|Gilbert Winslow||Secretary of State for the Dukedom of Plantinak||60|
|Margret Manchester||Duchess of Manchester||32|
|Nader Rafsanjanian||Wizard to the Court of Plantinak||30|
|Richard Manchester||Duke of Manchester||46|
|Justine Tukenmaken||Amahte's lover, daughter of Mayor of Mizzen||17|
|Ohakmatupash Tukenmaken||Mayor of Mizzen||52|
|Cleopatra Amashintra||Assassin of Mizzen Town, alias Grellian Ptumash||F 29|
"Stop it, Pumpkins!" Quahiri says. She frowns at Jezel across the space between the seats in the coach. The coach is rocking back and forth. Both the orcs are looking pale and uncomfortable, but Jezel is groaning and holding her stomach.
"Maybe we should have given them more than half a pill," Jack says.
The two horses pulling the coach are cantering briskly along a flat stretch of road. The country on either side is open heath. The mid-day sun shines down from a clear sky upon wild flowers, young, green grass, and low, spiny bushes. It is the thirty-first of March, 2478.
"I'm going to be sick," Jezel says. She lunges for the door and forces it open.
Jack fully expects Jezel to lean out the door and vomit, but instead she jumps from the moving carriage and disappears from view.
His cry is lost in a sudden, splintering crash. The corner of the coach beside him, where Jezel had been sitting only a few seconds before, is a gaping hole. Quahiri jumps out of the coach after Jezel. Wicklow follows close behind her. A shattered panel of the coach falls beside him. The sun shines in, but Jack is in the shadow of the panel.
A blazing white flash and a blast of heat fill the coach. The sound is so loud, and the light so bright, that Jack can neither see nor hear for a few seconds. The shirt on the outside of his metal armor is smoking. He stands up and pushes the panel aside. The curtains and cusions are on fire. The coach surges one way and another. He grabs the ragged edge of a hole in the ceiling and thrusts his head up into the sunlight. The driver is lying slumped upon his bench. His face is blackened by flame. His hands are stiff. His eyes stare into space.
The driver is dead. His name was John Fletcher.
The horses pull in different directions. Both are badly burned across their backsides. Their hind legs are blackened. They are whinneying, rearing, and jostling, but cantering still.
Jack looks down. A metal ball, about the size of a human head, and imperfectly round, rolls across the coach floor and falls out the doorway. The ball lands upon the grass.
The coach lurches to one side and rises up on its left wheels.
There is a flash fifty meters back along the road, followed by a thunderous crack.
Jack steps on the coach seat and jumps up through the hole in the ceiling to land beside the driver's body on the driving bench. He pulls the reins out of the driver's hands and pulls.
"Woah there!" he says to the horses, and in this dire moment he speaks in his own language, that of Gastranoi.
The horses keep cantering. He pulls harder on the reins and they begin to slow down. He looks behind him on the road. Quahiri, Jezel, and Wicklow are running towards the coach. They are all wearing their metal armor, but their heads are bare. Their helmets are in the luggage at the back of the coach. Several strange, round birds are flying in the air above and on either side of the road. One of the birds hovers above the place where the ball fell out of the coach. It is another ball, not a bird. The ball that in the grass rises into the air, held somehow to the ball above it. The two balls fly away together.
The horses jump forwards. "Woah!" Jack says.
A few seconds later, the horses come to a stop. One is making a pitiful gasping sound in its throat. The other tries to sit down, but cannot because of the harness.
Jack looks back. His three companions are still running. One of the flying balls dives among them. A half-second later, the ball is enveloped by a blinding flash. He looks away and ducks. When he sits up again, he sees more balls in the air above his companions. How many are there? Four, five? Quahiri, Jezel, and Wicklow are almost to the coach when another dives down and explodes. What should he do? He stands up, holding the reins. Will the three of them jump into the coach? Should he be ready to drive the horses along the road? What good would that do? Should he get down and protect Jezel?
Jezel reaches the coach and stands below him. She stares up at the body of the driver.
Quahiri pulls her spear out from the luggage rack on the back of the coach.
Wicklow has his sword drawn. He looks up and around him, watching for the next ball. He sees one rolling across the smoking ground nearby. It is the one that just exploded. He runs towards it. The ball is made of metal. It reminds him of Stephanix's head.
A ball dives out of the air. For a moment, Wicklow thinks of jumping out of its way, but instead he holds his sword over his head and waits for it. He expects the ball to come straight towards him, but it does not. It rushes past him. He jumps towards it and strikes at the dull, gray metal.
The bright metal of his adamantine blade buries itself in something invisible and tough, driven into the unseen material by the force of his swing and the momentum of the ball. Immediately, his sword begins to shake violently, as if it were tied by a rope to a giant fish. The air shakes around him. Smoke and black, soot billow up from the scorched ground. The grass and flowers nearby shudder.
His sword comes free. The ball floats two meters away from him. Why hasn't it exploded?
With a rush of air, the ball surges towards its comrade in the grass. Wicklow jumps after it and takes a mighty swing from behind. The blade bites deep into the same invisible material, but not deep enough to reach the ball itself. The ball on the grass rises. Wicklow twists his sword and tries to force the flying ball to the ground, but he cannot. His sword shudders and almost jerks out of his grasp.
Without warning, his blade is free.
The ball in the grass jumps up. A shuddering wind blows in Wicklow's face, and the two balls race off over the grass and into the air.
Wicklow looks around him. Jack is standing upon the driver's platform of the coach. The rumps and hind legs of the horses are bleeding and burned, but the animals are still standing. The body of the driver is hanging half off the driver's platform, one hand swinging loosely above the dirt road. Jezel has her back to Wicklow. She is holding her hands to her cheeks and staring at the scorched body. Quahiri is crouching on the ground beside the coach, with her shield in front of her and her spear in one hand. She squints into the bright sky from under the rim of her helmet.
"Up above!" Wicklow calls.
There is metal ball drifting twenty or thirty meters above the coach. It is carrying something pale and rectangular. The pale rectangular object flutters down. The breeze carries it away from the coach and it lands upon the grass nearby. Wicklow walks toward the spot where the object fell. He watches the flying ball above. There are some others farther away, moving quicky into the distance on the other side of the road.
Wicklow stands ubove the fallen object. He takes a quick look down. It is a piece of thick paper, folded and sealed with wax. He looks up. The flying ball above him flies away, following the others. As the ball flies, it shivers back and forth in the air, like a fish swimming through water.
"Look at that!" Jack says. He points up.
A seagull circles above them. It turns and flies on a straight path to the North.
Wicklow picks up the paper. The seal has no marking. It is a blob of red wax dripped onto the paper. He opens the letter as he walks back to the coach. There are three words written on the page. The letters are drawn with a pen and ruler in red ink. It says, "FROM FATIMEH SHAJARIAN." The "from" is in Latin.
"We think it's an hour's walk to the nearest town," Wicklow says.
He's talking into the trumpet, standing in the shade of the trees beside the road. Jack holds the reins of the two horses. Quahiri and Jezel have their sunglasses on and their spears and shields in hand. They look up at the sky.
"The coachman is dead. We left his body by the road along with the coach."
All four of them are wearing heavy packs on their backs and helmets on their heads. Jack and Quahiri's packs are blackened along the top. The horses have neither saddle nor harness, only reins. Their eyes are wide and they snort through their nostrils, breathing deeply.
"The seagull flew like Amahte's albatross," Wicklow says, "It went north."
A thin voice emerges from the trumpet. "Which way did the balls go?" It is Hocus.
"North. What were those things? Some kind of demon?"
"They sound like air elementals. I expect the seagull is a wizard's familiar, and the wizard directed the air elementals to attack you."
Wicklow looks up at the sky. They have walked about a kilometer from the heath where the attack took place. He feels safer here, where the road passes between tall trees. He looks into the shadows beneth the trees. Or are they safer? Surely the creatures could fly beneath the trees and surprise them just as easily as in the open?
He shrugs. "What we want to know now is, what do we tell the police in the town, when we get there? Jack's for telling them we don't know what happened."
After a few seconds silence, Hocus answers, "I don't see why you have to tell them anything at all."
