgel, and growled, “Aye, with me cudgel to thy mouth to get our point across!”

“Scum!” Silverbeard spat.

The pirates jeered at him disparagingly, and he roared in helpless rage.

“Thy time is up, Silverbeard. As captain. As pirate. As a living swab.” Solmon said, a grotesque smile of gruesome anticipation forming on his lips. “Thou hast made a hash of this cruise, bigger than a killer whale, I’d say. Thy amulet has gone to those navymen in the stockade, tucked in nice n’ snug while we shiver in cold and fear out here in this damnable place. The bloody island’s cursed; the ghost of the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet roams, thirsting for our lifeblood, an’ we ain’t fool enough to go crossin’ with spirits.”

Some men grunted in agreement, while others whimpered in consternation, terrified of being reminded of the fact.

Silverbeard rolled his eyes ostentatiously. “Solmon, from what college of intellectual refinement did ye graduate? The School For Doorstops? Why do ya blood think the Shade Capt’n’s shade is here in the first place, hollerin’ about thunder and such? Did ye not listen to a single word he was booming, or were ye too busy pissin’ yer pants and sniffin’ yer piss?”

Solmon looked nonplussed, as did the others. Silverbeard seized full advantage of their perplexity.

“The Treasure is on this island, here, now, not a quarter mile from here!” Silverbeard exclaimed, pointing emphatically toward the dark blanket that masked the islet’s mediocre wilderness. The crickets had stopped, and part of Silverbeard’s mind - the part that wasn’t focused on molding the amenable masses to his will, which was a good percentage of it - wondered whether the insects too were eager to hear about the Shade Capt’n’s treasure, so pervasive was the legend.

Of course, the men were well aware of the legend, but that in no way softened the blow of absolute astonishment. Solmon gaped aghast, while Slimey Will’s venomous looks were replaced by a countenance of wonder (his face was still quite ugly and vermin-like, however), his eyes the size of saucers.

“Yes, lads. Think on it. Enough gold, silver, jewels, bloody every type of valuable in the whole world, ten times Lord British’s treasury. Filled the hulls of two great ships, it did, and even then they nearly sank. I should know, I was one of the Shade Capt’n’s lieutenants.” Silverbeard said, playing on their avaricious propensities like a proficient drummer.

The men stared at him now as if they had never known the fact. Of course, in times past he had repeatedly drilled home the fact like an auger in order to gain the respect that he believed he so richly deserved. It was the current impact that counted, not whether it was cliche or otherwise.

“The...treasure!” one scoundrel, Ronco, managed to gasp what the others could not.

The Treasure!” Silverbeard amended with a patronizing smile. “Not just any hoard, lad...this be the Treasure of the Shade Capt’n himself!” Now it was time for some crafty falsehood. In regards to the idiosyncratic navigational behaviour of the Royal navymen now holed up in old Rickets’ stockade, he could now comprehend why they had abruptly changed course for the island: the conformist louts were as greedy as themselves, the three-faced mongrels! Somehow, somewhere they had obtained the Shade Capt’n’s treasure map and were too impetuous to even garner reinforcements to protect their interests from the pirates. Mayhaps the amulet thief had lifted the map off the Shade Capt’n’s putative cenotaph in the desert in addition to the amulet from the now late Bill Tolibar, the wretched little scoundrel. In any case, Silverbeard was certain they held not only the amulet but the key to finding the treasure as well. Now all Silverbeard had to do was dissimulate and act as if he had known about the Treasure all along, which he certainly had not. Then his men would flock to his banner once more as it was meant to be. They were already halfway there.

“Aye, lads.” he nodded. “Ye think I didn’t know? Of course I knew! The amulet was just one part of the juicier bargain. If certain members of the crew had done their job right -” he roved a reproachful eye over the remnants of his band despite the fact that those deserving castigation were dead or gone, or both...Blackeye, Whitedog, Morgan, Vigil Pew, to name a few “-we would’ve been on time to intercept that royal boat at Vesper dock and seize the map!” He growled in exasperation.

Some of the men actually hung their heads, naively believing it was entirely their fault. A select number, including Solmon and Slimey Will, appeared skeptical.

“But the spirit. Thou didst say it thyself, Silverbeard!” Trunk said, stuttering with a babble of excitement and fear. “The ghost of -”

“That’s Captain Silverbeard to you, ye bloody disrespecting swab!” Silverbeard roared, silencing the pathetic pirate with a snap of the jaw opposite to open. “And as fer ghosts and shades, ain’t man nor beast nor spirit gonna keep the Treasure from me, Captain Silverbeard, pirate capt’n extraordinaire!”

Someone sniffed derisively, and Silverbeard grimaced.

“Thou dost know the luck of the seas. Crossin’ spirits and staying on cursed isles is bound to bring us bad luck!” Solmon said dismally, though his avarice was slowly but surely changing the whim of his heart.

“I don’t care if it’s Jim Hawkins himself cursing and cussing. I’m gonna GET - THAT - LOOT!!!” Silverbeard yelled that last part vehemently in defiance of the ghost, wherever it was. He returned his gold fever-glazed eyes to his disgruntled crew, who were less mutinous now at these latest tidings. “Well? What’s your answer?” he asked, deceptively cool. Deep within he broiled like overheated milk about to rise with explosive consequences.

The men exchanged glances at first, then there came a reluctant unanimous nod, increasing in momentum.

“Very well, Captain. The helm is thine.” Solmon said cautiously, though the word ‘Captain’ spoke volumes of what terrible things would occur if Silverbeard’s promises of gold and glory did not see fruition.

When morning rose, Jimmy glanced out the window of the stockade, startled to discover a pillar of black smoke billowing into the sky, marring its otherwise flawless azure hue.

“It’s a signal.” Dupre said grimly, his hand on the pommel of his sword.

Jimmy saw that the others had their weapons drawn, even the chef, the blade misplaced in his chubby hand.

“Signal for what?” he asked naively.

Thunder pealed and a plot of earth just outside the entrance to the stockade exploded, showering torn bits of grass and dirt everywhere. Jimmy hit the ground, instinctively covering his head, his ridiculous question answered.

“That.” Dupre said wryly, though not even a mirthless smile graced his morose lips.

Tensions magnified by several degrees when they heard the sounds of commotion rustling from the trees surrounding the base of the hillock, the sounds of what they knew to be the approach of a large group. Pirates.

“They come!” Lindu cried from outside, waving her sword.

“To arms, men!” Dupre commanded, egressing into the open sword in hand, Alcor, Delfin, and Pasar following his lead.

Inside the stockade remained Jimmy himself, Whitley, Chapman, and Le Sorbe. Chapman was dutifully manning the swivel gun, assiduously waiting for the first sign of pirate congregation at the palisade. The warriors were spread out beyond the stockade in the open, but behind the palisade wall. Cannonballs still rained down, courtesy of the ship paralleling the shore, and it would certainly not do to have the defenders congested and thus all killed or wounded by a wayward lucky shot. They were going to have a difficult time as it was repelling the invaders, who outnumbered them by an unknown few.

The uncouth enemy burst from the trees, rushing up the gentle slope to take the palisade wall. A cannonball landed just beyond it, doing naught but throwing up smoky soil and grass. Over the palisade wall did droves of men clamber like ravenous, spry spiders, cutlasses, knives and cudgels in their mouths, all the while the defenders stabbed at them through apertures in the unevenly placed wooden stakes.

Inside the fort, Jimmy sat tight, a longsword held in untried hand. He summoned memories of his fighting days in Eodon, wielding obsidian swords to clash with his indomitable foes. He hadn’t been the best of warriors, but he had managed to rack up a few kills for himself, Nahuatl guards and myrmidex among them, possibly the deadliest foes in the entire Valley besides the damn near invulnerable Tyrranosaurus Rex and Allosaurus.

Chapman’s left arm jerked backwards, and half a second later so did the swivel gun due to recoil, blasting away at least for pirates attempting to scale the palisade wall and leaving a gouging hole in their physical defence barrier as a legacy. He swiftly and mechanically got about reloading and priming the gun, an arduously slow process unto itself but one Chapman made appear simpler than boiling eggs.

Another explosion ripped a second wound in the palisade wall, and the pirates poured through both breaches en masse, Silverbeard at the tip of the spearpoint thrusting into the heart of the stockade.

“I’d say this was hopeless, but that’s be too optimistic!” Jimmy cried.

“Merde.” Le Sorbe muttered, a sheen of sweat beading his forehead.

Outside, Dupre slashed low, cutting a man’s calves and effectively immobilizing, then rose and parried the blow of another pirate’s cutlass, kneeing him in the stomach and then severing his neck with a vicious downward cut. There was no finesse to this, he thought disparagingly as he met the impetuous attack of another renegade. In fact, this barbaric melee fighting was not unlike the time back in the dark days of Blackthorn’s regime, where on countless occasions while sailing the Great Sea they had been boarded by gentlemen of fortune and forced to fight at close quarters.

The knave before him screamed as Dupre disembowelled him with a proficient slash across the belly. He was uncertain of how many foes he’d dispatched, only that countless more were rushing in and his comrades were struggling to repulse them. Lunging to join the battle, he could only hope that Sentri was faring better than they were.

The catapult stood before them, a rickety thing that rose nine feet tall, the culmination of a whole night’s continuous diligent working with only the light of the moons and some prudent torchlight to illuminate their labours. Constructed of sawn and chopped beams of wood - crudely shaped, of course, given their limited time frame - taken from trees they had felled, rope, nails, and brute strength (to which the presence of Kap-Lem had proven most pivotal), the primitive war machine had been built amidst the shelter of trees not too distant from the promontory, to conceal them from the sentries of the pirate ship sitting in the bay.

When completed, it had been dragged to the promontory (once again, the tremendous strength of Kap-Lem had proven pivotal to the viability of the task) and underwent Lorwin’s final preparations. Crude was a vast understatement for this particular siege machine, but it would have to do the job, or they would all expire on a lee shore.

Fortunately, the pirate ship, the Sea Critter as Forgan had identified it, had not yet spotted them at their most vulnerable moment. Too few men on watch, he speculated, with all aboard focused upon levelling the stockade with cannon. They could hear the reports, the thunderous roars hardly diminished in intensity by the distances involved.

Now the catapult had to undergo what Lorwin called a ‘dummy test’, where dud projectiles would be hurled at the ship to test range and tension force in the ropes that drew back the launching arm of the device. This would be their most perilous time. for once the Sea Critter became alerted to their presence - and they would, unless they were oblivious to rocks hurtling over their mast - it would not doubt at least turn one of its guns on them, as vulnerable and visible as they were on the promontory. Their only hope was that the pirates would take time to readjust their vessel and get a bead on them.

Kap-Lem placed a rock in the bowl of the launching arm that, according to Lorwin’s astute judgment, weighted roughly the same as if handling a newborn babe, he grasped the axe that would be used to cut the line holding the strained arm back.

As he lifted it overhead, he glanced at the others and said ominously, “Pray that the Virtues hold true, lads.”

A downward swoop of the axe and the line was cut, the arm pitching forward with enough force to jar the entire catapult, and also to hurl the rock over the sea in a gentle arc, reaching a peak and then descending toward the Sea Critter. They watched and prayed, and to their exultation, the rock struck the gunwale of the vessel. That sense of elation quickly transformed to one of urgency as they realized it would not be long before the pirates turned the guns on them.

Hastily, Kap-Lem pulled back the launcher on its pivot, while Walton and Forgan prepared the tension ropes.

“Fire those big boomers, boy!” Rael commanded, unable to keep the excitement from his voice. “Level the swabs! BOOM!!!” His bellowing of the last word was almost as deafening as the report, as one of the cannons discharged its payload toward the island.

One of his men cried out in surprise and a grating sound of tortured wood followed, accompanied by a dull thump as something impacted the gunwale. Rael whipped around and saw his gunner on the ground, a nasty splinter having impaled his arm. Rael was more concerned about the cannon that had been knocked out of position, its cleft in the gunwale having been mashed by a heavy blunt object. To his motherly rage, he saw that the muzzle outlet of the gun had been scratched ever so slightly.

Rael grimaced in the way only a furious parent could at the sight of one of his dear ‘children’ being harmed by anyone, regardless of the circumstance. His sharp, roving marksman’s eye caught the catapult on the promontory, the same promontory he foretold would cause him grief, and small figures scuttling about it.

Rael growled like an animal, irate being too mild a word to describe it, and cursed himself for being complacent enough to remain oblivious to the treacherous sneak attack. It was what he would have done to maximize attack range with a projectile launcher, after all!

“Scoundrels! Inconsiderate babe-killers! I’ll teach thee to hurt innocent, defenceless baby boomers!” he growled vindictively, turning about the gun without any assistance from his mates whatsoever, his raw strength sufficient for the task, and tilted it back on its axis. Years of experience and countless sea skirmishes meant that he was more than accustomed to estimating range and falling position of the cannonball in question at the drop of a pin.

Producing a flaming brand, he said with a sadistic leer, “Take this, thou damn swabs!”

Walton had just finished tying the tension rope down when Forgan cried and pointed at the ship, where a puff of smoke issued from the broadside, followed by a thunderous report and an ominous whistle. The explosion hurled Forgan back several metres, his limp form striking the hard ground in the unnatural sprawl of death.

“Get that keg lighted!” Lorwin demanded hastily as Sentri fumbled with a flaming brand and the fuse of the keg.

The fuse now lit, Sentri nervously placed the powdered explosive in the bowl. Lorwin raised the axe, but his yes suddenly widened in pained astonishment and fell forward flat on his face, a dagger buried to the hilt in his back.

Sentri turned to see three pirates approaching their rear, one of them a scrawny rat-faced fellow preparing to hurl another knife. A large, brutish fellow rushed for Sentri and the catapult, while another armed with a machete flashed black teeth at Kap-Lem, who confronted him warily.