Jack shifts from one foot to the other. His pack has grown heavy with the coffee and spices and other presents he decided to bring back for the crew of Loose Lips. It must weigh over twenty kilos. Add to that the fifteen-kilo weight of his armor, and the three-kilo weight of his large-sword, and he's carrying almost forty kilos. That was fine for the first five hundred meters, but now he was beginning to get tired. Too much time sitting around in taverns talking to good guys, and not enough time walking in the wilderness chasing bad guys.
Heraklese's voice comes through the trumpet. "I have considerable experience with lying, and I concluded that it's not worth it. Every lie you tell is something you have to maintain. it's hard enough for one person to lie on his own, but for the four of you to lie together, when spoken to separately, it's next to impossible. I think we should have a general GMI policy that we tell the truth unless there's a compelling reason not to."
"We're not suggesting that we lie," Wicklow says, "We're just wondering if we show the police the letter. If we do, they might take it from us. Do we tell them about Fatimeh? Maybe they'll arrest us for murder in an allied nation."
"No," Scythe says, "They're not going to arrest you. You're honored heroes of the regent of Diamantis. Who would press charges against you. It was an act of war and rebellion. It wasn't murder."
"It was an assassination in cold blood," Wicklow says, "Maybe the Duke won't be so happy to deal with us once he finds out about it."
"It wasn't you," Scythe says, "It was me."
"Well that hasn't stopped whoever it is from trying to kill Jack and me."
"If that's the case, everyone knows about it. The Duke probably knows about it already. His master of spies knows about it. Maybe they don't have the story straight. You could correct them on the details."
"I agree," Heraklese says. "Just tell them the truth. What are they going to do to you, anyway? Lock you up? You have two orc women with you and you're on a diplomatic mission."
Wicklow nods. He looks at Jack. Jack shrugs and says, "Okay."
"How about the letter?" Wicklow says.
"Show it to them," Heraklese says.
"What about the seagull? Won't they think we're crazy?"
"You're coming into town with two scorched horses," Scythe says, "and two orc woman, and you left a body on the side of the road. Isn't that enough to make them think you're dangerous? They won't even want you in the village."
"Okay," Wicklow says. "We'll tell the truth. I'm happier with that."
"Me too," Hocus says.
At 4 pm exactly on the afternoon of the 1st of April, Wicklow, Jack, Quahiri, and Jezel enter the Red Audience Chamber in Plantinak Palace. Quahiri and Jezel walk behind Wicklow and Jack along the red carpet between the red, paneled walls. Quahiri is wearing her green trousers and her red shirt. She looks down at Jezel. Jezel is wearing a skirt that barely comes to her knees, and a short-sleaved shirt. The buttons of the shirt stretch the fabric across Jezel's ample bosom. Quahiri frowns. Jezel does not look like a spear-woman in these new clothes.
Wicklow and Jack are wearing old jackets and trousers with hardly any color in them at all. The Duke is sitting on a big chair, wearing a thin hat made of metal, but not a helmet. It has jewels in it and a purple velvet middle. Over his shirt and trousers the Duke wears a red cape lined with white fur with small black spots in it. The red color of the cape is beautiful, and goes well with the red color of the room. He has the letter in his hand, the letter the air demon dropped from the sky.
Beside the Duke is a tall, thin man in a white robe. His skin is dark. He has a large nose. Quahiri remembers him from their first stay in Plantinak. He is the wizard of the palace. He has a long name. He stares straight ahead.
"Gentlemen," the Duke says. "Good day to you."
"Good day, your highness," Wicklow and Jack say.
"Ladies," the Duke says in Latin, "Welcome."
Quahiri and Jezel bow their heads. "Hello, your highness."
The Duke holds his hand out towards the man standing beside his throne. "You've met Nader Rafsanjanian"
Wicklow nods. "Yes, your highness."
"So," the Duke says, "Tell me in your own words what happened yesterday on the road from Delia."
Wicklow takes a breath. "We were sitting in the coach, crossing a piece of high ground, when we were attacked by air elementals."
"How do you know they were air elementals?" the Duke says.
Wicklow describes the metal balls, and conveys the opinion of Hocus Destroyer. He starts to explain the nature of demons, and how they create bodies out of conjured matter.
The Duke holds up his hand. "Very good. That's enough. Continue your account of what happened yesterday."
Wicklow continues. The Duke interrupts frequently, and orders him to continue just as frequently. They are talking in Weilandic, so Quahiri and Jezel cannot understand. Jezel leans against Jack. Quahiri looks at the faces of the Duke, Wicklow, Jack and the wizard. The wizard is still staring straight ahead.
"It dropped that letter you have in your hands," Wicklow says.
The Duke opens the letter. "From Fatimeh Shajarian." He looks up. "What does that mean?"
"Fatimeh Shajarian was the Wizard of Diamantis under King Ortophus, before he was driven out and replaced by Dushkin Awaglachin and his regent, Toylandic Miastodon."
"What became of her?"
"Um," Wicklow says. He looks at his hands. "We were first hired by Sallinis, Dushkin's mother, then by Toylandic Miastodon to help over-throw King Ortophus on behalf of Dushkin Awaglachin." He raises his head. "She was master of spies for−"
The Duke holds up his hand. "Who was master of spies? Sallinis?"
"No, Fatimeh," Jack says. "Fatimeh Shajarian was master of spies for the king."
The Duke looks at Jack. "Were you there?"
Jack shakes his head. "No, but I know the story."
"Continue," the Duke says to Wicklow.
Jack looks down at his boots and frowns. The Duke knew already that he was not there in Diamantis. He probably knows this story already.
The Duke looks at Nader. "Have you heard of this woman?"
Nader nods. "Yes, she was King Ortophus's wizard."
The Duke turns back to Wicklow. "Continue."
"We killed Fatimeh Shajarian. One of our group approached her silently while she was out on her balcony at night."
The Duke stares at Wicklow. Wicklow stares back at the Duke. Nader Rafsanjanian is no longer staring ahead. Instead he glares at Wicklow. His face is twisted into a scowl. His upper teeth protrude from his thin lips. He sees Jack looking at him and stops scowling immediately. He stares straight ahead and folds his white robe about him. What had Quahiri said about him? He had not paid any attention to it at the time. She said the wizard did not like Wicklow, or something, after the first time they had met.
"Continue your account of yesterday," the Duke says.
"There was a seagull circling above, in a deliberate way. Do you remember Amahte's albatross?"
The Duke folds the letter. He looks to his left for a moment at his wizard. He nods at Wicklow. "Yes, I remember it very well."
"The seagull was like that. When it saw us looking up at it, it flew away in a straight line to the north. Towards Plantinak, in fact."
The wizard laughs. "Preposterous!"
The Duke frowns. "What are you implying by that?"
Wicklow looks from one to the other, his eyes wide with surprise at their reaction. "Nothing. I'm just telling you what we saw. Hocus said the gull was probably a wizard's familiar: the familiar of a wizard nearby. Wizards can speak to air elementals using the demon language they call Rattikit. It's a hard language, if not impossible, for non-wizards to speak."
Nader shakes his head and says quietly. "Nonsense."
"Continue your account," the Duke says. Wicklow continues. The Duke does not interrupt again, and Wicklow proceeds rapidly to his conclusion.
"We arrived in Upper Slapton at around mid-afternoon. We reported directly to the police station. We gave him the letter. We stayed over-night in the police station. We gave him a full account of what happened, just as we gave you. The next morning your coach arrived and here we are."
The Duke looks down at the letter. He says nothing.
"We're sorry to have−" Wicklow says, but the Duke holds up his hand. Wicklow stops talking.
Jezel looks up at Jack. She points to the Duke. Jack leans over and whispers in her ear.
"This is a serious matter," the Duke says. "One of my citizens is dead. There are no witnesses to the crime except three foreigners, all of whome are on a diplomatic mission for myself, the Duke. You return here and tell me a story that very few people in their right minds would believe." He looks at Nader for moment. "I can believe most of it, but I'm not inclined to believe all of it."
"I told you the truth," Wicklow says.
The Duke nods slowly. "Return to the guest quarters. I don't want to say you are under arrest, but I don't want you leaving the palace grounds until I give you permission to go. Consider youselves witnesses to a homicide, and possible suspects. We don't want you fleeing the country."
"We will return to our quarters," Wicklow says. His posture is erect, and he looks the Duke straight in the eye.
For a few seconds, the two men stare at one another.
The Duke raises his hand. "Leave me now. I will give this affair some thought."
The four comrades bow to the Duke. They turn and walk back along the carpet to the door.
"Well, thank heavens for that," Scythe says, and wipes his hands.
Bragash, Ugluk, and just about everyone else on Tankum Island are standing on the beach, watching Sacha fly away on the hippogriff he inherited from Clodine.
Scythe turns towards Hocus. "Let's get going."
Less than an hour later, Loose Lips sets sail for Mizzen Island. The date is 31st March 2478. It is sunny and warm, with a good breeze out of the south-west.
At mid-morning on the 2nd April, Loose Lips arrives in Mizzen Harbor and ties up to one of the docks owned by Stick's friend Glubbett. On Loose Lips are Hocus, Martha, Scythe, Heraklese, Bonita, Jessica, Stanley, Garibaldi, Sallina, and Stephanix.
Scythe stands on the dock, having secured Loose Lips. Four or five boys and two girls stand around him, asking him for money and offering to guide him around the town. He ignores them. He's hoping Grellian Ptumash is in town. He wants to see her. But maybe she is away, and if she is, she might be away for weeks.
Our heroes have already established that the Cosmos is not in the harbor, so they will not be able to pay a visit to Don Bernadino de Cardenas. At anchor in the still water of the harbor is the three-masted Sea Wolf, formerly captained by Kantank, the recently deceased.
Hocus and Scythe set off down the dock, leaving the rest of the crew aboard the boat or sitting on the dock. They make their way along Waterfront Street. They are wearing their armor and carrying their swords.
On waterfront street, they meet Derek Jacoby, former first mate of the Sea Wolf under Kantank. Derek did not take part in the attack by Sea Wolf crew members upon Hocus and Martha on Waterfront Street on the tenth of March, but it may be that he ordered his men to carry out the attack. Hocus does not know.
Scythe and Hocus walk up to Derek and stand in front of him. They are briefly distracted by a large and strange-looking animal carcass lying upon some wooden planks at the edge of the dock nearby, but they ignore it for the moment and concentrate upon Derek.
Derek puts his hands on his hips. He is wearing a green three-cornered hat. His cutlass and several knives hang from his belt. "I have no score to settle with you."
Scythe nods. "We have no score to settle with you either."
"That's well to hear," Derek says.
Scythe points to Derek's hat. "Are you captain of the Sea Wolf now?"
Derek nods. "Aye."
"Congratulations," Hocus says.
Hocus points to the carcass. "What's that?"
Derek steps closer to the carcass and stares down at it. The carcass is about three meters long, and appears to have a long, thick tail at one end and a long thick neck at the other. On the end of the tail is a heavy lump. At the end of the neck is a head the size of a bull's. The creature's leathery skin is covered with short fur. The fur is matted with blood.
"That there's a catoblepas. We captured him on Dead Man's Island." He looks up at Hocus. "It has magical properties. You can use the skin to make a cloak that protects you from evil. The eyes you can use to make a potion that allows you to see in the dark. The meat gives a man more of what the ladies want." Derek smiles and cackles at Hocus and Scythe, but he does not seem to be laughing. "Or so I'm told. You would know better than me. You're a wizard, aren't you?"
Hocus nods. "Why did you kill it?"
"We was supposed to capture it. But it died on the way back." He shakes his head. "It killed two of my men with some kind of brain magic. We could'nt hit it with swords and crossbows because of some enchantment on its skin." He folds his arms and frowns.
"Why were you trying to capture it?"
"We was hired to capture it. We was due a thousand guineas for a live one of them. But the carcass is still worth a lot, if you know how to use it. You can have the whole carcass for five hundred guineas. It weighs almost a thousand kilograms. Just the meat alone is worth a hundred guineas, I recon."
Scythe stares at the creature's body. "We'll think about it."
They say goodbye to Derek and proceed into the town. They arrive soon after at Miscellaneous Artifacts, 26 Belated Road, Mizzen Town, the place of business of the man Don Bernadino described as The Wizard of Mizzen Island. He's not there, so Hocus puts a note through his door asking for an appointment.
Their next stop is the Police Station, where they are glad to see Majid Gooban. They chat amicably with him. When they ask him what has happened to the ownership of the Sea Wolf, Majid directs them to the Hall of Records, on the other side of the square.
In the Hall of Records, Hocus and Scythe go through volumes of hand-written pages. Each page either registers a boat with owner, captain, and agent, or modifies an existing registration, or renews an existing registration. The registrations expire after one year, and there is a fee to register a boat. The fees are substantial and appear to depend upon the size and capacity of the boat.
The clerk is an old woman named Jatuma. Her skin is black, and Scythe at first thinks may be related to Tamaka. But Hocus assures Scythe that the two women don't look alike. Jatuma is unable to give clear and complete answers to Scythe's questions about the law governing boat registration in Mizzen Island, but the records are clear, and Hocus copies many details.
The Sea Wolf is now owned by a woman called Cynthia Wetcroft, of 23 Bonkem St, Mizzen Town. She has been the registered owner of the ship since 13th March, but the previous registration continues to be valid until 13th December 2478. The previous registration required its owner and captain, Kantank, to pay 100 gp to Mizzen Town. The Dirty Rat was owned by Permisso Ragumba, last registered on 25th May 2477, only two months before Permisso's death. He paid only 5 gp to register his boat. As our readers no doubt recall, Loose Lips is the Dirty Rat with a new coat of paint and a few hundred guineas worth of refitting.
Don Bernadino is indeed the captain of the Cosmos, and he has registered himself as the captain for the past three years, each year renewing the registration in January, and paying a fee of 150 gp. The Kamazi is now owned and captained by a man called Rakkim Black. The former captain and owner was Vango Gruel, but who registered the ship in September 2477 for a fee of 70 gp. The transfer of ownership was marked "Temporary" from 15th February to 29th February 2478. Jatuma says that the former owner can appeal the transfer of ownership during this two-week period. Going back in the archives, Scythe finds that Vango Gruel registered the Kamazi in September 2476 as well, but there are no earlier registrations of a ship by that name.
Hocus and Scythe thank Jatuma and return to Loose Lips. On their way back, they see that the catoblepas carcass is gone.
Our heroes are discussing their excursion with the rest of the crew when Grellian Ptumash hails them from the dock.
"How about lunch?" she says to Scythe.
"Certainly," he says, and leaves with her.
When Scythe returns to the boat two hours later, he is quiet. Sallina and Garibaldi have gone into town together, to see their friends, the same friends Martha wants to meet. Jessica and Stanley are on board with Hocus and Martha. Stephanix is below, sitting on the chest.
"Well," Jessica says, "How did it go?"
"Are you going to see her again?"
"Tomorrow. She gave me some things to think about."
When Hocus, Heraklese, and Scythe are alone that evening, in the captain's cabin, Hocus says, "What things?"
"She says I can either follow the way of the assassin, or work with GMI, but not both."
"What's her real name?" Heraklese says.
"I still don't know. I don't know who her employer is either. She just calls him her employer. But he seems to be rich and well-connected. She says she has a teacher, and he's the best an assassin could hope for."
"Well, what do you think?" Heraklese says.
Scythe stares at the table for a long time. "I think I want to try it."
The next day, the third of April, Scythe meets Grellian Ptumash at 12 pm in Ptumak's Lounge. They sit at the same table they ate at the day before, but today, the place is crouded with people ordering the Quarter-Kilo Catoblepas Steak, the Catoblepas Stew, and the Catoblepas and Beer Pie.
Grellian orders the Catoplepas Pie. Scythe orders the Onion Soup. The restaurant is hot and noisy. Light comes from windows that face the street and the rear courtyard. There is a commotion at the front entrance as Tig, the enormous bouncer of the establishment, throws a drunk and raving pirate out into the street.
Grellian leans forward across their table. "I have a proposal for GMI that will introduce you to the idea of working with my employer and me, and make you all some money."
Grellian explains that Mayor Ohakmatupash Tukenmaken's daughter Justine is being held by by Nima Edi, Warlord of Magabe on the other side of the Satian Sea. Nima Edi wants the mayor to pay a 10,000 guinea ransom for the girl, or else she will be killed. Justine is about seventeen years old. A year ago, she was kidnapped by Amahte, the wizard-captain of the Shark. Grellian's employer will pay GMI guineas to sail to Magabe, free the girl, help Scyth and Grellian kill Nima Edi, and finally destroy the warlord's palace.