Walton charged the rat-faced pirate, sword drawn, the target of his indifferent dutiful obligation drawing back his arm to throw. The knife’s sharp point met his chest but merely bounced off his thick chest plate, and the next moment the scoundrel was run through with his sword, squealing like a rat skewered by a troll’s kebab stick.

Sentri didn’t have a chance to draw his own blade, for his pirate was remarkably swift for one of his size, and a lightning fast fist knocked him out. Stars splashed before his eyes as his posterior hit the ground, and for a moment his eyes as his posterior hit the ground, and for a moment he feared the powder keg would explode. He felt a paradoxical mix of relief and frustration when the pirate snuffed the fuse with his own bear’s palm, grimacing in pain. Then he turned and grinned smugly at the disoriented Sentri, producing an unfriendly looking knife.

“Now for thee, navy boy.” he slurred in eager anticipation of his victim’s screams, then stepped forward and had his thorax impaled by a spear. Having had the dubious satisfaction of hearing his own scream, he then collapsed in a bloody heap.

Sentri craned his neck to see Kap-Lem holding his foe above the ground by his face alone, encased in his mighty clawed hand, claws which dug deep into the flesh of the villain’s repulsive visage. The fellow’s arms were already broken, as was his machete lying on the ground snapped in two. A swipe of claws from Kap-Lem’s opposite hand and the pirate’s throat was cut.

Sentri stumbled to his feet to light another flaming brand, and the two other survivors of his party rushed to his aid. Quickly they replaced the powder keg in the bowl with the other, for the fuse was now too short to trust it to make the distance or not explode in their very faces.

A second cannonshot ripped apart rocky earth dangerously close to the catapult, but it seemed the height of the promontory as impeding the accuracy of the gunner. It would not take him long to readjust and hit them dead centre on the next round, however.

As the flaming brand hovered over the fuse, Sentri saw a most startling thing: a strange winged creature, the distance blurring its features, flying waywardly toward the Sea Critter as if buffeted by an invisible force, its sense of smooth flight distorted by injury. It dived toward the deck of the ship and disappeared, but Sentri could have sworn he recognized the creature.

But it was Kap-Lem who gasped, “Graldesh!”

There was a brief moment of perplexity, then Sentri brusquely barked, “Light the bloody fuse!”

Rael cackled wickedly as yet another cannonball rocketed toward the fools on the promontory, landing in an explosion of dust and powdered earth.

“How dost thou like that, swabs, eh? That’s thine medicine!” Rael Paws laughed iniquitously, pulling back the cannon to reload it.

There was an odd thump somewhere behind him and one of his gunners yelled indignantly. Turning around like an irate bull, his eyes narrowed at the sight of a massive winged gargoyle dispatching the remaining four able-bodied members of his gunnery crew, their cutlasses and knives no match for the animalistic ferocity of swiping claws and tremendous strength of arm.

A savage smile touched Rael’s lips. He had always been an exceptionally strong man, even as a boy, and once boasted that he could beat a gargoyle in a contest of wills. Now was his opportunity to ascertain whether he was truly capable of this arrogant claim. He flexed his muscles in preparation for the long anticipated wrestling match.

The gargoyle turned to face him, monstrous chest heaving, a deep, ragged panting issuing forth from deadly predator’s jaws that sounded more like steam being expelled from a furnace. Its demeanour was fatigued, and all over its leathery body were gashes and lacerations, its wings torn and bloody, as if it was injured by some previous scuffle of considerable magnitude.

Wordlessly, the insane smile on his ugly face, Rael lunged at the beast, and together they grappled like base animals proving their might to a harem of females, snarling and barking. Rael was oblivious to the deep cuts the gargoyle’s claws made in his arms, absorbed in the test of strength.

This was truly a challenge, for Rael’s muscles trembled with the intense strain, but so too did his adversary, for it had been weakened by some previous ordeal and gasped in pain.

Rael was inevitably being pushed toward the gunwale. The creature, having realized it had met a foe of considerable strength, was clearly resolving to push him overboard. Not if the chief gunner could help it!

As his buttocks touched the rim of buttocks, Rael summoned his last reserves and plowed back, driving his adversary in reverse one step, then another. It was then that he heard something land adjacent to him. The gargoyle simply smiled grotesquely and drew away, letting Rael glance in horror at the powder keg now lying next to one of his cannons, the fuse frizzling to a nub.

“Uh-oh. BOOM time!”

The keg exploded, igniting the loaded guns on the broadside and consuming the entire ship in a successive chain of hungry fireballs, the smoke billowing toward the sky.

Outside the stockade, the battle was fierce, the defender’s battle prowess barely staving off the depredations of the rapacious gentlemen of fortune. Jimmy sat - or rather, stood - tight and awaited the seemingly inevitable charge into the citadel itself. Whitley stood not too far from the door, deft blade in hand, revealing nary a trace of fear or apprehension. Neither was he complacent, however. His countenance was devoid of sanguinity or despondency, purely molded by impassive stoicism.

Jimmy could admire him despite his oft times gruff disposition.

Small thunder pealed as Chapman fired the swivel gun again, or what Jimmy called the mini-gun. Perhaps the cries of battle and the squeal of steel was louder than the sporadic reports of gunfire, coming mainly from the ship sitting in the bay, but the din touched Chapman not a bit as he mechanically loaded the swivel gun and primed it for another shot.

The ground trembled and dust flooded in as another report erupted, seemingly just beyond the shoot-hole for the swivel gun. When it cleared, Jimmy saw in a fit of coughing that Chapman lay dead at his post.

Inexplicable fury welled up in Jimmy’s belly at the sight. All these deaths, all this craziness, all of it, for one pathetic amulet? Snarling, Jimmy bounded to the prepped ‘mini-gun’.

“There’s only one way to end this madness, and that’s to give them what they want!” Jimmy exclaimed.

Whitley glared at him incredulously, about to castigate the proposal of capitulation, but surrender was the last thing on Jimmy’s mind as he tore the amulet from his neck and shoved it into the gun barrel.

Pivoting it to target a band of five pirates rushing for the entrance, he assumed Long John Silver’s voice and cackled with a derisive smile, “Har! Take this, ya damn swabs!”

The cannonshot knocked the scoundrels off their feet, tearing through them like paper. To his side, the door was kicked open, a pirae with stereotypical hat that was the analogue of a boat, roaring, ‘Har!” and slashing his cutlass high. Whitley engaged him, but two more scoundrels rushed in. Le Sorbe lumbered into the fray, blade singing poorly, and was on the verge of being overwhelmed when Jimmy joined the battle, screaming profanities and wielding his sword with all the experience he had gained fighting terrible lizards and the nightmares of myrmecologists.

Startled by the suddenness and ferocity of the unassuming warrior’s assault, one pirate fell almost immediately. The second turned to face Jimmy, but Le Sorbe seized the advantage and stabbed viciously into his side. Whitley already stood over the warm corpse of his adversary.

Called to battle, Jimmy rushed heedlessly outside. Like a charging bull did he rampage, startling the foes mired in pitched battle with the defenders. Off near the palisade, a cannonball exploded, toppling several stakes and knocking down Alcor and his scalliwag adversary in the midst of duel.

The blade felt light and slightly odd in his hand, the point obtrusively lengthier than the obsidian cutters he’d parred with in the insular Valley only the devil knew how many dimensions away; his style possessed no real skill or finesse, nothing of the refinement that was expected of honest duellists. Honest, duellist, ha! Jimmy thought scornfully. He fought ad hoc style, a blatant, crude, amorphous form that was not unlike that of the pirates, perhaps even dirtier; slash high in feint, stab the groin, finish him with a cut to the upper body, preferably to the head or neck, even though he was already effectively done for with all that profuse sanguinity spilling from the ruined wreckage of the foe’s manhood.

The frenzy that followed represented the application of every skill - if one could call it that - that Jimmy had ever learned in Eodon, where treachery was par for the course with your back to the cliff wall and a drove of mindless myrmidex mandibles snapping voraciously at you. When you couldn’t fight well, you fought dirty.

“Ha ha!” Jimmy cried as he jumped a pirate, a scummy, scar-faced fellow with a tied-off napkin capping his head, who yelped indignantly and brought his blade up.

The steel longsword was heavier than the obsidian he was so used to wielding, but better balanced due to forging superiority. It sang with a metallic hum, clashed with a crystalline ching, and sliced through the scoundrel’s flesh like melting butter, the once lustrous surface of the blade blemished by crimson spray.

Stepping over the freshly made cadaver, Jimmy watched as Lindu dispatched a foe with a thrust to the heart and turn to engage another. A thug was creeping up behind her to whack her skull with a spiked cudgel, but before he had taken another step he found Jimmy’s longsword pointing through his sternum.

Slashing her enemy’s throat, Lindu turned and smiled in thanks for Jimmy’s assistance, and the reporter was off again, like a tricksy hobgoblin, materializing beside Delfin.

The veteran glanced at him, eyes widening slightly in surprise. “Thou art not dead yet?”

Jimmy grinned insolently. “Nope. I intend to keep fighting until they nail shut my coffin.”

Delfin snorted. “These scoundrels wouldn’t give thy body that much respect, lad. Thou wouldst be lucky if they urinated on it.”

A final pack of the curs were coalescing outside the main breach in the palisade wall in a mocking parody of organization, five of the ruffians armed with cudgels, cutlasses, and death glares. Dupre, Lindu, Vardu, and Whitley appeared at Jimmy and Delfin’s sides, having sighted the renewed enemy resurgence and dispatching the scattered enemy forces within the fort itself.

With a shout that was more audacious than brave, the pirates charged, their roar unanimous and ominous.

“They’re charging us!” Jimmy exclaimed.

“Aye! Just like the centaurs of the northern tundras!” said Delfin.

“How’d you beat them?”

“I’m trying to remember. There were an awful lot of casualties that day!”

“Stand firm, men!” Dupre commanded sternly.

“And woman!” Lindu snapped indignantly.

The pirates crashed into their immutable line, one impaling himself upon Jimmy’s blade immediately. The attack disintegrated like a hapless ship against a sheer cliff wall, three more pirates falling to the blade of the defenders.

The last ran for freedom, but ahead of him down the causeway, the ship that lay in the bay bombarding the stockade at its leisure disappeared in a tremendous succession of balls of fire, spewing charred and charring debris across the water.

“Well done, Sentri and Lorwin, well done!” Dupre said, closing his eyes in immense relief.

The fleeing rogue froze at the terrible, demoralizing sight, whimpering in fear. He turned slowly, resignedly, to face the approaching Delfin. His sullied, boyish face meek, Jimmy was struck with wonder as to how such a youthful lad could go so far astray in the company pirates.

“We take prisoners?” Jimmy asked.

“When we can.” Dupre said. “Within reasonable bounds.”

“Funny. Somehow I doubt that if our positions were reversed, we’d be shown the same mercy.” Jimmy remarked wryly. “What will happen to him?”

“He’ll be clapped in irons, and taken to a fair trial in Yew, then he’ll be hanged, like as not.” Dupre answered gravely. There was no compassion in his tone.

Jimmy couldn’t blame him. These scoundrels deserved no less than death, and quite possibly much more.

The pirate caught Dupre’s cold, impartial words and as if sensing impending doom, recoiled from Delfin and drew a dagger. Whether it was to end it all right there, or more likely, an act of hopeless desperation, Jimmy could not say, but the villain’s cowed countenance quickly transformed to one of rabid savagery. He drew back the dagger to throw, but Delfin slashed his belly, eviscerating the whelp.

“Good. Saved us time.” Lind said bitterly.

It occurred to them that three of their number were missing: Pasar, Alcor, and Le Sorbe. Whitley rushed over to the still form of Alcor lying on the blood soiled ground nearby, as Le Sorbe emerged from the blockhouse dragging the corpses of slain invaders.

He turned and waved at them, shouting proudly, “I got one of the Briton bastards!” and shaking his bloody sword for emphasis. “That’s for my galley, oui!”

Jimmy ventured out of the stockade, scouring the area with his eyes for Pasar. He didn’t like the knight much, and the feeling was certainly mutual, but he had fought to secure his sake. That much was commendable if nothing else was.

The pitched clamour of battle nearby drifted to his ear, and round the other side of the hillock he found Pasar and Silverbeard duelling relentlessly, taking and giving ground as they danced back and forth, their swords glinting and flashing in the sunlight with each blow.

“I shalt finish what I began in New Magincia!” Pasar grunted as his heavyset weapon maneuvered as deftly as a bird in his hands, meeting each of Silverbeard’s attacks.

“Aye, ye’ll finish up as a corpse for the sharkies, ya royal dandy!” Silverbeard snarled hatefully, fuelling his attack with fury.

His blade swinging madly about, he sought nothing but to dismember his opponent, regardless of who or what it was, so blinded by rage was he. “Yer guts I’ll have for me bootlaces, Sir Lapdog!” He cackled at his own derogatory jest, but Pasar would not be lulled into anger, at least not an overt display of the bellicose emotion anyway.

For a moment, Jimmy was tempted to aid the knight, but he saw the stone resolute set to his face, immutable and implacable, and he knew that Pasar very truly wanted to mollify his wounded pride by immolating this uncouth barbarian, the cause of all their woes. With the surreptitious inclusion of Jimmy, of course, and the reporter winced sheepishly at the unpleasant thought.

Lindu appeared beside him, eyes intently set on the battle.

“Say what thou dost like about Sir Pasar, he can fight.” Lindu said begrudgingly.

Jimmy nodded. “You’ll get no argument from me on that account.”

Clash, slash, parry. Both men were beginning to tire, but Silverbeard was not unlike a demon that sustained itself on the seemingly inexhaustible energy of antipathy, sparing only enough breath to execrate his adversary, though it did nothing to staunch the knight’s prowess.

In frustration, Silverbeard swung high for Pasar’s head, over-extending himself in his briskness to skewer the knight. Pasar ducked and swung his foot out in an arc, tripping the irascible captain. Cutlass flying from his vengeful grasp, Silverbeard helplessly rolled down the slope with an indignant howl interspersed with what Jimmy suspected to be words to colour a grizzled veteran, disappearing in the foliage at the base.

When they repaired to the site, there was not a trace of him remaining.

At the conclusion of the battle, the survivors were left to survey the damage done. Of Silverbeard’s men, it appeared that all who had participated in the siege now lay slain, their bloodied corpses strewn all about the place, with the exception of Silverbeard himself, of course. The second band of pirates appeared to have entirely fled the island.

OF their own casualties, Chapman and Alcor were dead, while Vardu had suffered a cut to one arm during the pirates’ final charge. Besides that, there were the customary scratches and bruises to be expected from serious fighting, and after all their aches and pains were attended to by Doctor Whitley, they set about removing the dead. Without any vessels in sight, there was no telling how long it would take before a ship would come by random chance, despite the islet’s close proximity to Serpent’s Hold. Burying the deceased was essential, otherwise it would be more than just wayward spirits they would have to worry about. Disease knew when to strike at the most debilitating time.

Jimmy had just finished assisting Delfin with the burial of Alcor and Chapman within the stockade boundary when figures emerged from the treeline. Alarm was quickly replaced with a deep sense of relief when he saw Sentri lead the group of three up the hillock toward them, though it was a rather morbid sign that where five had set out on the daring mission, only three had returned.

Kap-Lem and Walton carried over their shoulders the bodies of Forgan and Lorwin, respectively. They were a weary bunch that returned to the dubious comforts of their - hopefully - temporary home.

Jimmy sighed and prepared to dig two more holes for two more honest men. A great shame, and an even greater waste.

The greeting for the homecoming was warm, but like them, the welcoming committee was battle weary and bone tired. Dupre clapped his hand upon Sentri’s shoulder and congratulated his team, though he lamented over the loss of the sailors. Kap_lem had a particularly hollow look in his eyes, as if he was staring into the heart of a fathomless singularity. Le Sorbe brought them food and water, and Sentri laughed mirthlessly upon biting off a chunk of jerky, answering Dupre’s query wryly, “The catapult still stands, and so it shall for all eternity, both a message and a cenotaph to those who perished in the interminable quest for greed.”

They were taken inside to cool their heels, while the rest of the stockade defenders resumed their sanitation work.

“Thou dost know, lad,” Delfin said between breaths as he shovelled the last scoop of dirt upon the fresh mound that was Alcor’s grave, “this ain’t the first man I’ve buried in my long life, nor will it be the last, I suspect.”

Jimmy nodded. “Your sixth sense has proven true. We’ve still got to bury the bodies of those pirates.”

“I thought that was Sir Pasar’s job?”

“It was...” Jimmy said, casting a reproachful glare in the knight’s direction. The man, never out of his armour, sat on a piece of timber, honing his broadsword with a whetstone. “But He-man over there decided to take it upon himself to be guardian of the universe.”

Pasar appeared complacent and completely absorbed in his current activity, but only a blind fool would’ve believed it. The iron bastard had eyes in the back of his head, not to mention the vigilance of an uber-crow, and had probably heard Jimmy’s disparaging remark but did not deign to respond. He still vehemently believed that there were hordes of pirates lurking in the woods, whether they be the unknown second group who had abruptly fled the day before or purely imaginary. There was also Argent and Silverbeard to consider. Thus, Pasar was on unofficial vigil, shovel lying indolently beside him.

“Come on, Pasar! We’ve got more than a dozen of these scoundrels to bury and you’re just sittin’ on your laurels! Mother McRae!” Jimmy remonstrated.

Pasar rose and sheathed the blade, satisfied with its sharpness, then grabbed the shovel and paced past the two gravediggers, saying, “Let us find a spot not too close to the stockade to bury these knaves.”

The spot, chosen by none other than Pasar, was at the base of the hillock. They got to work digging a narrow trench, the bodies brought over by Dupre and Vardu. As they dug away, an odd question nagged at Jimmy. A silly question, but one that had no notion of expiring without a fight.

“Why is it that you don’t always resurrect those who die?” the inquisitive reporter asked.

It was Delfin who answered, as was per normal. “Because resurrection is costly and doesn’t always work. It was risky enough bringing back Vardu as it was, and sometimes the body of the deceased is in such a mangled state there’s no way it’ll house the soul again. Some souls are too far gone, anyway. Burned bodies and ashes can’t be resurrected, though I hear that back in the Ages of Darkness there were spells which could raise the dead from ashes alone. There was fantastical power back then, aye. And where be most of it now? Forgotten. What’s left of it resides in the Lycaeum, in the City of the Mages.”

Delfin paused to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, resting himself against the shovel, whose blade was buried halfway in earth. Pasar did not condescend to join the conversation, either believing it was not worth his breath or simply being unfamiliar with the topic, or both, like as not, knowing Pasar’s arrogance. Yet, somehow, on some remote and distant level, the pompous knight seemed humbled by his experiences, though the air of self-importance still hung about him like the spray of a skunk.

“Besides, the ways and customs of the world are changing.” Delfin continued, shovelling some more dirt out of the trench. “I suppose people are starting to think raising the dead is more an act of sacrilege than it is a miracle.” He shrugged noncommittally. “I’m not one for magic. I think the beginning of its end is nigh. But not for a while yet, I’d wager.”

They finished the trench and rolled in the corpses within an hour, as morbid a task as it was. Jimmy was glad to be done with it. All throughout Pasar watched the trees around them warily, for fear of putative assassins. The apprehension was beginning to rub off on Jimmy.

They travelled the short distance to the beach to wash away the tenaciously unsavoury perfume of death from their bodies, then returned to the stockade, the molten red sun sinking below the western horizon behind them.

A great bonfire had been lit in the yard outside the forthouse yet within the palisade boundaries to ward away the encroaching depredations of southern night’s cold. The companions of this long and arduous journey were feasting on the meagre remains of their rations. Wanting a ship as they were, the days ahead were almost certainly to be austere unless this island had a considerable food source, which was dubious, so their celebratory consumption had to be disciplined under the strict supervision of the implacable Le Sorbe.

Jimmy got to dig his teeth into some more delightfully tough, tacky jerky while sitting at the crackling fire. At one point, Dupre appeared and inquired about the amulet. Jimmy answered honestly about the sanguinary trinket’s fate, and for a moment Dupre had given pause and nodded, as if in satisfaction, and then strolled over to exchange words with Sentri and Vardu.

Good riddance, Jimmy brooded darkly of the amulet. It had received no less than it deserved, the accursed thing. It appeared that Goodyear would have to wait a little longer before it could get an advertising toehold in Britannia.

Lindu sat beside him, a cup of water in her hand as she warmed the other by the fire. Crickets sang their serenades as the evening deepened and the sun’s final rays retreated beneath the horizon, relinquishing the firmament to Britannia’s two moons.

“Thou didst aid us well this day, Jimmy.” she said, staring at him intently. Her eyes were mesmerizing, bottomless in their intelligence and mystique.

She was the real femme fatale, Jimmy thought in mild admiration.

“In truth,” she added with a light, resonant laugh, “thou didst surprise us all. Dupre spoke volumes about thy courageous feats.”

Jimmy shrugged, smiling wryly. “Strange. He seemed pretty taciturn about it to me.”

“I did not know thou had the fighting spirit in thee.”

Jimmy feigned pique. “Oh? Take me for a bumbling fool, didst thou?”

“Thou probably saved my life.” Lindu said, her gratitude sincere.

“Probably?” Jimmy arched an eyebrow.

Lindu smiled inscrutably.

“Well, it’s not the first time a beautiful woman has mistaken me for a dead weight idiot. Back in Eodon, I showed them. I saved a girl from the jaws of a Tyrannosaurus Rex single-handedly, in fact. I showed them what a real champion was!”

Lindu smirked. “And this Eodon place was where thou didst serve the Avatar?”

“Not serve, lass. I deigned to help him. Deigned being the operative word, emphasis like.” Jimmy enunciated, this time really piqued...though not to a great degree. “He was literally begging on his knees for my aid, what with all the myrmidex and thunder lizards chewing on his arse. But what did I get for it? Bloody Avatar. And guess who gets the princess in the end? Him! That unappreciative, glory-stealing son of a -”

Lindu giggled. “Thou art starting to sound like Sir Delfin.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened, and not the whole of the gesture was pure hyperbole. “Do I? Are there any gray hairs yet?” He turned his head from side to side, running his fingers through his hair.

Lindu smiled, then rose upon the materialization of her bigger brother from the forthouse. “I wilt see thee around.”

“Yep, for anywhere between a few months to several years, depending upon how long it takes a ship to chance across us.” Jimmy said with a cynical lilt to his voice.

For a moment, she looked as if she wanted to say something more, but instead she nodded and briskly strode off to meet her sibling.

Kap-Lem sat across from the fire, staring morosely into the crackling light, the fiery glare lending him an even greater malevolent cast than was intrinsic of his physical constitution. Shifting over to his location, Jimmy patted him on the shoulder. Kap-Lem was not so self-absorbed this time in his brooding to be oblivious to his friend’s presence. Though his ridged, carved visage tenaciously retained traces of a pensive countenance, there was a measure of profound relief there also.

“To now know that Graldesh was a true hero, to the end.” he rumbled poignantly.

Jimmy sensed there was something more to the gargoyle’s words, but was decent enough not to pry in spite of his deeply ingrained journalistic instincts.

“To respect his memory always.” Kap-Lem exhaled, the distant roar of a mighty waterfall. “To have learned much from this voyage...this journey. To have learned much from Graldesh and the others...and from you.” He looked at him intently.

Jimmy blinked in surprise. “What in the devil’s name did you learn from me?”

“To not take life too seriously.” The gargoyle smiled, revealing dagger-length fangs, but the gesture was amiable.

“Oh.” Jimmy nodded his head in comprehension. “What else could you learn from one such as myself?” he added with a self-deprecating smirk.

The evening progressed rather uneventfully, and all of them were grateful for it. Retiring for the night, they had posted a one-man watch that was replaced every three hours, though Jimmy was relieved that he was never called upon for the task of vigil. He was dead tired.

And so his sleep was fitful, yet a part of his mind still nagged him, unwilling to die: what of Silverbeard and Argent, who for lack of a better allegory, had faded into the night? But most importantly of all, where was Katar, the moonstone thief? What was his plan?

Those dire thoughts haunted Jimmy’s dreams throughout the rest of his sleep.

It was announced the next morning that they were to search for the Shade Capt’n’s treasure. Dupre held the aged and crinkled map in hand, studying over it with Sentri and Delfin. So they set about collecting the materials they would need for the hunt: compass, shovel, and pick, mainly, as well as some rations despite the relatively diminutive size of the islet.

A party of six was to be dispatched, which was comprised of Dupre, Sentri, Jimmy, Kap-Lem, Lindu and Vardu. The remainder of their ragged but high-spirited band stayed behind at the stockade, in case that second half of pirates that had previously fled or Argent himself appeared on the scene once again - to that any amount of proficient swordplay would be even a shred useful against the latter menace.

There the expeditionary party was at the base of the hill, all geared up and prepared to pursue the fantasies of children and adventurous yet misguided explorers of infinite youth and naivete. Jimmy could not help but cynically wonder whether this rigmarole of preparation and agitation was simply a waste of time. Mayhaps instead of hunting after lost fables and embellished tales, they should have been gathering food and resources to mitigate the abstemious, if not ascetic, lifestyle they were soon going to have no choice to lead on this here lonesome island.

What if all of this treasure business was just a load of garbage? Yet so many had gone to extraordinary lengths to locate it - deceit, betrayal, and murder, to name an unsavoury few. People had perished needlessly. Wars had been bitterly fought over much less than mere legends.

As Dupre said, Britannia was the stuff of legends, and from Jimmy’s oft times austere experiences here, legends did seem to become reality. He had seen a dragon, after all. And a gargoyle and an evil sorcerer, not to mention avaricious pirates...He was still waiting for the sleeping princess and the yellow brick road.

Jimmy caught a glimpse of the map and the tantalizing ‘X’ marking on the southern most tip of the islet amidst what appeared to be a rocky series of immature outcroppings and caves. How...cliche, down to the very last pirate, so to speak.

Rolling up the map and tucking away the potentially fraudulent navigatory article, Dupre stared resolutely ahead toward the hinterlands of the island, where the heart of its mediocre woodlands flourished. “Let us depart.” he said without further ado.

He did not overtly appear excited, but Jimmy could discern from his gait that he was eager to find and claim the mythical booty. Like as not contemplating how many kegs of every variety of grog he could purchase with such an immense quantity of purported gold, the journalist mused sardonically.

Lindu’s stride was certainly brisk, but Jimmy suspected that to be more due to a thirst for adventure and the profound desire to see a final conclusion to the long-winded journey than any genuine avarice. The expressions of Kap-Lem and Vardu were unreadable as they dutifully trailed after their leader, all the while warily eyeing their surroundings askance, while Sentri’s mouth was twisted in an odd sort of perpetual ironic smile. Possibly amused at Dupre’s poor attempts at concealing his childish enthusiasm for old treasure tales, and more than likely, inwardly chuckling at how he himself had inadvertently become part of such a wistful crusade.

They entered the not-so-dense wilderness, the hinterlands swallowing them in only a few startling minutes, the trees closing behind them and obstructing any further view of the stockade atop the hillock, their final bastion of security and sanity. Jimmy became increasingly alarmed by the odious nature of the island the further they penetrated its core; the density and thus the asphyxiating ambience accrued integrity in increments. The island was like a deceptive, malignant entity, he began to think in his fretful mind. From the sea, and the map, it looked small and innocuous, but that was just a veneer, a guise to lure unsuspecting and over-confident heroes and explorers into its depths, where everything abruptly appeared so much larger and more jungle-like in aspect. At the centre of the island was surely a maw, a monstrous demonic mouth that lay concealed, patiently awaiting the arrival of foolish adventurers who would - willingly or unwillingly - satiate, or at least pique, their implacable appetite for mortal blood.