"Who is the teacher you were telling me about?" Scythe says.
"I'm not going to tell you any more about him until you start working for me." A waiter arrives at the table with her catoblepas pie. She leans back to let him place it before her. The smell of the meat inside is pungent, like fried liver. "If GMI accepts my offer, you will work for me during the expedition, not for them. Is that clear?"
"I'll let them know," Scythe says. He scrapes the bottom of his soup bowl with a silver-plated spoon.
Back on Loose Lips, the biggest topic of discussion is which of the four couples on the boat get to go ashore and have a night's privacy in a hotel, and whether or not any of them will be safe for the night in Mizzen. Heraklese gives Sallina, Garibaldi, Jessica, and Stanley permission to go ashore for the next two nights. Sallina and Garibaldi go and stay with their friends. Scythe walks Jessica and Stanley to a hotel. Heraklese and Bonita have the captain's cabin to themselves, so that leaves Scythe, Hocus, and Martha sharing the common room, and Stephanix also, when Heraklese kicks him out of the captain's cabin at night.
Scythe wonders if he should stay in a hotel also, so that Hocus and Martha can be alone in the common room. Maybe it will be a warm enough night that he can sleep on deck. It would be a good idea to have someone on watch anyway.
When he returns to the boat, Bonita is cooking.
A brightly-dressed man hails the boat from the dock and introduces himself as Jerald Montigue. "Are you by any chance interested in earning a handsom sum of money capturing a catoblepas for me?"
Heraklese invites Jerald to join them in the captain's cabin. Jerald accepts a glass of wine gladly and explains his proposal. He hired the Sea Wolf to bring him a live catoblepas, but they failed.
"There are hundreds of them living on Dead Man's Island a day's sail from here to the north," Jerald says. "All you have to do is capture one and bring it back alive. I'll pay you a thousand gold pieces."
"You want us to deliver it here, to the harbor, alive?" Hocus says, "Wouldn't that be dangerous?"
"Of course it would be dangerous, that's why I'm willing to pay so much for one."
"No," Hocus says, "Not dangerous for us: for other people. These things are supposed to have the power to kill at a distance."
"Of course," Jerald says, "And that's why you should deliver it to me somewhere on the coast of the Mizzen Island, somewhere remote, where nobody will be hurt. Cover it's head with a sack and it will be harmless enough." He smiles. "I have that on good authority."
"We'll think about it," Hocus says. "We have an appointment to keep right now, so we will have to ask you to leave. How can we get in touch with you?"
Jerald finishes the last drops of his wine and stands up. "I'm staying at the Inn of Last Resort. You can send a message for me there. I will be glad to meet you here again."
After he leaves, Hocus, Scythe, and Heraklese take out their space bridge and confer with Wicklow and Jack. They consider spending a hundred gold pieces obtaining an express twenty-four hour report on the nature and abilities of the catoblepas. But they decide against it in the end, and turn to discussing Grellian Ptumash's proposed rescue, destruction, and assassination.
Bonita calls them to supper at sun-set.
"Coming, my love," Heraklese says. He turns back to his notes. "Okay, we conclude that we are not interested in destroying any more castles because we don't want any children or other innocents to be hurt. We don't want to be associated with any assassinations for similar reasons, and because we are still suffering from the consequences of we the last one we did." He looks up at Scythe. "This puts Scythe in an awkward position, because, for whatever reason, he likes the idea of sneaking up on people and killing them."
"You don't seem ashamed about it," Heraklese says.
"Why would I be ashamed?"
Hocus and Wicklow laugh.
"So we're going to offer to rescue the girl for five thousand gold pieces, or guineas as the pirates call them, and Scythe will stay here with Grellian and learn the art of whatever it is from the great teacher she says she has."
"And maybe get some sugar from Grellian as well," Wicklow says through the bridge.
Scythe stands up. "It's supper time."
On the morning of the second of April, 2478, Wicklow is reading the newspapers over breakfast in the Guest Quarters of Plantinak Palace. Jack and Quahiri sit at the same table. Jezel is absent.
Wicklow looks up from the Plantinak Chronicle. "Where is Jezel?"
"She had bad dreams last night," Jack says, "Now she's sleeping in."
Quahiri looks up from the soft-boiled egg she has been trying to eat with a spoon. There are bits of egg-yolk around her mouth. She frowns. "Jezel must come to meeting."
Wicklow smiles. "How is your egg?"
Quahiri puts her spoon in the egg. "I like it."
"Just let her sleep," Jack says, "We have nothing to do."
Wicklow returns to the editorial he was reading in the paper. The title of the piece is "All the Dukes Friends".
On 27th March, Duke Richard bestowed the title of Earl of Swamp Bottom upon a foreigner. Such an action is not unprecedented in the varied history of our country. There have been a few foreigners who have lived among us for many years and earned our respect. In 2321, Duke Francis rewarded Limbardo Belladino with the title of Earl of Lumber. But the new Earl of Swamp Bottom is no Limbardo Belladino. So far as the Chronicle knows, the new Earl of Swamp Bottom has never set foot in Plantinak before. The Earl of Swamp Bottom is known to us only as a character in an autobiography written a century ago by a character who, until now, many of us assumed to be an invention. The Earl of Swamp Bottom is none other than the Black-Orc Dreadmanifold, from the pages of The Windmill, the first volume in the autobiography of Torque Edwards.
None of us at the Chronicle have seen a black-orc, but we consulted our Compendium of Fantastic Monsters and the notoriously reliable text states that black orcs are exceedingly tall, exceedingly black, and sport tusks. They are orcs, only bigger, and with black skin. By all accounts, they are also smarter, and many have magical powers. We can assume, therefore, that our new Earl of Swamp Bottom is such a creature, whose magical powers Duke Richard trusts will settle Magwash County and bring peace to the Borderlands.
The son of one of our writers was discovered last week emptying a flask of lamp oil on a fire he had built in the garden. When questioned, the boy said, "I was trying to put out the fire, Daddy." The poor boy did not seem to know the difference between water and oil. Or perhaps he was merely feigning a desire to put out the fire. We cannot say.
And so it seems with our Duke Richard. He claims that the new Earl of Swamp Bottom will bring peace to Magwash County, and its comical center, Delia Town. But Duke Richard's solution is to invite and establish in the heart of Magwash County a creature more dangerous and cunning than any of those that run rampant in the county today. What great matter is it to us if a band of orcs invade the empty Manor of the Swamp Bottom Estate? Much as we tease Duke Richard about the arrival of giant, diseased, green lizards in one of his towns, what harm has it done to the country, aside from distracting boys from their work? There has never been any difficulty in Magwash County that a company of the Duke's Soldiers, or a dedicated squad of policemen could not resolve.
When the Black-Orc Dreadmanifold rises up and causes trouble for Duke Richard, who is the Duke going to send to settle the matter? His soldiers? If Duke Richard will be pleased to consult the available literature, he will find that his new Earl of Swamp Bottom is a General of Orcs, and would be quite capable of mustering a small army of the diabolical creatures and taking over control of Magwash County for himself, and it is inevitable that he will do so. Black orcs have no other ambition in life than to lead armies of orcs to victory.
We have already seen the first signs of the strife that is to come. The Duke hired two sapiens to escort two female orcs into Magwash County, apparantly to examine the place in preparation for Dreadmanifold's arrival. These two sapiens, named Jack Pulrusset and Wicklow (we have been unable to determine the second man's surname), were escorting the two female orcs back from Magwash County on the morning of 31st March when they were attacked by what they claim were exploding birds of some sort. The coachman was killed. They survived, as did their orc women.
The coachman was John Fletcher. He had three children and a wife. Now he's dead because his coach carrying two orc women for the Duke was attacked by some other gang of fantastical creatures descending from the heavens. How will Duke Richard explain the death of their father to the children? The Chronicle will be sure to follow the story of the bereaved family. Meanwhile, Duke Richard took good care of the orc women and his sapien hirelings: he sent a coach to fetch them from custody in Breakwater as soon as he heard they were being detained there by the police for questioning.
Wicklow frowns and puts the paper down next to his plate. He sips his coffee.
"Did they spell your name right?" Jack says.