Jimmy’s eyes darted this way and that in his apprehension, settling on the shadowed nooks between trees and giant mushrooms, the surfaces of which appeared to scintillate with arcane glitter, as if laid by furtive fairies. Amidst the sounds of calling birds and the rhythmic breathing of this now foreboding forest, he knew they were being followed. Not by putative sense, but by the standing of hairs on the back of his neck and the electrifying chill that persistently ran across his shoulders and down his back. Some called it clairvoyance. Jimmy just considered it a sixth sense that he believed all people had but in a latent state.

This wasn’t imagination neither. As they trekked, Dupre beating a path through weeds with his blade of obviation, the oppressive realm compacting about them with alarming rapidity, Jimmy not only sensed their putative, undefined shadow. He knew it was there, heard its surreptitious movements through the prolific scrub around them, the ideal spot - Jimmy pessimistically thought - to lie in wait and follow quarry in preparation for the perfect moment to strike.

The snap of a twig - no, that was just Sentri stepping on a fallen stick. The sudden rustle of a bush - an alarmed squirrel which nimbly scuttled up a tree and chittered at them angrily for their uncouth disturbance of its fervent activities. Probably snuggling nuts or some such.

These sudden noises were explainable, yes, and rendered Jimmy’s fears inconclusive, part of the reason he did not raise them to his companions, but nothing could allay them. He sensed the predator - or curious watcher, at least. The air was rife with the tension of a keen and stealthy shadow, and it appeared only Jimmy could smell it.

The others showed now alarm at these sounds they took to be the customary racket of plumbing the unwelcoming hearth of a forest that was downright duplicitous, the keeper of nasty surprises.

Was it Silverbeard? Argent? Mayhaps cannibalistic savages craving for a meal of fresh human meat? Hell, for all Jimmy knew it was that squirrel’s buddies prepping an ambush to steal their acorns, not that they had any in their possession. They’d have to make do with the satisfaction of beating the crap out of them. How morbid.

Jimmy hoped his irrational anxieties, as abruptly and adamantly as they had materialized in his chest, didn’t mean he was claustrophobic. He had never shown any signs of such a phobia before, not even in the myrmidex tunnels, where they had been pursued in stifling semi-darkness by fanatical drones while in desperate hunt for the bloated Queen...That had been a riveting, pulse-pounding experience, not a claustrophobic one. The jungle of Eodon could be said to be far more oppressive than this, what with ravenous deinonychous and jaguar predators lurking in the dappled shadows, patiently watching and waiting for the moment of complacency that would mark their time to pounce.

The foliage sealed them unto the bosom of this subjective arboreal monster, the trees closing in about them from the sides and behind them, forming a twisting, winding path much like a labyrinthine myrmidex tunnel. Occasionally, the canopy would shut like two jagged jaws clamped entirely, letting in slivers of light through gaps in the leaf-like chompers, and they waded through surrealistic streaked shadows. Only this time, the myrmidex were not the terrifying monsters sniffing at their heels, lusting for their blood. The myrmidex were pleasant compared to the unknown ghost which Jimmy’s imagination rationalized - or better yet, irrationalized - as some indiscernible, amorphous abomination, made all the more frightening by the fact that its constitution was anonymous, a spectral monster of the human mind. It was the imagined creature of the mind that proved to be the more terrifying, for the real monsters were known, even partly understood, while the subjective monsters would never be.

They stopped for a brief time to get their bearings, Dupre peering at the map once more to determine their location. A stream gurgled a short distance away, from which waters a number of the party did partake, though Jimmy was loath to do so. This superstition was totally uncalled for and perplexed even him, but he just could not bring himself to imbibe the refreshing cool waters of the veins of the diminutive island, for mortal fear of taint.

“Dost thou notice,” Lindu said, wiping her mouth with the back of one hand after partaking of the pristine stream, “how the deeper one goes into the heart of this island, the bigger it seems?”

Sentri nodded in the affirmative, much to Jimmy’s relief, and said, “Aye, ‘tis strange, is it not?”

Dupre, however, merely displayed indifference toward the idle query, not deigning to respond as he continued his study of the map. Vardu and Kap-Lem impassively said nothing in reply, as good as a negatory from the likes of them.

“I’m beginning to believe we should have invited more of our boys to come along for the ride.” Jimmy said, gazing up at the sky through the swaying canopy of trees. “It would certainly ease my nerves!”

“Come, outworlder!” Lindu chided him with a mocking smirk. “Art thou telling me after thy splendid display of valour yesterday thou hast lost heart over a simple treasure hunt?”

Jimmy grimaced quite odiously. “It’s not the treasure that bothers me, and pirates are one thing, while invisible foes are of another batch entirely.”

Lindu looked at him quizzically, perplexed at the cryptic response, but she could launch no further interrogatives as Dupre pressed them onward, stating, “Come, people. It is not too far now! Just watch our rear and flanks for any trouble, and we should be fine.”

Jimmy was wondering what sort of trouble Dupre was envisioning as they crossed the stream when they came across a dirt path at which they abruptly paused. The dirt path cut into the forest like a heedless, headstrong tendril of personal will, uncaring of the whim of the woods, apparently having been carved a good number of years ago, though not by blade, but with flame. A lethal flame that had prevented the woods from reclaiming the path for nigh on fifteen years.

Yet it was not the path that froze the party solid in solemn gravity but rather what was on the path. Five skeletons, charred black as if scourged with the very same fire that had produced the path, and very possibly at the same time, lay stretched out in a column, legs straight and arms pointing up so that the hands met, and where they met they touched the bony foot of another burned skeleton laid in the same fashion. This rather idiosyncratically symbolic pattern continued down the line to the fifth skeleton, at which point the path was obscured by brush and scrub.

‘Hmm...this is interesting.” Sentri said, intrigued as he scrutinized the layout of the naked, flesh-stripped remains of what had once been, in all probability, men.

“Looks morbid to me.” Dupre retorted, hand on the hilt of his sword.

Good. Jimmy thought to himself at the first sign of anxiety in their leader. Maybe I’m not the only one who thinks this island’s cursed and haunted more times than its worth, after all.

“This would appear to be a pointer toward some site southward.” Vardu spoke, the utterance all the more dire since it had emanated from his throat, as if the gravity of the situation could have only been realized through his fortuitous intervention.

Jimmy felt something cold and slimy settle upon his shoulders, but before he could give a start the creature, a boa constrictor of considerable bulk, had fully descended from its hiding place in the branches above, immediately beginning to tense its powerful muscles and thus squeeze the life out of its hapless prey.

Jimmy choked out for aid, his lungs deprived of air and space as the reptile asphyxiated him slowly but surely. The others turned and Lindu cried out in alarm, unsheathing her sword. Black splotches speckled Jimmy’s vision as he began to lose cognizance, yet there came a sudden blast of heat, invigorating to him but searing to the constrictor, and the reptile released a tortured hiss and landed on the dirt path beside the first skeleton, writhing madly.

Jimmy stumbled back, Vardu grabbing hold of him, and none too soon, for thunder pealed and lightning raked the snake, and it melted to ash, its crisping, elongated body straightening in its final death throes and leaving an ashen legacy that pointed southward alongside the charred bones, emphasis of the proper direction to travel. Its final hiss had not come from its own jaws, but from the terrible hiss of searing flesh.

There was a familiar cordial laughter, and Mister Argent materialized from the foliage on their right flank, Thoringil in hand, and uber-potent reagent-less spellbook in the crook of the opposite arm. All their hearts sank in despondency at his unwished for appearance, for despite their lifted spirits after thwarting Silverbeard’s pirates, this was one pirate who could not be defeated by mundane strength of arms and defiance.

He was still quite nondescript despite having been disintegrated by a cannonball two days before, Jimmy noted disappointedly, and to add insult to injury, he was quite pleased and chipper to see them still alive!

“Now, now, Master Malone,” he said condescendingly, venerable old voice not quite so gentle as it had once been, “Don’t ye think I’ll be lettin’ ye go the way of the dodo just yet. Oh, no. I still need plebes to carry the doubloons!”

“Thanks...much appreciated...” Jimmy said hoarsely between pants, still reeling from the attack of the boa constrictor.

“Always happy to oblige, me son. Now you can return the favour in earnest. All of you!” He waved the sabre at them in an all-encompassing gesture, not quite threateningly, though they knew it would take little to agitate the tyrant. He smiled at them, his pleasant facial veneer belying his intrinsic truculence. “That were a good scheme of yours with the catapult, Dupre, sir, I don’t deny it. Ye certainly sent those lubbers to the bottom, and they won’t be sailin’ again, you may lay to it! Only in the Seas of the Damned will they be ridin’ surf, and barren pickings there’ll a-be too, alas be told.”

Dupre’s eyes narrowed. He truly loathed this old monster. “If thou art so omniscient and omnipotent, why didst thou not just sweep us all aside for attempting to steal thy loot?” he asked, voice barely scathing. He was reining his temper. Precariously.

“Aye, I coulda done that too, but why, I asks meself, why waste the power?” said his nemesis, their nemesis. “I’m a man who believes in the old axiom, ‘the strongest shalt survive’, so I figures that theys who come out alive from that bloody brawl would be most suitable fer me haulin’ and tuggin’ work, treasure shifting an’ such.” He grinned at them. “And believe me when I say how glad I am it was you fine folk who won and not some stoneheaded lubbers for sailors, and you may lay to that, my boys!” His tone suggested the exact opposite.

“Thou wilt not have the treasure.” Dupre said, promptly tearing up the map.

Argent laughed at the futile gesture, the contemptuous peal echoing across the whole island, it seemed. Pretending to wipe a humorous tear from his eye, he said, “Admirable, Commander Dupre, admirable, but it ain’t goin’ to avail thee nothin’! Ya think I wouldn’t have already memorized it after all these years of it in my keeping?”

“If only to spite thee.” Lindu said venomously.

Argent’s eyes narrowed in warning. “Enough dawdling, I say. There’s loot to be recovered, and thar’s only so much time in one day. You all don’t need another demonstration of me awesome power, I’m certain, but lest ye do, know that old Thoringil here will be more than pleased to oblige with alacrity.” Now his smile was not pleasant. “Move!” he commanded.

They did not need to be told which way, for Dupre too had memorized the map prior to its destruction, and so he led them southward down the path of skeletons, into the brush. Argent was behind them, whistling an old sea song, possibly Sea Shanty, yet despite his ostensible complacency his captives were painfully cognizant of his assiduous vigilance. Resistance of ineffectual.

The journey seemed shorter this time as they progressed through the forest whose density now sharply withered. Still, Jimmy could not shake the uneasy feeling that they were being watched and trailed by some invisible creature. It hadn’t been Argent he had initially sensed, despite the fact that the villain had been patiently lying in wait for them, but someone - or something - else.

The forest spat them from its ominous maw as swiftly as it had swallowed them, apparently not regarding them a sufficiently delectable meal. A sandy beach lay before them at the base of a slope which they were atop, the salty scent of the sea assailing their nostrils and the pounding breakers reverberating on the stone to greet them.

Ahead lay a series of rocky mounds, amidst which an entrance into the stone husk yawned, inviting them to attend its dark and dank innards. Jimmy’s cheek muscle twinged in a sudden onrush of trepidation at the sight of the cave, and it was not for eager anticipation of discovering treasure either. It occurred to him that perhaps the ravenous maw of evil he had imagined did not lie at the centre of the island but right here before them in the form of his innocuous yawning orifice that for all they knew led to the very bowels of the earth. From what Delfin had told him, the land was honeycombed with a plethora of labyrinthine passages and subterranean vaults, a number of which led to a vast underworld, a large portion from which the gargoyle’s had purportedly hailed from more than a century and a half ago. This ostensibly innocuous ingress could lead to the very heart of the earth where countless unspeakable monsters prowled, Jimmy’s panic-stricken mind surmised irrationally.

Ominously enough, above the ingress lay an oddly shaped rock, a peculiar mound shaped as if it were some great sleeping lizard cast forever in stone, and with a little imagination (Jimmy’s was more than apt for the task) he discerned a long tail wrapped around the body, terminating in a pointy end beside a sinuous, elongated rock that he fancied to be a crocodile’s head.

“Ah, by the powers, here it be at last!” Argent marvelled with a gape and a flourishing gasp, icy eyes misting over in reminiscence. “So many years of layin’ low, killing off all who recalled service in me fleet. My greedy blighters, the bastard lieutenants, Steeljaw, Swabcap, Zinc Finger, Silverbeard...” At the last name he scowled with enough intensity to daunt a daemon. “I should’ve known the whelp was a-lustin’ after me loot! Well, he’d had his rations for the day, I shouldn’t wonder.”

He jerked his sword toward the ingress. “Off ye go, plebes. Get on with it!”

They cautiously approached the shadowed mouth of the cave.

“You know, Argent, this is all pretty pointless. How are you to get away with your loot, no ship, not even a dingey?” Jimmy asked presumptuously.

Argent’s smile was equivocal, as were his words, “Now you let me worry about that, son. You just do what your told like a good swab, and maybe I’ll just let this be yer tomb and not a whit of pain more.”

Chafing at the condescension, Jimmy prudently kept his mouth shut. They braved the gaping maw, plunging into shadowy semi-darkness. Inside was a large vault, which further in deepened into a bowl where a pool of freshwater had formed over the eons, reflecting and diffracting light and as such casting odd sporadic patterns upon the rocky ceiling. In one corner was a shallow mud hole of fetid, poisoned water in which writhed a nest of what Jimmy assumed to be oversized worms. He estimated them to be at least a foot or more long, their putrid, hydraulic exoskeletons a sickly brown hue. At one end there was a snapping maw filled with rows of sharp teeth.