"They don't know my surname. But they spelled your's right. Pulrusset with two S's."
Quahiri holds her spoon up beside her. She is waiting for another soft-boiled egg. Jack points to her napkin and her face. She picks up the napkin and wipes her dark lips. "Did write my name in papers?"
"No," Wicklow says, "They don't know your name. They call you an orc woman."
"How do they know your name but not mine?"
"I don't know," Wicklow looks at Jack. "There's nothing in any of the papers about the letter the elemental dropped, or of the sea-gull."
"Why not?" Jack says, "We told the inspector in Breakwater about them."
Wicklow shrugs. "Maybe he's keeping his mouth shut." He puts his hand on the paper and taps it with one finger. "The papers will find out sooner or later."
A waiter approaches their table with a silver tray. Upon the tray are three letters. One is addressed to Wicklow, one to Jack and Wicklow, and one to Wicklow of GMI. Jack takes the letters from the tray.
The letter to Wicklow is from Jonathan Loadstone of the Special Equipment store in Stigmata Square, inviting him to come down and look at some night vision goggles. The letter to Jack and Wicklow is from the Witch's Brew Inn inviting them to come and have a free lunch in honor of their recent accomplishments. The letter to GMI is from the Duke, encouraging them to go into town to the Witch's Brew for lunch, and to leave Quahiri and Jezel behind.
In the late morning, Quahiri and Jezel wave goodbye to Jack and Wicklow as they board a cab in the courtyard of the Palace Guest Quarters. The cab trundles across the gravel driveway and out through the gates. The two women turn and walk out into the Guest Court, with its lawns and gardens.
"I think the Duke is going to come and talk to us while they are away," Quahiri says.
"You do?" Jezel says. "Did you tell Wicklow?"
"Why not? What are we going to say to the Duke?"
"I can speak to him. He knows Latin. I will ask him questions. He will ask me questions. I will tell the truth. Maybe he will tell the truth."
They stop at the edge of the croquet field. This curious game with mallets, wooden balls, and hoops, is one they enjoy playing in their own fasion, but not the way the sapiens like to play it, with so many rules and long turns where everyone else has to sit down and drink their drinks. But there are no other people on the field now. Jezel walks quickly to the shed where the gardener keeps the mallets.
After a game of croquet, sandwiches on the lawn, and another game of croquet with two small, smiling men from a country called Neon, the women are sitting in the shade staring at the gravel driveway.
"I'm bored," Jezel says.
Quahiri ignores her.
"Let's go find those little guys and flirt with them," Jezel says, "I think they liked us. When the men come back, they'll see us with the little guys and be jealous."
"No," Quahiri says.
"You're getting cranky," Jezel says, "You need to have some fun."
"Shut up, Jezel," Quahiri says, "You go flirt with the men from Neon. I'm waiting here. I'm the chief's daughter, and I have important business."
Jezel laughs. "Ha! You're sulking because the Duke didn't come to see you aren't you?"
Quahiri stares at the gravel path.
Jezel sighs. "I know what you need, chief's daughter."
Quahiri stands up and tips her chair over. "Shut up!"
Jezel bares her teeth in a smile. "Calm down Quahiri, you're making a scene."
Quahiri walks away and sits at another chair. Jezel watches her staring at the gravel path. She folds her arms. I'm still bored, she says to herself. A young woman in a searvant's uniform sets the over-turned chair upright and bows to Jezel.
"Can I help you?" she says in Latin.
Jezel looks at the young woman's face, her black skirt, and her bare ankles.
"Maybe," Jezel says.
Cart wheels roll up the gravel driveway. A cab trundles through the gate and stops. Jack and Wicklow step out. They are smiling. Jack walks towards Jezel.
Jezel sits up and thrusts out her chest. "You're just in time," she says in orcish.
Jack stops. "For what?"
"To stop me dragging this pretty creature into the bushes."
Jack looks at the searvant. "Is there a problem?" He says in Latin.
"No sir," the woman says, "I was offering Lady Jezel my services."
Jack frowns. "What services?"
Jezel laughs. She stands up and hugs Jack. "I'm just teasing you, baby. Send her away."
"You may go," Jack says, "Thank you for your patience."
"Yes sir," the woman says. She turns and walks away.
Wicklow walks to the place Quahiri is sitting. She stands to greet him. "Was your lunch good?"
"Yes," Wicklow says. He has a big smile on his face, which means he is happy. "We had lunch with the Duke! At the Witch's Brew Inn they showed us to a private room and the Duke came in and sat down with us. That was the real reason they invited us, because the Duke told them to. He is friends with the landlord."
Quahiri stares at him. Wicklow looks around to see if anyone is listening. He sees no-one, but lowers his voice all the same.
"The Duke asked us if we would kill Nader for him and we said no. He asked again, we said no. He said good, he was checking to see if we were enemies of Nader."
Qhairi stares at the ground.
Wicklow claps his hands. "So the Duke does not suspect us any more. He suspects Nader."
Quahiri is still staring at the ground.
Wicklow frowns. "What's the matter?"
Jessica kneels in Loose Lips's prow at the base of the bowsprit. The ship is moving nicely through the water, tacking north-west across a south-westerly breeze. Bonita is at the helm. Bonita is a fine sailor, but Jessica is waiting for her to order the jib sail raised, because this will give the ship more speed.
Jessica uses one hand to shield her eyes from the sun and watches an unnatural flying object three hundred meters away above the water. The unnatural flying object is Hocus's Flying Bench. Jessica's husband Stanley is on the bench with Hocus. The bench is suspended by short ropes from a metal contraption. The contraption holds up the bench, but the bench has a habit of swinging wildly beneath the contraption whenever Hocus turns into the wind. The two men are loosely constrained by a rope across their tummies, but Jessica has ridden the Flying Bench herself, and she is sure that the rope would not stop a person sliding off the bench if it swung too far.
She looks behind her and to starboard. A three-masted pirate vessel is following them.
The intrepid Loose Lips is tacking as close to the south-westerly wind as she can, but the pirate vessel is closing the distance between them steadily. Loose Lips is laden with barrels of water for Magabe. The pirate vessel has sleek lines and is ligthly laden. Dozens of sailors climb its shrouds and manage its many triangular sails. Nobody on Loose Lips knows the name of the boat. It is not the Cosmos. It is not the Sea Wolf. It is a three-masted ship with a solid, orange, square flag flying from the main mast.
Jessica turns to look at the sky. It takes her a few seconds to find the Flying Bench again. It rises on an up-draft and drifts between two small islands forward and to port. It stops for a while, rocks, and rises.
"Tacking to port!" Bonita calls.
Jessica crouches in the prow. The little ship's single mast is only three meters behind her. Sallina and Garibaldi prepare the main sail. Bonita spins the wheel and Loose Lips turns to port. The sail goes slack. The wind blows straight down the length of the ship. The boom along the bottom side of the triangular main-sail swings across the deck. The sail fills. Sallina pulls a rope tight. Garibaldi stares up at the sail and pulls on another. The wind blows on Jessica's right cheek and Loose Lips leans over to port.
"We're heading for the channel between those two islands!" Heraklese says.
"Look sharp in the prow, Jessica," Bonita says, "Watch the bottom. Pilot me through!"
Jessica shouts back down the boat, "Aye, aye first mate! Watching the bottom." If the channel between the islands is shallow enough and winding enough, the larger ship will be unwilling to follow them. Perhaps that's why Bonita did not raise the jib. She did not want to have to lower it again when they came into the channel. Jessica stares ahead at the channel It is five hundred meters away, and Loose Lips is moving at roughly two meters per second. They will be there in a few minutes. She would have had plenty of time to lower the jib. She shakes her head and looks back at the pirate ship. It is holding its course, but it will not catch them before they reach the channel.
The channel runs between two cliffs, with a confusion of fallen boulders in the water. Jessica watches the rocks and the color of the water. Garibaldi stares into the water also. Sallina stands with her hand upon rail, leaning out to starboard.
The wind drops in the channel. The sail relaxes and the boat rights itself.
"Five degrees to port!" Jessica calls.
"Steering five degrees to port!" Bonita answers.
The boat turns. Its momentum carries it forward, past a towering underwater boulder. The wind picks up in the sail and the boat leans over.
"Thirty degrees to starboard!"