“Rotworms,” Vardu rasped, his voice betraying a tinge of disgust, and he smoothly crossed over to the nest to exterminate the vile creatures.

On the smoothed central floor of the cave lay a solitary note, wrinkled and dry with age, the ink writ upon it faded nearly to the point of being unintelligible. Lindu acquiescently picked the diminutive note from the ground and handed it to an increasingly abased Mister Argent.

It read, “I.O.U. - Tarlingor the Sanguine Serpent”.

The note crumpled in his hand the next instant, and he bellowed, his stentorian cry of indignation and chagrin echoing back and forth, bouncing again and again off the cavern walls. The foulest imprecations growled from his iniquitous mouth, and the book that was so inimical to their existence shivered in the crook of his arm.

“No! NO!!! That vile, disgusting, loathsome son of a rum-thieving Den whore! Sordid, bastard, slime-ridden spawn of the spats of the earth! I’ll roast and skewer your for this, by THUNDER!!!”

Argent roared in his rage, his words becoming incoherent but surely all the more repulsive. Then he turned his bailiwick upon the party in his presence, so furious that he intended to indiscriminately castigate anyone within a ten league radius, whether guilty or not.

“You bloody miserable spawn of Mondain! Repellant dogs of the swamp spittle, offspring of the trail of a slime! I’ll fix you all, I will!” he bellowed spitefully, the terrible tome shaking in his iniquitous possession.

“Wait!” Jimmy cried, raising his hands in a desperate gesture of supplication. He had recalled something upon glimpsing the note that now lay screwed in a ball by Argent’s wooden leg. The pernicious Capt’n of the Shade Fleet glared at him, ice blue eyes red with rage, but he unexpectedly gave pause. The others stared at Jimmy’s outburst, impatient and anxious both. Their lives hung on a thread. A very thin and frayed thread.

Delfin’s old story came back to Jimmy’s mind, the tale - which he had once believed to be a fabled embellishment - of the Shade Capt’n vs the Red Dragon. Perhaps this Tarlingor the Sanguine Serpent was that red dragon, which would explain Argent’s furious recognition. Sanguine did mean ‘bloodred’, after all.

“Well, lad, what piteous plea do you have to waste your breath on?” Argent growled, maliciously eager to lay them all low.

Jimmy dropped the bombshell. “The treasure isn’t lost.”

His companions gasped incredulously, while Argent’s searing eyes narrowed down to slits.

“Is that so, now?” he rasped, though Jimmy sincerely doubted the old monster believed a whit of it from the way he fingered the blade of his sabre. Inappropriately and completely out of the blue, it occurred to Jimmy how partial Argent looked without Obsidian on his shoulder.

His mouth dry, Jimmy continued bravely, the arguments materializing in his mind with vehement rapidity, “I trust you know that Sanguine Serpent fellow?” He gestured toward the ruined note with his chin.

Argent nodded, slowly and without trust or faith. “Aye. We’ve...met on a few occasions.”

“And I’ll be you named your flagship after him, right?” Jimmy asked, and from the way Argent’s eyes twinkled at his presumption, he knew he’d struck gold, pun intended.

“That be true. You’re smart, lad, smart as paint. I seen that right off. After all, ye did weasel out my identity, but too little, too late.” Argent said odiously. “Tarlingor and I were companions of sorts in a realm, a long time ago in a place far, far away...until we had a falling out...of sorts.” His eyes looked wistful but an infinitesimal moment, but quickly resumed their icy hardness. “But, aye, I named the ship in honour for a boon he did do me back in those primordial, savage days. But he wouldn’t have none of me profligate ways. He cursed me lineage, he did, after I’d saved the cur from that mad spellcaster. He did me a favour, I did him, ye know? Give and take, keepin’ Balance and all that serpentine drivel...” Argent’s countenance blackened upon contemplating the unpleasant memory. “He spat on me boot, too, he did. Ye’ve never seen what draconian saliva does to fine leather, do ye? Burns it, it does, mars it beyond all hopes of good and honest repair. So I gave him a whallop or two, with that spellcaster’s book and all, and a fine arcane tome it was, giving that snakey bastard an even finer whallop! But he still bit me leg clean off, he did, the cur. Said he’d thwart me every immoral gain, he did, and then flew off.” Argent looked in his reminiscence as if he was reliving the event in his head. “But I found that bastard back-spiker’s hovel, by thunder, and stole sumthin’ dear to him. Very dear to him, aye.” He smiled triumphantly, craggy visage smug. Like quicksilver it transformed to one of anger and pique, and he directed the full intensity of this vindictive glare at Jimmy, making the journalist wince uncomfortably. “From your words I take it you think this be his form of backpay?”

“Right.” Jimmy nodded, going purely on the brevity of the writing that he’d glimpsed on the note.

Argent sniffed, but not in arrogant skepticism. Rather in begrudging acquiescence. “Aye, that’d be his style too, and you may lay to that, lad! But it still doesn’t change our predicament now, does it? Unless, of know, or you think you know where it is?”

“Let’s go outside, shall we?” Jimmy suggested with a light smile.

Argent did not perceive him to be presumptuous, or at least he did not allow it to chafe him visibly, and chuckled congenially, though Jimmy well knew it was another lulling facade. If he made the wrong footing, he would pay dearly for the indiscretion. They would all pay dearly.

The group filed out of the cave and stopped at the ingress upon Jimmy’s signal, turning to face the cave.

Jimmy pointed up at the odd rock atop the granite mound, saying, “There’s your dragon. Ask him about the treasure.”

Depite the palpable tension of the moment, Lindu actually laughed derisively, while Sentri murmured something along the lines of, “Poor lad’s lost his marbles.”

Argent simply stood there, a mite off balance due to his timber leg, and sheathed his sword so that the now free hand could rub his stubbled chin. To the others’ amazement, the old seaman was actually considering Jimmy'’ outlandish surmise.

Dupre stealthily plodded over to Jimmy as Argent seemed to be entirely absorbed in his own cogitation, oblivious to everything else around him, and whispered in his ear, “If this is thine idea of a joke, I dost believe it to be one in bad taste...unless,” Dupre’s eyes widened then, “unless thou art actually mad enough to try taking him in his moment of absent-mindedness.” He appeared as if he entertained that idea not a whit.

“Ahoy there, scaly scoundrel! Show yeself and maybe I might just be merciful enough not to show ye the colour of your insides!” Argent called down the idiosyncratic rock.

Unsurprisingly, it did not stir.

Yet Argent’s single-minded determination was admirable. “I’m talking to ya, ye lilly-livered, half-cocked excuse for a drakeling!” he barked belligerently.

Dupre’s countenance made a pained expression, and he groaned, “This is even more ridiculous than that time when Iolo bet me over whether there was such a thing as a talking horse.”

“Who won?” Jimmy asked quietly.

“He did.” Dupre grumbled morosely.

“There you go.” Jimmy’s lips twisted smugly.

“Bah! Bilge drinking dog! Have it your way then, sniggering away under your stone tarpaulin like a naughty chit. Snigger away, back-spiker, but don’t scream out too loudly when I singe your hide, and deservedly so, by the powers!” Argent growled.

To their wonder, rather to all but Argent and Jimmy, the elongated ‘skull’ of the rock stirred, followed by a trembling throughout the bulk of the boulder and a good portion of the cave as well. The skin of the rock, mottled yellow and deep gray, melted and shifted, swirling in some places iridescently. Then the stone surface, fluid and colourful and shimmering, cemented in the form of an endless series of overlapping scales that glistened crimson. A mighty dragon beast emerged from its shrewd camouflage, spreading its wings and casting an ominous shadow over them as it rose on its four powerful legs, each terminating in sharply clawed appendages. With a stretch and a disconcerting hroooom sound that Jimmy could only guess to be an incoherent vocal gesture of satisfaction, the red dragon of Delfin’s legend towered above them, fearsome and indomitable.

Now Jimmy’s mouth dried. This beast was half again the size of the bronze-gleaming dragon in the caverns beneath New Magincia, its innately narrowed eyes glowing with sanguine intensity. Its scaled, durable lips drew back in a hideous grin, revealing rows upon rows of sharp teeth that sparkled a resplendent white.

“Well, Argent.” it rumbled, the sound of a hundred avalanches reverberating in the distance. “It seems we meet again.” The intimidating tongue was sardonic. “I trust thy timber leg has not suffered the ravages of rot or termite infestation these past years?”

Argent growled inarticulately, an animal sound of bloodlust in his throat.

“Me treasure, dragon. That’s all I want, and not a trifle more, I daresay.” said Argent, suitably miffed, but not quite enough for Jimmy’s liking.

While the companions stood in awe and apprehension, the pirate held a superior air of courage and composure about him. He was not fazed by the beast looming before him, and it was obvious that they had crossed paths before.

“A trifle more is what you’ll get should you be as uncivil and ungrateful as you were in the old days. Piracy is for villains and knaves.” the dragon rasped vindictively. “An eye for an eye, I believe, and a fang for a fang.” It scraped one massive foreclaw on the cave roof, eliciting a horrible screech as if the rock were shrieking in anguish.

Argent nodded in his contempt for his monstrous rival. “Still the same paragon of virtue you were when we met in that accursed jungle. By thunder, will not ye ever learn that a good deed only begets a bad one?” He snorted scornfully.

A hot blast of air rushed past them, very probably the creature’s own retaliatory snort. “I may say in all honesty that I first learned that bitter lesson from you, treacherer.”

“You were the one who bloody bit me leg off!” Argent cried.

“After you sought to finish the sorcerer’s work with that spellbook of yours!” the dragon hissed irately, stretching its sinuous neck forward toward Argent threateningly.

Jimmy involuntarily took a step back, and so did several of his comrades. No matter how greatly they despised the Shade Capt’n, they could not deny the legends of his insurmountable courage. It lay between extreme audacity and sheer stupidity. Argent stood immutably against Tarlingor’s eroding glare, his own weathered visage a mask of accusatory reproach and barely disciplined anger.

“Fellas, fellas!” Jimmy interjected to his own grave peril. He braved a step to retake the ground he had surrendered, coming that much closer to the tyrant and the dragon. He could not say which was worse. “These recriminations are superfluous. Just reach a bargain, tell us where the treasure is, so that we’ll all be happy and can go home.”

Argent nodded in agreement, though he was never vehement to agree with enemies or serfs, Jimmy noted uncomfortably. “The lad’s right, Barbecue. Past is past, and I’m prepared to let bygones be bygones.” He lifted his right hand in a mock display of sincerity.

If dragons could scowl, Tarlingor’s pinching eye ridges were doing just that. “Don’t call me Barbecue. Only friends may call me that.” the dragon rebuffed testily.

Argent feigned a stung countenance. “Oh, is that so now? Ye forget, lubber, that I was the one who bloody gave you that cognomen! It was mighty pretty, too, considerin’ what you did to that wingless, two-legged, fireless dragon out in the vicious jungle.” The latter sentence was begrudgingly respectful.

The dragon sighed, an indication of acquiescence. “That was a long time ago. We are foes, now, not friends.” His venomous stare left no ambiguity as to who he blamed for the ancient falling out.

“Aye, and a supreme irony it is too, friends turning into foes and all.” Argent said, his voice and more sincerely, his eyes, almost wistful. “I have to admit I was shook for a short time on that Isle o’ Humility, I was, at all this talk of dungeons and dragons floatin’ about. Fortunately for meself it all came to naught but shameless rumour-mongering.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that...” Jimmy murmured, but the pair of antagonists were oblivious to his words, entirely focused on each other.

“So, here you are, Barb. As cold - or should I say hot - as thou ever wert.” Argent said, his lilt mockingly Elizabethan. “Stumbled across my rightful hoard, did ye?”

“I’m a possessor of the remarkable knack of finding useful things when not actively searching for them.” said the dragon. Then he added condescendingly, “It’s called serendipity.”

“I know the word, scum.” Argent frowned. “It’s the treasure I’m a-feared about.”

“Return to me what you so treacherously swiped from under my very nose and you’ll get it.” the dragon said adamantly.

“Fine!” Argent barked.

He fumbled in his pocket, and several times a squeak startled the air. The incongruous onomatopoeia was a source of perplexity for the party, but the dragon seemed positively elated by it, increasingly so with each squeak. The pirate drew the mysterious object from the cramped confines of its prisons and tentatively held his hand out.

Jimmy’s eyes widened in bemused astonishment. It was a duck. A rubber duck!

With infinite tenderness - for a draconian beast, anyhow - Tarlingor plucked the childish toy with a massive hand-cum-paw, drawing close to him.

“Donald!” he rasped. “Together again after all these years apart!”

Jimmy imagined that he saw a tear run down the dragon’s snout and wondered whether it was really a subjective figment when the putative droplet left a sizzling blemish on the ground before their feet.

“Ahem.” Argent coughed purposefully, his genteel reservoir long since expended.

Barbecue made a cliche gesture, a wave of his animalistic hand, and the air sizzled behind them with potent energies of unknown origin. They turned, Argent foremost amongst them in his jealous zeal, and before them lay the most gigantic pile of loot Jimmy had ever seen.

It was a veritable mound of gold and jewels, a knoll of valuables and pricey trinkets that Jimmy fancied could probably have another stockade built upon it. Scintillating wickedly in the light, the hoard would have hailed a ship like a bonfire more than a kilometre away. Thousands upon thousands of gold coins, crowns they were called here in Britannia, mounded amidst an equal number of silver and copper. jewels studded the mountain, iridescent in their myriad display of colours, gems, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, amethysts. A hundred species! Then there were the quadrilaterals of solid gold - golden bars imprinted with the crest of Britannia upon their gleaming, beautiful surfaces. Sceptres, crowns (real kings crowns!), plates, bracelets and cups, all of gold and silver, begemmed in the most wanton and prodigal fashion, as if the artisans responsible for their fabrication had fabricated like there had been no tomorrow.