Steering thirty degrees to port!"
The bottom of the channels rises up towards the boat. But it does not break the surface ahead of them, and the waves are not curling over, so the depth cannot be less than a couple of meters. Even laden with water, Loose Lips sits no more than one and a half meters down in the water. They should make it through easily.
"Steady as she goes!" Jessica calls.
"Drop sail!" Bonita says.
Sallina moves the boom over the boat and the sail goes slack. The boat drifts forwards.
Jessica can see the pebbly bottom of the channel clearly, sliding by just an arm's length beneath the keel of the boat. The bottom drops away again, and the channel widens on either sides. The island to port comes to an end. Another channel joins their own, and two more islands are visible to port. The channel widens farther, and now they find themselves on the eastern end of a circle of open water, a little over a kilometer across, with small islands on all sides.
"Prepare to tack to starboard!" Bonita calls.
Sallina loosens her rope. Garibladi looks up from the water and puts his hand upon the boom.
And so Loose Lips enters the deeper water in the middle of seven islands. Jessica looks back and to starboard. There is no sign of the pirate ship.
"Where are the pirates?" she says loudly.
Heraklese talks onto a box he keeps by a chain around his neck. He puts the box to his ear and listens. He looks at Jessica. "They didn't follow us. They tacked north-west and are dropping sail on the other side of that island on our right."
Heraklese still talks about left and right instead of port and starboard. But he's the captain, and she knows what he means.
"Drop sail!" Bonita says.
Loose Lips drifts forward. Jessica looks down into the clear water. Several large, brightly-colored fish flash by in the sunlight ten meters below the surface. She has never seen fish like them. They are yellow and black and orange.
She stands up and looks at the sky, hoping to see the Flying Bench. She is glad the pirates have not followed them. She takes a deep breath. She and Stanley are being paid ten guineas extra per day for this trip to Magabe. Heraklese called it "danger money". Jessica accepted because she felt safer going on a dangerous mission with Loose Lips than she did staying behind on Mizzen Island waiting for Loose Lips to come back. Stanley accepted because he did not want to admit to anyone that he was frightened.
Stanley is worried that he is a coward, Jessica thinks. She can't find him and Hocus in the sky. Where have they got to? But Stanley is not a coward. Stanley thinks that a coward is someone who gets frightened, but he's wrong. A coward is someone who runs when they are frightened. People who don't get frightened when they are in danger are not brave, they're just stupid. And that's what worries Jessica about people like Hocus and Martha. They think they're just sailing along in a story-book. On their way down to Tankum Island the first time, Hocus really wanted to meet some pirates. Why? Because he wanted to show off his spells in front of Martha and get his picture in Adventuring Wizard. Or maybe it was not even showing off or getting famous, it was that he wanted to get into a fight with pirates for the fun of it, which was even worse.
So far, Hocus was still alive, and so was Martha, and they showed no sign of thinking that they were in any trouble, even now, with a three-masted pirate ship after them, on their way to deal with a vicious, diamond-dealing war-lord.
"What the hell is that?" Heraklese says. The boat turns slightly to port, but Jessica does not see Bonita move the wheel. Heraklese is leaning over the port rail, staring into the water. Jessica looks down the side of the boat. There, in the mid-afternoon sunlight, are three or four of those huge, brightly-colored fish. They are pressed up against the hull, a meter below the water-line. They are stuck on like lamprays, but they are far too large and fat to be lamprays.
"Listen!" Garibaldi says.
They listen. There is a crunching sound from below decks, running up through the side of the ship.
"They are chewing through the hull!" Heraklese says. He picks up his speaking box and talks into it.
"Raise the main-sail!" Bonita calls.
"Raising the main sail!" Sallina calls.
Sallina releases the boom. The main sail swings out to starboard and the boat leans over as the wind fills the stiff fabric.
"Hoist the jib!" Bonita calls.
Jessica cups her hands around her mouth and shouts down the boat. "Hoisting the jib!"
She pulls the jib sail out of its box and spreads it out. She reaches over the prow and releases a rope from the bowsprit. The ties the rope to one corner of the jib sail. Garibaldi comes forward to help her. He pulls the jib out of the box and hands Jessica the front corner. The front corner has a rope tied to it already. She fastens the rope to the bowsprit, where there is a cleat for the purpose.
"There are more on this side!" Martha says.
Martha is leaning over the starboard rail, looking down into the water.
"Ready," Garibaldi says.
Jessica looks away from Martha. Garibaldi is holding the third corner of the jib in one hand. Jessica releases a rope at the base of the mast and pulls on it. The top corner of the jib starts to rise up off the deck. The rope runs up the mast to a pully, and back down to the top corner of the jib.
"Where's that rope and grapnel?" Martha says.
"I'll get it," Sallina says.
The jib is half-way up, but already it fills with the wind and snaps out to starboard. Jessica pulls hard on the rop to raise the sail into place. Garibaldi stands next to her, holding the third corner.
There is a thump at the back of the boat. The Flying Bench has landed on the aft deck, just in front of Bonita and the wheel. Stanley jumps off the bench and holds it by a rope. Hocus pulls a lever and air hisses into his contraption. Hocus gets up from the bench. Bonita leans over to keep her head low. Stanley lets the rope out through his hands and the Flying Bench rises up behind the aft deck. He ties the rope to a cleat on the aft rail and the Flying Bench waves from side to side, held down and towed along by the ship. In the water below the Flying Bench is Loose Lips's rowboat, also towed along by a rope.
Stanley makes his way forward. He waves at Jessica and leans over the side, staring into the dark shadow of the boat. Martha points. Stanley nods.
Jessica tugs on the jib sail rope as hard as she can. She cleats it off at the base of the mast. She nods to Garibaldi. He walks back down the deck and ties the third corner to the starboar rail. The jib fills out perfectly and the ship leans farther over to starboard.
"That makes it harder to get them!" Martha says. She is looking back at Bonita. Bonita frowns.
Hocus is talking to Heraklese.
Sallina comes up from below with a rope and grapnel. She gives the grapnel to Martha. Martha crosses to the port side, where the sun is shining upon the exposed hull of the ship. She swings the rope and tosses the grapnel into the water beside the prow. Jessica leans over the port rail to watch the metal hooks shining in the water and drifting down beneath the boat. The brightly-colored fish are pushing themselves against the hull. They are enormous: two meters long at least Jessica can hear them crunching upon the wood. What kind of fish are these? What kind of teeth do they have? She has heard stories of fish that eat boats, but she never believed them.
Martha pulls hard on the grapnel. It flashes through the water and sticks fast among the colored fish.
"Got one!" Martha says.
She leans back and pulls upon the rope with both hands. Garibaldi stands beside her. One of the fish separates from the others. The grapnel is stuck in its side. It darts away from the boat.
"Oh!" Martha says. The fish pulls her forward towards the rail.
Garibaldi takes hold of the rope with both hands and slide sit along the rail to a cleat. The fish swims at the end of the rope for a few seconds. It pushes down into the water and the grapnel hook comes free of its body. A chunk of blue and green flesh floats in the water and disappears behind the boat. The fish dives down into the depths.
There was something strange about the lump of flesh. Jessica watches Martha pull the grapnel out and throw it into the water beside the prow.
"Tack to port!" Bonita calls.
Jessica hurries across the deck to untie the jib. The boat turns up into the wind. The main sail swings across the deck. Jessica cleats the jib to the port rail. It fills out and flaps in the wind. She loosens the rope and cleats it again. The boat leans to port and heads south across the wind.
The port side of the boat is now in shadow, and the starboard side is lit by the afternoon sun. Martha climbs the deck to the starboard rail. For the first time, Jessica sees that Stanley and Heraklese have been trying to push the fish off the starboard side with long poles. When Martha reaches the starboard rail, the two men pull their poles out of the water and move aside.
Bonita and Hocus are talking beside the wheel. Hocus points across the water to an island. Bonita nods. Jessica looks across the water at the island. It is covered with forest. There is a short, sandy beach and an inlet. The island appears to be one or two kilometers wide. A steep hill rises behind the beach to a hight of a few hundred meters. The rocky top of the hill stands out above the forest.
Hocus leaves the aft deck and comes forward to speak to Heraklese. They talk together rapidly. Sallina stands nearby and listens.