Not only these items of immeasurable worth were among the fantastical manifest; items of arcane nature, part of the vast miscellany, were strewn about carelessly. Potions and glowing talismans, articles of clothing that hummed to the touch and buzzed in perpetuity, their purpose eternally secret, their reticence the quintessence of pertinacity.

Every member of the party was visibly stunned at the sight, even Vardu, much to Jimmy’s immense covert satisfaction. His mind quickly turned to the darker realities evident; the manner of how this treasure had been amassed, foremost on his conscience, piqued a wave of inexplicable contrition. These were the reapings of a butcher and his meat-cleaving apprentices, no better baptized in water than they were in the blood and viscera of countless victims, some honourable, some not. Ten times the amount before them would not bring back the honourable men that had been lost to the callous designs of fate and one man: Mister Argent, the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet in the flesh.

The monster swiftly and admirably overcame his awe and relief at the sight of his booty, turning to grin at the dragon who stared back impassively at him. In an inexplicable way, Argent’s grin was far more grotesque than the profligate dragon’s.

“So I’ve won. Won at last, and deservedly so, I might humbly add.” Argent uttered, anything but humble.

The dragon, having been indifferent to the plight of the companions up till now, spoke spontaneously on their behalf. Even before the draconian creature ejected his rumbling words from that wicked pair of jaws, Jimmy sensed they had found an unexpected ally here, if not for virtue then for personal reasons revolving around retribution. Not the most honourable reasons, but it was expedient for the party’s survival.

“And what dost thou intend to do with these?” Tarlingor inquired neutrally, gesturing toward Jimmy and the others.

“Oh, I think I can spare the power of me spellbook...after all, their one task left to ‘em is to haul - and then hail ship when the time comes, which it will to be sure.” Argent smiled evilly, and Jimmy’s heart filled with loathing for this human abomination. “Maybe I’ll skewer a few now, startin’ with this lad here -” he pointed at Jimmy, and then his vindictive gaze targeted Lindu “-and this feisty wench here too, for spoilin’ me rum, shiver me timbers!” But his gaze was most malevolent when it returned to his former draconian ally. “But first thing’s first, there’s the likes of you to consider.”

Tarlingor remained unperturbed by the man’s increasingly daring innuendo. Scorn and over-confidence shattered against his peculiar shield of stoicism, and deep within the red glare of his eyes he held a measure of his own contempt coupled with a tinge of sadness.

“Thou dost mean to fight me then?” he asked, not quite resignedly, but not quite in challenge either. The beast was patiently cunning and knew how to tweak a man’s nerves.

Argent had nerves of steel and his spellbook and lightning sword only strengthened his arrogant poise. “No, I don’t mean to fight ye, I mean to skin ye! I can’t have vengeful dragons takin’ off to the skies like the harpies of hell now, can I? When I’m ridin’ in Britain in my coach, I don’t want none of them selfless avengers comin’ in aft on look for like the devil at prayers, man, beast, spirit or otherwise.”

Tarlingor exhaled an uncomfortably hot breath that was supposed to be a sigh. “I thought as much. I would have struck you down anyway even if you were on the peaceman’s path, for we do have old scores to settle still. In any case, it is my duty to warn you, my cherished friend, that I have grown in power since we last met.”

Argent laughed superciliously. “Ya mean the last time I thrashed you?” He chuckled to himself, a soulless, amoral cackle. “No, I don’t deny it that your powers ‘ave grown, matey. But you forget, the power of my tome is next to inexhaustible! It feeds directly from the ether, it does, and there be none of this mana and arcane fatigue to be fearing about like a landsman on his virgin voyage.” Argent’s hideously grinning mouth transformed int oa hateful, snarling rictus. “Who saved ou from the sorcerer who was squalling ye with this very spellbook here? Me! Oh, I don’t deny that I nailed him with a spike or two in the back, oh, no! Fort’nate for me he was so distracted with your writhin’ and screamin’! But the sorcerer’s complacent mistake ain’t gonna be mine, otherwise may my carcass rot alongside his in the valley of the thunder lizards!”

That last statement jogged a memory in Jimmy’s mind, something the maddened and dying Findar had croaked to him in a brief moment of lucidity, but that nascent thought was brutishly shoved aside by Tarlingor’s acrimonious response to his foe’s impudence.

Flames and coruscating shards of energy exploded and danced about ground and air, enveloping Argent in a shriek of inhumane proportions. The companions, including Jimmy, sought frantically to distance themselves from the imminently devastating duel. If Delfin’s words did the Sanguine Serpent vs Red Dragon tale any justice, this was going to be considerably worse.

Thunder that was not thunder pealed, there was no description for the terrifying sound that ripped the air and tortured their ears. The crimson scaled dragon dislodged, roaring, spitting the old cliche fire, but Argent rose from the maelstrom - and into the very air in fact - to counter-attack. Archaic rods of sinister constitution both rasped and boomed, emanating from Argent, his damnable book suffused with golden glow more golden than the treasure pile itself, and there came swirls of purplish death and tendrils of destructive light, ephemeral projectiles and hails of energized poison from the blackened sky. The land trembled, oh verily it did, and the forest seemed to shirk back with a unanimous rustle at the whiff of ultimate internecine, disgorging the berthing squadrons of sea birds within its once secure midst.

The island was scared now, and deservedly so, Jimmy thought vindictively.

Tarlingor was engulfed in these successive attacks of ultra-powerful bailiwick, but he was resilient, and as adamant as when he had first tempted his implacable foe’s wrath. Argent sufficiently incensed and hovering above the grounded dragon, Barbecue launched a different kind of attack, a foray of such a duplicitous, treacherous sort not unlike a sapper undermining the ostensibly unconquerable castle wall. For a brief moment it was as if the Shade Capt’n was encased wholly in a bubble, chagrined and indignant both, and his hail and hellfire abruptly ceased with a dying report that echoed through the swaying trees nearby. Then the unforgivable nemesis plummeted, hitting the ground with a loud crack that was altogether sickening and satisfying. Jimmy noticed that the scoundrel’s timber leg was broken in two, and the man lay sprawled there, face contorted in pain.

He was palpably aware that his magic no longer worked, judging by his profligate curses and imprecations. Flame engulfed the accursed tome, the book shrivelling in his grasp and burning his hand too, and Argent cried out in agonized rage.

“Slimey dog-swab! I’ll do you yet, ya hear?” he screamed, fully knowing the advantage had escaped him in his crippled state, and he whipped out Thoringil, heedlessly cutting through the loop to brandish it at his looming enemy. “You’ll get your rations for the day!”

From the ominous black nimbus above an ethereal throat rumbled, a jagged bolt of lightning lancing down to conduct along the sabre in Argent’s gesticulating hand. A flash, and he was gone, only a steaming crater left in his wake to remember his awful legacy by.

How fitting it was that the terrible Capt’n of the Shade Fleet should be struck down by the very same lightning and thunder he had caused so many others to perish by in his long and black career.

“No, old friend. It was you who forgot.” Tarlingor said softly and solemnly, though it still came as a caustic hiss to the startled survivors, the ringing in their ears notwithstanding. “Ether, the food and medium of magic, is ubiquitous, yet like water, a bubble can be made within the medium to encompass you and deny you what ill-gotten powers you have at your disposal.”

Jimmy rose on unsteady feet, shaking away encroaching vertigo. “Gee, all that over a rubber ducky...” he quipped warily.

The dragon looked at him impassively. Strangely, Jimmy no longer felt threatened by the visage of this beast, much like how he felt with Kap-Lem. It had been Argent who was the true monster.

“That rubber duck was given to me by a fellow who claimed to be Lord British in cognito, who said it had been donated to him by the noble Avatar in lieu of gold he was wanting - more than a century and a half ago.” Tarlingor said quite gravely. “I have cherished it ever since, for few such as myself get to meet one of the finest Kings that have ever lived!”

Sentri barely suppressed a laugh, and Dupre vehemently shook his head, saying, “No. Don’t say it. Let old Finn rest.”

Jimmy didn’t know what that was about, but neither did he care. He was too tired to consider himself with such trivial matters anymore.

“Thank thee for thy help, dragon.” Dupre said, bowing his head in gratitude.

“A pleasure, and please, call me Barbecue.” the dragon replied with a fang-filled grin.

“I thought only your friends could call you that.” Jimmy remarked curiously.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the old saying goes.” Barbecue responded curtly.

“Is Argent dead?” Lindu asked anxiously and with a touch of her own dragonfire about her.

Barbecue shrugged, an undulating heave of massive shoulders. “Not even I can say. The more potent magics are capricious beyond belief - but I’ll say this much; death was too good a fate for that treacherer. He’ll not show his face here again for many a generation!”

“Amen to that!” Sentri said with relief.

“Well, drag - erm, Barbecue,” Dupre spoke awkwardly, having rarely ever had the opportunity to speak peacefully to such a powerful beast, let alone call it by its affectionate cognomen, “Thou hast done us a great service this day, and we are forever in thy debt, but pray tell, what wert thou doing on this island for so long?”

Barbecue revealed to the party that he and Argent were old foes, having once been friends (though he was loath to elaborate on the clearly rich history and origin of the two of them, and thus let little slip in that regard) and that after the Dungeon Destard incident, where the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet had ‘kidnapped’ his beloved ‘Donald’, he had sought the ultimate revenge ever since - the hijacking of his legendary hoard. In the post days following the dissolution of the Shade Fleet and the dreaded Capt’n’s putative demise - which Barbecue had never swallowed - the great red dragon had been migratory when, by the merest of chance, he had stumbled upon this here island and discovered within the cave the impressive hoard! Knowing that the old villain would return one day to reclaim his ‘rightful treasure’, and now fervently believing that Argent needed to be severely ‘castigated’ for his gross, egregious immorality, he had decided to lay in wait. It had taken years, but as the day had just proven, the dragon’s seemingly interminable patience had been justified.

“Take the treasure.” Barbecue said, waving in dismissal at the giant hoard. At Sentri’s curious stare, he added, “Not all dragons like shiny things. Staring too long at that blasted heap gives me a headache.” He blinked and wrung his elongated skull for emphasis. “Use the gold to better your realm. It is still far from perfect, ethically and physically.” He sniffed, a sharp inhaling hiss. “Not that I am a paragon of any sort. I must admit, I have sinned a little. But the Quest of the Avatar is forever, as they say.”

“I have but one more boon to ask of thee, Barbecue.” Dupre asked, a little sheepishly. “We have no ship. If thou couldst spare the time, couldst thou contact Serpent Hold?”

“Unnecessary.” Barbecue answered quickly. “After that memorable display of sound and light, I’d wager even Britain was roused from its daily routine! Be assured, by tomorrow a ship from Serpent’s Hold will arrive to investigate. They are obliged to, as warriors of the realm.”

They acquiesced despite their uneasiness about this choice of action, but they couldn’t command their saviour what to do, however brisk and brusque he was. Clearly from his demeanour he had fervent desire to be elsewhere now that his protracted mission was completed.

“Ah, well. May you meet good times, and conquer that bad times you encounter with a hero’s panache. I must be off, I fear. Fare you well, humans!” Barbecue said, and then with a great flap of his capacious wings and a mighty heave from his powerful hind legs, he soared into the firmament above, where the black nimbus had now thankfully passed.

Taking wing, he headed east, directed for lands unknown. Jimmy watched him go all the way until he was but a speck on the horizon that suddenly and completely vanished.

An hour or so later, Pasar and Delfin hurriedly appeared, having seen and heard the upheaval from the stockade. Upon being told what had transpired, they were incredulous at first, but with the likes of someone as stolid as Vardu verifying the tale, they grudgingly accepted it and felt a great weight lifted from their shoulders.

It was decided hat the encampment should be shifted from the stockade to the cave where they could more easily guard the treasure, for there was still the possibility that Silverbeard or that mystery band of pirates that had abruptly fled were still loose roaming throughout the woods.

Dupre sent back three of their number to fetch the others and the last of their supplies. Jimmy was glad that once again he had eluded selection. Instead, he climbed to the summit of the mountain of gold, fee slipping as coins loosened from their positions and tumbled down the slope.

He sat there indolently, somnolescence creeping in as he half-heartedly scanned the forest, a golden chalice in his fondling hands. The last thing he recalled before surrendering to inexorable slumber was the sense of being watched again by their eerie and shapeless shadow.



“Britain sure is big.” Jimmy said in awe as he descended the gangplank, Dupre and Sentri behind him.

The ship they alighted from was called the Hunting Bowman, and it was a week since they had thankfully bade the nameless islet of the southern seas farewell. At Serpent’s Hold, Walton, Vardu, Pasar, and Delfin had detached to rejoin the Order, while Lindu had only decided to remain on the Isle of Deeds to comfort her stolid brother, as his ordeal had been the greatest despite his tenacious reticence. The goodbyes were warm (well, except from Vardu and Pasar, of course, Jimmy had noted wryly but without surprise), and departure for the crown jewel of Britannia had transpired. Upon arrival in port, Whitley had found new lodgings as a surgeon in the captain’s service, lamenting the loss of the Virtuosity so, and Le Sorbe had decided to stay on with him as the ship’s cook, for the Bowman’s chef had died of scurvy due to an idiosyncratic antipathy of oranges and sauerkraut.

Dupre intended for the remaining bedraggled members of the fateful journey, Jimmy, Sentria and Kap-Lem, to visit the King, Lord British. Jimmy was distastefully looking forward to it.

Here in Britanny Bay, where the waters sparkled almost opulently as the sprawling capital itself, Jimmy tasted both the air of salt and affluence. The docks were alive, thriving with works preparing ships for launch or dry dock, fishermen casting off into the waters of the sea of morning rains to enact their austere livelihoods.