Martha pulls on her grapnel. It comes free. She shakes her head and throws it again.
"Attention!" Heraklese calls. "We're going to run the boat aground on that beach." He points to the forested island. "Garibaldi, get below and see to the hull of the ship."
"Aye, aye, captain!" Garibaldi says.
"Sallina and Stanley, go below and bring up four swords, four bows, and as many arrows as you can carry."
"Aye, aye, captain!"
"Jessica, man the sails. Martha and I will attack the fish."
Jessica's heart is pounding. They are going to beach the boat? That must mean that Hocus can do nothing about the fish. He has no spell that will protect them. If they don't run aground, they will sink. She puts her ear to the ship's rail. She hears the sound of teeth gnawing on the hull, and the heavy bodies of the fish beating upon the timbers.
"Take down the jib!" Bonita says.
"Aye, aye, first mate!" Jessica says.
Jessica gets her foot tangled in one of the jib ropes and trips over. Her hands are trembling. Stanley comes up and dumps swords and arrows into an open box in the middle of the deck. He sees her with the rope around her leg. He ducks under the boom and comes forward to help her. Together they lower the jib.
"Jib sail is down!" Jessica says. She hugs Stanley and he squeezes her tight.
"What are those fish?" Jessica says. "They have no blood! I saw Martha pull a lump of flesh off one of them, but there was no blood in the water."
"Hocus calls them lampray incubi. He says they are not ordinary fish."
"Isn't there anything he can do to stop them?"
Stanley shakes his head and looks across the water at the beach. "I guess not."
"Tack to starboard!" Bonita cries.
Jessica lets go of Stanley and moves back along the deck and around the main sail.
"Snap to it, sailors!"
"Aye, aye, first mate!"
Sallina dumps four bows and dozens of arrows into the open box. She watches Jessica untie the boom and prepare to swing it across the deck. Sallina ducks. Bonita spins the wheel and the ship heads up into the wind.
Half a minute later, Loose Lips is sailing straight towards the beach, which is only five hundred meters away. Jessica looks to starboard between two islands to the north. The three-masted pirate ship is out beyond the two islands. Its sails are slack. It seems to be holding in the water and watching them. Did the pirates know about these lampray creatures? Is that the real reason they did not follow Loose Lips into these enclosed waters?
"Stanley," Heraklese says, "As soon as we're on the sand, I want you over the starboard side in the water with Hocus. Grab a sword."
Stanley reaches into the open box. Jessica sees his hand shaking.
"Martha and I will go over the port side," Heraklese says, "Chop at the incubi until they let go. Garibaldi, go down into the hold right now and try to do something from inside to stop the incubi. Sallina, string a bow and take a shot in the water at them if you can. Jessica be ready to drop sail at Bonita's command." He smiles at her. "Don't worry. Everything is going to be okay. We'll get to spend some time on a nice beach."
Jessica crouches beside the starboard rail near the back of the boat. Her hand rests upon the rope that pulls the main sail into the wind. The sail curves out over the starboard rail, with the boom only a meter from the waves. She stares forward at the sandy beach only a hundred meters away.
Stanley ducks under the boom and comes quickly down the rail towards her. He has an un-sheathed cutlass in one hand. His face is pale. He leans down and kisses her cheek. There is cold sweat upon his foreahead. He looks in her eyes.
"I love you," he says.
She holds his shirt-tail with one hand. "Don't go."
"I have to jump over-board."
"They're just fish, Stanley."
Bonita calls out from the ship's wheel a short distance behind Jessica. "Drop sail!"
Jessica lets go of Stanley's shirt. She loosens the rope. The main sail pushes further out to starboard, shedding the wind. The boat rolls upright and the sail goes slack. Stanley walks forwards. Jessica can hear the waves breaking ahead of them. She listens for the sound of sand scraping upon the hull.
Garibaldi's voice rises from the hold of the ship. "Breach in the port hull! Water coming in!"
The boat shivers. Jessica lurches forwards. The hull hisses across the sandy bottom. The prow rises. It slides four meters over the sand before the boat stops. Jessica stands up.
"Raise the boom!" Bonita says.
Hocus jumps into the water on the starboard side. His sword flashes in the sunlight. Stanley jumps in after him, his cutlass held high. Martha and Heraklese jump together over the port rail. Jessica hears them splash into the water. As she pulls on the rope that raises the boom, she hears them shouting to one another.
"The ones in the shallow water first," Martha says.
They go forward along the hull.
There is a violent convulsion of water on the starboard side. Stanley calls out in surprise. Hocus speaks to him. There is more splashing.
Bonita says, "Throw the shrouds over the starboard side. I'll do the port side."
Jessica opens a box on the starboard rail and pulls out a coiled, heavy lattice of climbing rope. She drops it over the side and looks down. Hocus and Stanley are chest-deep in water, stabbing down at the two-meter, fat fish that press against the boat. She can feel the splintering of wood through the hull. Stanley stabs one of the fish. It breaks away from the pack and surges through the water towards him.
Jessica grips the rail.
Stanley stumbles to one side. The yellow and black fish scrapes past him. It turns and surges towards him again. Hocus pulls Stanley to his feet and thrusts his sword into the water. The fish pushes them both, but does not collide with them.
Hocus looks at Stanley's face. He points up at the deck and says something. Stanley answers.
"Go!" Hocus says, "Now!"
Stanley grabs the shroud and climbs up onto the deck. Jessica stands back to let him come aboard. He wipes seawater from his face with his sword arm. He looks down at her.
She is about to ask him if he is okay when she sees movement at the top of the beach. A giant comes smashing through the trees, waving a club. He roars. There are other giants crashing through the trees. They are not roaring, they are shouting. Their rusty armor, wich is made of connected plates, clatters and scrapes.
Jessica sits down on one of the deck boxes, her eyes wide. Stanley turns and stares.
"We're under attack!" Bonita shouts, "Enemies on the beach!"
There are ten giants coming from different directions, but all converging upon the boat. They are three meters tall. They burst out of the trees and onto the beach. Their feet sink into the sand. Their clubs have metal spikes sticking out in all directions. They wear rusty, crude, helmets, except for one of them in the middle, who has a shiny copper helmet with horns on either side. Stuck on top of the copper helmet is a human skull.
Stanley's cutlass falls from his hand and he crouches beside the ship's rail. He is facing away from her, but she hears him make some kind of whimpering noise.
There is a flash of light on the beach, followed by a loud crack. Hocus has used one of his flash spells. The ogres stop running. They stand in the sand looking at the boat. The ogre with the shiny helmet shouts a nasty-sounding word. He charges down the beach. The others follow.
"Oh no," Jessica says, "The spell didn't work."
Heraklese clambers over the port rail. He sticks his sword into the deck and pulls Martha up behind him.
"They're ogres," Martha says. "Don't let them get on the boat!"
"Garibaldi!" Heraklese shouts at the top of his voice. "Get up here now. Bring your axe! Bonita! Grab a cutlass and go below. Stab the incubi where they chew through.""
Jessica looks up at the sail. Is there any way to get the boat off the sand? No, there's no way.
Jessica takes two steps towards Stanley. He stands up. There is a brown stain at the back of his trousers. He has defecated in fear. She reaches down and picks up his cutlass. Without looking back at her, he takes it in one hand.
Three ogres have stopped moving. They are not moving at all. One is floating side-ways above the sand. Another is leaning over backwards. They appear to be struggling with invisible bonds. At the sight of this, the other ogres stop again. Even the one with the skull-helmet stops to look. But he does not stop for long. With another shout, he charges forwards.
Hocus is climbing up the shrouds on the starboard side. Stanley drops his cutlass for a second time and helps Hocus over the edge.
Hocus turns immediately towards the ogres and says a word to himself. He walks towards the front of the boat. Martha sheaths her sword and picks up a bow. Sallina has cocked an arrow and is taking aim. Garibaldi comes up the stairs, his axe in his hand.
"I'm going to get Stephanix," Heraklese says, and goes below.
"Stephanix!" Jessica says. She grabs Stanley's arm. "Stephanix will save us."
Stanley does not answer.
The ogres are splashing through the water towards the prow of the boat. They are only twenty meters from where Jessica stands upon the deck. She can see the bristles on their gray, leathery skin. Their mouths are wide, with small tusks. Their eyes are large, with slits for pupils.