Deeper into the heart of the city, where they followed the roads and streets paved with assiduous, diligent care, Jimmy imbibed all that he saw. A city boy himself - well, a modern city boy, at least - Britain was a truly idiosyncratic paradox, primitive yet astoundingly refined, a living, breathing snapshot of a golden era of the distant past, Earth’s past. Jimmy was immediately reminded of Saladin and the quintessential cultured refinement of the Saracens, not to mention the progressive Moors of Spain.

While Britain was just one delightful jewel studding a begemmed crown compared to those ancient civilizations of greatness, the city was still superbly breathtaking.

It seemed as if the city had been reconstructed and refurbished only recently, and in fact some parts still seemed to be in the process of redevelopment. The buildings were ubiquitously stone, though Sentri informed him that on the outskirts wood was more liable a material to be encountered - a note, Jimmy had realized only later with alarm, that was slightly acerbic in Sentri’s tone - some of which ere three to four storeys high.

The folk were vehemently anti-passive, some scuttling about their business briskly, others more languid toward life, garbed in all manner of strange and passe attire. Dupre made a beeline toward the centre of the city, commenting reminiscently how much the place had changed since the days of Blackthorn and even more recently, the thwarted invasion of the gargoyles.

Then, quite suddenly, the castle loomed before them, perched on a hill in the heart of civilization, a parent maintaining perpetual vigil over the city that had spawned around its towering walls of white stone. It was surrounded by a broad moat, the only path across a lowered drawbridge constructed of massive wooden boards that was linked to giant winches within the gate tower by thick, heavy chains. The barbican looked formidable, crenellated at the top where the iron-and-steel helms of numerous sentries gleamed in the sunlight. On the island segregated from the rest of society by the deep and murky moat, the walls of the formidable keep rose, towering over any of the nearby buildings. Upon the battlements between the merlons were stationed more palace guards, though their certainly grim and taciturn visages were rendered indiscernible by distance and daunting height.

Their reputation (and the news of their coming) preceded them, thus the portcullis was readily raised and the Royal Guard silently prepared to receive the guests of their respected sovereign.

Jimmy sniffed in slight insolence, though quietly enough so that none could hear, for there the great king was, tall in stature and elegantly robed in purple velvet, a golden crown upon his head, arcane glowing amulet hanging from his neck. So this was the purportedly benevolent lord who had others do his dirty work for him. Jimmy abhorred responsibility, and authority even more, but he was well aware that an obligation was an obligation, and it was incumbent upon all rulers to live up to certain duties to his people. Judging from just half the stories Delfin had told him on the voyage to Serpent’s Hold in regards to Lord British (and so blindly reverent, as well, disappointingly), this ‘grand’ sovereign relied solely upon the Avatar to challenge whatever threats assailed his realm. Jimmy was beginning to commiserate with the Avatar for having such a poor employer.

The King, golden beard streaked with shades of gray, split his aged and sapient face into a warm smile at the sight of Dupre and Sentri. Jimmy paused for a moment, memory striking him. Could this Lord British be the very same massive visage that had contacted the Avatar at the triumphant conclusion of their grand adventure in the Valley of Eodon? Jimmy had thought himself to be suffering the delusions of inebriation, especially after having ingested more than a few skull tankards of the Disquiqui’s peculiar brand of ale.

“That is the second ship thou hast lost, Dupre.” Lord British said to his subject, visage a mask of feigned severity.

Dupre bowed his head in abasement, either not catching the light hearted jest or not wishing to. He felt that the deaths of the good men of the Virtuosity hung about his neck like onerous millstones.

Dupre was a good man, Jimmy brooded to himself sympathetically. The deaths were more his fault than the fine warrior’s. He had brought the accursed amulet into their midst along with each and every one of its maledictions.

“At least with the first men were saved.” Dupre said compunctiously.

Lord British’s countenance exchanged the mock gravity for genuine frustration at Dupre’s adamant refusal to accept credit for the tremendous good he had done on the quest. “And what didst thou think thou didst here, Dupre? Thou hast saved more lives than thou canst possibly imagine! Through thy efforts, Silverbeard has been negated, and the treasure of the Shade Capt’n is now the people’s again, the very same people he so brutally ripped it from! Thy comrades aboard the Virtuosity would be proud of thee. Do not lament eternally over their untoward demise; they know only too well what the king’s service entailed. At least they died for a virtuous cause. Thou art a hero!”

“Thy friends, Iolo and Shamino, will be jealous for not having taken part in thy exploits.” a tall, sturdy palace bodyguard in the garb of a supreme captain, who stood close by the sovereign’s side at all times, said humorously.

Sentri grinned at the moustachioed man, retorting, “Geoffrey, thou old sedentary lout, thou shouldst join us one day. Thou hast been dormant for centuries!”

“Still, my liege,” Dupre said morbidly, tainting the jovial mood with his uncharacteristic solemnity, “I would strongly suggest that thou dost never assign me to such a command again.” He stared gravely at British. “Responsibility and I go together about as well as a drake and a sheep, I’m afraid. Adventuring is what I long for, sire. Holy grail hunting, monster-slaying -” he pointedly avoided saying ‘dragonslaying’, Jimmy pedantically noticed “-and the rescuing of damsels in distress is my real forte, not officer.”

British nodded slowly but poignantly. “If that is thy wish. But come, my friends! We must have a feast to celebrate this noble victory, and to remember departed friends.”

“Nonetheless, sire, we must also note that I could not have achieved what I did alone.” Dupre answered humbly. ‘The assistance of my companions was pivotal.” He gestured to Sentri, Jimmy and Kap-Lem behind him.

British regarded them with a discerning stare and nodded agreeably. “But of course! They must be properly commended and rewarded, but please, one thing at a time. If thou wilt follow me?”

The King waved his hand in the direction of the main hall, and the companions followed him and his retinue of guards into the interior of the keep. They were taken to a lavish dining hall, where a massive long table sat, surrounded by others of lesser size. The table alone could have accommodated for twenty people!

The food was already prepared and laid out, the plethora of servants standing to attention like loyal soldiers, napkins over arms, liveried in yellow. Jimmy seated himself where he was gestured, eyes widening at the range of foods on offer here, their size astounding him. One thing was for certain, this was far superior to dried beef jerky!

Massive steaks were served, along with finely cooked fowl, as well as a delicious chicken soup as part of the main course. At Jimmy’s request, one of the servants - a delicate female very much to his liking - brought him egg and bacon, and to his surprise it seemed that Lord British had the same preference. Wine was available in copious amounts, and after several glasses, Dupre had unravelled sufficiently to participate in the revels.

Sentri, Kap-Lem, Geoffrey, Jimmy, Dupre and Lord British sat round the table, speaking merrily of old times and old adventures. Kap-Lem, awkward and reserved at first, entreated them to Gargish lore, including the three divine Principles of Control, Passion and Diligence, as well as their constituents and their subsequent virtuous combinations and religious implications.

They spoke of history and villains such as Blackthorn and Mondain, Exodus and the Shadowlords, and heroes, some alive, some not, such as the prevalent Avatar, the late Toshi, and the flamboyant gypsy Blaine. Then rather surprisingly Lord British bade Jimmy speak of Earth and its current state of affairs, and Jimmy - slightly bemused - obliged him. Lord British nodded in his pleasure, smiling, a glint in his eyes as he regarded the reporter.

He recognized him, sure enough! He was well aware of his quest in Eodon, the wily bastard.

“I am glad to hear that my old home has not yet perished for mankind’s foolhardiness.” Lord British said softly in reverie.

Jimmy started slightly. Surprises were as prolific as vermin these days, apparently. Jimmy regained composure and shrugged. “At least it was when I left it. It might have been blown to kingdom come for all I know.” Jimmy replied cynically.

British’s smile was unnerving, his eyes awls that penetrated his skull and drew secrets like spider’s thread. “Oh, I doubt that. Humans are a resilient bunch.” was all he said on the morbid matter. “So, young Jim, we’ve all told our round of experiences, so why don’t thou tell us of thy exploits? Thou dost look to be a worldly sort.” he said, suddenly shifting to such a disparate topic that Jimmy was taken by surprise.

This crowned fellow was quite cognizant of the fact of the Valley’s existence. Cunning fellow indeed.

Jimmy, hesitantly at first, told them of his adventures in Eodon in the shadow of the Avatar. The listeners, especially Dupre, were disbelieving of the outlandish tale, thinking it to be the gross embellishment of the journalist’s vivid imagination, and their incredulity increased at his mention of Dupre’s involvement in the quest to unite the tribes against the evil myrmidex, where he had operated under the primitive moniker of Dokray. Only Lord British sat there in passive interest, though sometimes Jimmy discerned an imperceptible smile on his lips.

To Jimmy’s immense frustration, the man said nothing to verify his tale, and the incensed reporter somehow doubted he would reach anything but an impasse by questioning the ruler about it.

“I cannot recall anything about this Eodon thou dost keep mentioning...” Dupre’s voice trailed off in his perplexity, and for a moment it seemed he was about to add something, but he dropped it, instead resorting to scrutinizing Jimmy in a vain attempt to recollect the adventure.

In the end, the audience received the tale as an enjoyable bout and nothing more, much to Jimmy’s chagrin.

“Come, come now!” Lord British proclaimed exuberantly, sweeping his gaze across them all. “Thou dost all deserve a reward for thine valorous deeds. Thou wilt all get a handsome share of the loot.”

Dupre shook his head in ardent repudiation. “No, milord. I would simply waste it all on grog, and inebriation is the last thing I need right now. What I need to do is some serious soul-searching.” he said, solemn as a priest once again.

“And you can give my share to Hothame, sire, the healer who saved my life.” Jimmy said.

‘To ask the same.” Kap-Lem interjected vehemently.

Lord British nodded in satisfaction. “I’ll do that, and more.” But now his face took on a serious cast. “However, I think now is the time thou dost relate to me in detail all that has occurred with thee on thy perilous adventure.”

At his injunction, all servants exited the dining room, closing and locking the doors behind them. The hall became a council chamber.

Placating his request, each of them related to the patient sovereign what had transpired on the quest, from Jimmy’s freak transportation to this world via the corrupt moonstone after being pursued by ruthless corporate agents to his chance encounter with Bill Tolibar and the bequeathing of the amulet. From that ensued the entire riveting adventure, every thread they could remember, including Katar’s misappropriation of the scarred moonstone and the interference of the Capt’n of the Shade Fleet on their voyage home. The entire retelling took well over an hour, by which time their throats were thoroughly parched. Nothing a little wine couldn’t mitigate, though.

At the end of it, Lord British brooded pensively, chin in hand, brow creased and furrowed. Jimmy sensed what he was mulling over. The sorcerer, Katar, the fiend who got away.

“Jimmy Malone, thou hast done enough for our realm already.” Lord British said, stirring from his cogitation to stare at the journalist squarely in the eye.

Jimmy smiled congenially, replying, “For the most part I was just trying to save my own hide, but I’m glad to be of service. It’ll make a great story.” He was discreet enough not to inform Lord British of the pictures he’d taken with his camera. They would propel him to a new apogee in the journalism industry.

Lord British nodded. “I’m sure it will make a fine fairytale to tell to thy grandchildren.” His eyes twinkled shrewdly, and Jimmy wondered whether there was some implicit ‘swearing-to-secrecy’ vow in regards to the existence of Britannia. After all, the concerned sovereign might not wish for the existence of his beloved realm to be revealed to the immensely iniquitous Earthlings. Ha! But he didn’t know about the camera now, did he?

“Let us deal with Katar. I sense ill foreboding at his iniquitous name and suspect that he was responsible for more than just the threat of thine moonstone.” said Lord British.

That moonstone had actually belonged to the Museum of Natural History, but British seemed to have forgotten that little pedantic detail.

If my confidential reports are to be believed.” he continued gravely.

To Jimmy’s disappointment, that’s exactly what those putative reports remained as. Confidential. Lord British did not deign to inform him of their nature, for whatever reason. He didn’t like esoteric kings much, mainly because they were usually hiding skeletons in their ornately carved wardrobes.

“Now, my friend, thou must. Thou too, Kap-Lem.” Lord British said to them both. With pride, he added, “Thou hast earned it. I have temporary lodgings for thee.”

Kap-Lem stood abruptly and in the manner of haste, coughing into his massive fist, a dull report not unlike a distant cannonshot, Jimmy thought. “To say, Lord British milord, that I wish to leave now. To need to see Hothame again. To be in need of his wizened presence, and to believe he needs my help. To be honour-bound to him, and to be worried at my delayed return.” he said sheepishly, ashamed of the disrespectful abruptness of his urgency to depart.

Lord British nodded in empathy. “I understand, Kap-Lem. Thou art a fine and honourable individual. Thou dost do thy kind proud. I wilt have transport to Vesper arranged for thee.”

Kap-Lem bowed his head graciously, or with as much grace as a creature as intimidating as he could muster, and replied, “To thank you for your kind words, milord, but to wish to travel there on foot. Like Sir Dupre, to need time to soul-search.”

Dupre shifted uneasily at the word ‘sir’, though British’s eyes sparked with renewed intensity as if he had been struck by a grand idea, and the rugged warrior said, “I am not a knight, Kap-Lem.”

Kap-Lem bowed his head again, this time in humble apology. “To be sorry.”

“Very well, Kap-Lem, if that is thy wish.” said Lord British. “I will have thy reward sent to Hothame’s residence in Vesper.” Lord British glanced at Dupre, who squirmed under the brief scrutiny, and then turned to Jimmy. “Thou art weary, Jimmy. I suggest that thou dost rest now. My servants will show thee the way.”

Unlike Kap-Lem, Jimmy couldn’t very well refuse Lord British’s belated offer of transport home, due to its intrinsic peculiarity and the fact that he certainly couldn’t walk back to Earth.

Jimmy acquiesced despite his restlessness, not only to British’s kind offer of quarters, but to his own bone-weariness. Sleeping on mountains of gold wasn’t the best way to regenerate one’s cognizant sharpness.

“The rest of us have much to discuss. If thou wilt?” Lord British gestured to the double door that was the egress of the dining hall.

Jimmy construed the meaning accurately enough: we’re about to discuss how to haul back Katar’s carcass to Yew jail before he can devastate the universe and we can’t have aliens listening in on our counter-machinations. Bah! It didn’t do much for your righteousness, Lord Scottish or whatever, that you were an alien too, and from the same place as well.

“Of course, my liege.” Jimmy said courteously, shielding his discontentment, and made his best leg.

Curiosity killed the cat.

Following Kap-Lem out into the main hall, Jimmy heard Lord British mention something about ‘knighthood’ and Dupre’s groan, before the door shut entirely. Oh, well.

Jimmy turned to his wingless gargoyle friend, nodding in farewell. “Thank you, old friend. For everything.” He truly meant it, too.

Kap-Lem bowed his head. Was that a tear in his eye? “To have to thank you more. To have learned something about life. To have never had a real human friend, besides Hothame, until you. To wish you all the luck on your endeavours.”

“You too, buddy, you too.”

They shook hands, a laughable sight, Jimmy’s hand dwarfed in the gargoyle’s paw like a four-year-old child’s to his father’s. Except that the father didn’t have claws on his fingers.

“Come here, you!” Jimmy said, poignant, and they embraced as real friends, though Kap-Lem’s tremendous strength very nearly asphyxiated him.

Then Kap-Lem waved and turned on his heel, heading back down the hall to the gatehouse, where a guard materialized out of a niche to escort him the rest of the way.

“Milord, I’m here to escort thee to thy room now.” said a gentle and faint feminine voice.

Jimmy whirled around to face the delicate female servant. She looked at him meekly and nervously, as if daunted by his presence. In an attempt to ease her nerves, he drew his rumpled hat and flourished it grandly before her, giving his most ingratiating smile.

“Show the way, if you please.” he said, though his attempts at easing her only did the exact opposite, to his minor irritation.

Why did his trademark smile never work with women he was attracted to? One had thrown a spear at him, the other had shot at him, and there was no telling what this nervous girl would do.

She led him down the extensive corridors of the inner sanctum of the castle, while he admired the callipygian aesthetics as surreptitiously as he could. The castle was certainly a nice place and a fine contrast to the squalor of privation that was New Magincia or the epitome of harsh austerity that was Vesper, made all the nicer by the lovely presence of comely little lasses and buxom, voluptuous beauties.

At last she stopped at a door and turned to him, still finding it a mortal feat to make eye contact with him for more than two moments, and said softly, “This is thy room. A bath is prepared, and thy clothes will be washed during thine rest, milord.”

“Thanks.” Jimmy replied with his best nonchalant, disarming smile. “And please, call me Jimmy. What’s your name?”

Her hand came to her mouth in surprise, and her hazelnut eyes widened as if startled by some breaking of taboo. “ one has ever asked me that before.”

So that was why she was so meek and passive. She felt inferior, tending every day to rich lords and valiant heroes. Another black mark against Lord British, in Jimmy’s damning opinion. Did he not refer to his servants by name, a basic dignity any good person deserved, and did he not receive the service of his loyal minions with a genuine smile and a ‘thank you’? Did he not know that the castle, like a clock and its gears and cogs, was a gestalt that consisted of many parts, great and small, and that every gear was vital and deserved equal respect as all the others no matter how minuscule a duty it performed, for without it the other gears would cease turning and stop the entire clock?

One day Lord British was going to get his comeuppance. He could see it now in his mind’s eye, a hero of the common servant, an aged, wizened woman of many years who would rise up and inspire the other minions to strike, and strike hard at British’s moment of weakness! But that would not come for many years. But it would. Jimmy was certain of that. What went around came around, so to speak.

“Why wouldst thou want to know?” the girl asked, still shying away from his intent gaze.

“Because I’m curious. I like to know the names of the people who take the time to make my meals. And that was a fine sup of egg and bacon, thank thee very much!”

She blushed. “What makes thee think I made it?”

Now here was as severe case of inferiority complex if ever Jimmy had seen one.

“It had thy indisputable mark.”

She giggled. “How canst thou know my mark?”

Jimmy grinned, lopsided and equivocal. “Magic.”

She chortled again. It was a delightful sound, and put colour into her pale cheeks.

“You never gave me your name.” Jimmy persisted.

“Alisudra.” she said, then started into meekness again, realizing that she had other chores to tend to. “Forgive me, milor - erm, Jimmy, but I have to go now.”

She hurried off back down the hall, and Jimmy called after her, “Alisudra, goodbye! Oh, and nice name!”

Then, weariness suddenly creeping into his bones, the weariness of encountering one too many life-threatening situations and not just from this day’s adventure, he decided to retire into his room. But first, there was the obligatory bath, to wash away the dirt, blood, and contrition.

It was a knock at the door that awakened Jimmy the next morning. Refreshed, he bounded onto his feet and bid the visitor wait for a few moments while he hastily donned his clothes, laid out clean and fresh on a nearby chair, probably by Alisudra.

He opened the door and found Geoffrey standing at the threshold, Obsidian perched on his armoured shoulder.

“Jimmy Malone! Jimmy Malone! Jimmy Malone!” the bird squawked, as if ecstatic to see him.

When had he learned his name, Jimmy wondered, and how had he even found him? The parrot had abruptly taken wing before they had come close to Britanny Bay, for reasons known only to the plucky, flamboyant avian. This was one truly resilient and surprising member of the Aves family.

“I found him while on the battlements, crying out thy name.” Geoffrey said, and Jimmy took the parrot upon his own shoulder with a word of thanks.

“SQUAWK!!! Sum of three, crimson they be!”

That old mystery seemed to have taken place an eon ago.

“Also, sir, Lord British is awaiting thy presence in his quarters. Breakfast is already prepared for thee.” Geoffrey said, turning to lead the way.

Stomach gurgling greedily at the mention of food, Jimmy answered, “I’ll be right with you.”

Quickly, he checked about his person for his most prized possessions: his battered notebook and pen, his camera (the film within and its visual evidence of his adventures in Britannia was by far the most valuable), his rumpled broad brim hat, and a knife he had kept about him for so long in case the fighting should have come to the sanguinary nitty-gritty. Thus prepared, Jimmy followed Geoffrey, Obsidian clinging by claws to his shoulder, to Lord British’s quarters. He placed the sorry hat upon his head, the little slip that read ‘press’ now long gone, quite probably rotting on that miserable little treasure island, as they traversed the corridors and halls, passing many ornate tapestries and paintings.

Jimmy was too introspective to concern himself with their artistic and aesthetic beauty, for this meeting liable to be his last in the world of Britannia, and none too sooner, either.

When they arrived at the liege’s door, there was the sound of muffled conversation within. Geoffrey knocked on the hard oak.


Geoffrey opened the door and to Jimmy’s immense surprise there was not a soul else there but Lord British, an open book in his lap. There was a diminutive mouse at his feet, which squeaked at Jimmy’s rude entry and promptly zipped into a mousehole in the corner behind a mirror, chittering in fear.

For a moment, British frowned at him reproachfully - as if he cared about the startlement of a mouse! - but then beckoned him to a seat before a table on which lay breakfast: bacon and eggs.

At a nod from his lord, Geoffrey returned to the hall, closing the door after him. British lay down the book, closing the covers gently - the spine read ‘Hubert’s Hairraising Adventure’ - and gestured to the steaming food, which Jimmy had not yet touched.

“Please, eat. One of the serving girls said thou didst like bacon and eggs.”

Alisudra, Jimmy thought with a smile.

British paused to stare oddly at the parrot on Jimmy’s shoulder, an incongruous sight, as it balanced itself every time the journalist leaned forward to eat. When Jimmy had finished his breakfast, Lord British decided to continue.

“I thank thee once again, friend, for aiding us in our plight. Thy aid was instrumental. But before I send thee back, I ask thee again: dost thou wish a material reward?”

Jimmy shook his head in slow nobility. “Nay, your majesty. A journalist can live on words and good press alone.”

British had a shrewd gleam in his eye. “Art thou sure?”

Jimmy’s facade broke. “Oh, maybe just a little bit...You know, a souvenir to remind me of my days in the wonderful realm that is Britannia.” he said somewhat tentatively.

Lord British laughed heartily. “Honesty is a virtue. I wilt give thee the souvenir thou dost desire.” He pointed his finger at the space beside the mirror and chanted the esoteric syllables of arcane power, “Ort Lor!”

A chest appeared, and Jimmy squinted at it, doubting the health of his eyes. Obsidian squawked in alarm and looked about to take flight again. British rose and glided over to the chest, unlocking it with a key and flipping open the lid. His body obscured any line of sight Jimmy had for the chest from his seated position as the sovereign kneeled to draw something out.

Rising, Lord British performed the reverse with the chest, consigning it back to the realm of the unseen. What he handed to Jimmy was a large, smooth polished and faceted emerald, potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars back home. Lord British appeared to know this quite well, smiling in satisfaction at Jimmy’s agape expression and the trembling hand that tentatively took the emerald.

“It was originally spewed forth from the volcano on the Isle of the Avatar more than a century-and-a-half ago, marking the demise of the Abyssal Colony, another story entirely, of course, which we do not have the time to dally about. It was in crude form, but even then, I’d say it would fetch a high price.” Lord British said as Jimmy marvelled at the precious jewel. “Thou dost deserve much more, in truth, but thou didst decline my initial offer. Unless thou hast reconsidered?” He smiled provocatively.

Jimmy started out of his absorption in the green depths of the emerald, pocketing it and shaking his head vehemently. “No. I’m a man of my word, milord.”

British nodded as if that was the answer he had been expecting. “Now,” he spoke seriously, “I will remind thee again not to concern thyself with the mad sorcerer Katar. We will deal with him.”

“Remember, it looks as if he’s run to Eodon!” Jimmy exclaimed.

British’s response was equivocal. “No matter where he runs, we will find him.” Even when goaded, he would not overtly admit that he was aware of the Valley’s existence.

That damned twinkle was in his eye again!

Suddenly, a more morbid thought occurred to Jimmy. “What of Leron and Reizer?”

British shrugged helplessly. “If they do not blend into Britannian society I am sure they will be apprehended sooner or later. But from what thou dost tell me, this Reizer person is far more dangerous a foe.” He smiled reassuringly. “Fear not, friend, for they are stranded here, whle thou dost have a vessel home. Speaking of which, thy homecoming awaits thee...”

British took him to the throne room, where Dupre and Sentri stood on the promenade. They greeted him and he reciprocated the kindness of etiquette.

“Caveman killer! Caveman killer! SQUAWK!!!” the parrot exclaimed for absolutely no apparent reason, staring at Dupre.

Dupre returned the stare, albeit bewildered.

“Farewell, Jimmy Malone.” bade Lord British, and a glowing red doorway materialized before the dais upon which the throne sat, vibrating with arcane energy.

“Fare thee well, Jimmy.” Dupre said, waving.

“Drop in for tea any time!” Sentri quipped, grinning.

“Sure thing.” replied Jimmy, though the chances of him returning to this world were dubious. Not taht he minded a bit.

As he cautiously approached the pulsating door, he thought to himself with no small amount of trepidation what his boss would say - no, what he would shout - in regards to his unexplained hiatus. But he had the greatest story yet on film.

As he entered the redness, British uttered something in a low monotone, and he sniffed the familiar acrid scent of incinerated film...

The newcomer to New Magincia sniffed the familiar acrid scent of burnt wood. He had smelled it often enough in his previous profession out at sea, though he no longer relished it as he once did. Charcoal scent stuck to charred wood long after the fire perished, and here lay the burned remains of some once respectable building that positively reeked with it.

Captain Verne, formerly captain Verne, eyed the site - situated near the humble dock of this town, little more than a village, really - with a pupil for detail, the same prospector he had been among his pirate lackeys. But he was a changed man now, or at least a changing man, slowly but surely. Here he was in semi-rugged clothing, a sack over one shoulder, filled with doubloons and a golden, begemmed chalice. His last vice had been against the men who had saved him from that island, and the Virtue Honesty itself, of course, though he swore to himself that was the end of his days of villainy.

The Virtues beckoned to him. The old life was waning. With this sample of the Shade Capt’n’s treasure (surely a fantastical sum in a backwater place like this!) he’d easily be able to start up an inn of his own, perhaps on these charred ruins. As for his former crew and his promise to deliver unto them the largest hoard in history, well, he doubted they would have appreciated the gesture anyway, the scoundrels. let them be damned for their unvirtuous ways!

“Hello, friend. Thou dost look new in town.” said a wry yet friendly voice, and Verne turned to face the interloper.

He seemed a carefree fellow, though his countenance exuded a seasoned wisdom of the world that could only have been gained from extensive travel, and his ice blue eyes were mirthful but tempered with a definite maturity. He had the look of a bard, this one did, and his lute attested to that.

“Aye, that be true. I be Verne.” said the former pirate, clasping hands with the bard.

The bard frowned, as if tyring to recall something. “Verne, eh? I’ve heard that name somewhere before...”

“Ahh, probably some old scoundrel of the sea whose now sunk to the bottom, and deservedly so.” Verne replied nonchalantly. “Tell me, lad, what lay here before it was torched?”

“Why, my good man, thou art standing where the Scuttled Schooner Inn once was,” said the bard sadly, “a proud place it was.”

Verne was tantalized. “That’ll be a fine name for me new inn that I intend to build right here. I’ll do it in the parent’s honour!”

The bard smiled wryly. “Aye. I could use a new inn to sing and strum my lute at, especially after my egregious ejection from the Modest Damsel merely for making a pass at a barmaid who happened to be the proprietor’s wife. It is not as if I was aware.” His nonchalant shrug suggested otherwise.

Verne laughed and clapped a hand on the bard’s shoulder, bringing him round. “What’s your name, son?”


“Well, then, Burem. Let’s talk some business!”


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