Sallina and Martha fire at two ogres approaching the port side. The ogre with the skull-helmet raises spumes of water on his way the prow. Garibaldi runs forward and raises his axe. Two other ogres on the port side appear to have their hands and clubs frozen in place.
Two ogres splash through the water on the starboard side. Stanley reaches into the weapons box and takes out a bow and a quiver. The ogre with the skull-helmet reaches the prow. He swings his enormous club at Garibaldi. Garibaldi steps to one side. The club smashes into the starboard rail. Garibaldi swings his axe at the ogre's shoulder. The blade clangs against the ogre's armor.
Martha and Sallina fire again. Their two targets fall into the water. Stanley draws his arrow back. He takes aim at the ogres on the starboard side. His hand is shaking. He fires the bow, but his arrow goes wide, and lands in the water. The two ogres turn around and start running up the beach.
The ogre with the skull-helmet smashes another piece off the starboard rail. Garibaldi swings his axe far out, over the ogre's head, and brings the blade down into the ogre's back. The blade meets the armor plates with a chiming sound. The ogre stares straight ahead. He drops his club. It splashes in the water. Garibaldi tugs his axe free. The ogre slips down the side of the ship.
Jessica sinks to her knees. She feels weak. There are several ogres running away towards the trees. Stanley puts his bow and arrow back in the box. He walks forwards and stands behind Hocus.
"Shall I follow them?"
Hocus turns and laughs. "No, don't follow them. But we'd better get the injured ones out of the water before they drown."
Heraklese arrives on deck with Stephanix. The short, sandy, demon hops across the deck to Hocus. Hocus speaks to it in Latin. Stephanix jumps off the ship and into the water. Jessica has no idea what they are doing, nor does she care. She sits on the deck, puts her head in her hands, and starts to cry. Soon she feels Stanley sitting beside her. He puts his arm around her.
"Don't worry darling. We're perfectly safe."
Jessica leans against him. After a moment, she says, "You stink."
"I know. I shat my pants. I'd better go below and change before anybody notices, or they'll make fun of me forever."
"You were brave, though, you shot at the ogres."
Jessica sits up and laughs. She waves her hand in front of her nose. "Maybe you'd better go and change." She stands up. "I can't believe we're still alive."
Stephanix, Garibaldi, and Hocus are pulling a third ogre up to the edge of the waves. With great effort, they manage to pull the huge, armored, creature two-thirds of the way out of the water. Sallina bends over another ogre with an arrow in its neck. Martha holds the ogre's head. Sallina pulls the arrow out. The ogre does not move. All three of the ogres look as if they are dead.
"What on Clarus are they doing?" Jessica says.
Stanley stands up and watches the events on the beach. "Sallina is binding the ogre's wounds. The ogres are in some kind of shock. That's what hellspawn do when they are badly wounded. Do you remember Hocus telling us about Ugluk after the Battle of Tankum Island?"
Jessica shakes her head.
"It happened to him. I expect they are going to try to save the ogres."
"Ask them, why don't you. Go help them." He heads for the door that leads below. "I'm going to change while nobody is looking."
Stanley goes down the stairs. When he reaches the bottom, Jessica hears Heraklese greet him.
"Are you okay? Hey, what's that smell?"
An hour after the fight with the ogres, the lampray incubi have been driven off with cutlasses and spears. Stabbing them from the inside of the boat proved particularly effective in driving them off. Garibaldi has secured solid pieces of wood over the breaches in the hull. By manning the two brass bilge bumps, the sailors have emptied most of the water out of the hull.
According to Bonita, the tide on this beach is roughly half a meter, and it will be high tide in another hour. Heraklese and Bonita are discussing how they might unload water barrels from the boat so that she will float off the sand, and then load the water barrels again.
The three wounded ogres lie in the sun on the beach with the waves soaking their legs. Their eyes are closed. They do not move.
The three-masted pirate boat sailed away soon after the fight with the ogres, although nobody saw it go.
Hocus launches his space bridge thruster. Stanley sits beside him, wearing a clean pair of trousers. Together, they fly over the island. They see no sign of habitation. But on the island immediately to the south they see smoke. They circle above the smoke and look down upon a steep rock face and a forest of broad-leafed trees. There are caves in the rock face. A fire burns in a clearing. Simple lean-to shelters rest against various trees. Ogres walk beneath the branches. There are small ogres, too. They have the same gray skin.
"Chilren," Hocus says, "This must be their village."
"How did they get to the island of the beach?" Stanley says.
The fly over the channel between the islands. The shores of the channel are a confusion of tumbled boulders, except where the channel is at its narrowest. Stanley points at a long, thin shadow beneath the water. The shadow spans the narrowest part of the channel. "There's a causeway beneath the water. And look, there are hardly any boulders around. The ogres must have used the boulders to make the causeway."
Hocus nods. "Okay. I think you're right." He turns the thruster and points it towards the boat. "We'd better get back. High tide will be soon."
When they land upon Loose Lips's aft deck, Martha is there to greet them.
"I went with Stephanix to take a look under the trees above the beach," she says.
"On your own?" Hocus says.
"No, I took Stephanix."
Hocus frowns. "What if there had been more ogres in there?"
"Stephanix and I would have killed them. Better to smoke them out than have them ambush us later."
Hocus ties the thruster to the aft rail. "Well, it's done. What did you find?"
"Two wrecks. One of a ten-meter boat about a year old, and another of a twenty-meter boat about two years old. The boats had been dragged up the beach into the forest, and they are smashed up, but there's a lot of good wood there still."
Stanley rubs his chin. "This is their business. This is how they survive." He looks at Hocus. "They wait for a boat to be attacked by the incubi. Not too big a boat. They cross the causeway from their village. They must do it every day so they will be ready when the boat comes."
Heraklese walks up and leans against the mast stay.
"If they waited for a boat," Stanley says, "and then crossed the causeway, we would see them and turn away." He points to the trees. "I think they wait every day in there, and they have been doing it every day for a year since the last time they captured a boat."
Martha looks at the trees. "Wow. Every day. That's a dull life."
"Some pirate boat must be bringing them food," Hocus says. "Which they buy with gold they stole from the last boat they captured."
"No wonder they were so determined," Stanley says, "Even when Hocus was flashing them and sponging them. Their children are hungry."
"Most likely," Hocus says, "And we would have been first on the menu."
Hocus looks over the side of the boat. "So, how are we going to get ourselves off the sand?"
Two hours later, at 5 pm, the tide is high. It has risen 20 cm above the level when the boat ran aground. Garibaldi, Stanley, and Stephanix the demon pull down with their full weight upon a lever made out of a spar. The lever passes over a fulcrum made out of planks nailed together and under the prow of the ship. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew, with the exception of Hocus, pull on a rope and tackle attached to the main mast and the ship's two anchors, which are off the stern in the deeper water. Hocus walks about the deck with piece of paper and a pencil, looking into the water and talking to himself about numbers and weights and friction. [See Item 2 here for his calculations].
"Pull!" Hocus says.
"All right," Martha says, "We're pulling."
The ship does not shift. Hocus scratches his head. A wave comes to shore, a particularly large one by the standards of the day, about half a meter high. As it passes around the ship, the deck shifts. There is a hissing beneath the boat. Hocus looks over the side.
The lever comes loose from under the prow as the ship slides down the beach. Garibaldi and Stanly land on the sand. Stephanix splashes in the water, still holding the spar. The rope and tackle fall slack. The boat slides three, four, five meters down the beach, and it is floating freely upon the water.
"Hooray!" the crew shouts.
They gather up their carpentry, climb aboard, weigh anchor, set sail, and tack away from the island. The pirate ship is nowhere to be seen. The open water stretches ahead of them. On the beach they left behind, three ogres lie on the sand above the reach of the waves. They are unconcious. Their heart beats have risen again. The skin around their wounds his hot.
The incubi do not attack Loose Lips again, and a steady wind of 22 kph out of the north-east carries them towards the west coast of the Satian Sea. They sail past a few islands that day, but stay well clear of them. Jessica cooks a fine meal and they celebrate their escape from three adversaries in one day: the incubi, the ogres, and the beach. They sail through the night. Bonita's charts show no islands for hundreds of kilometers ahead of them.
The next day the sky is clear. They sight land at 3 pm. Hocus ascends in the thruster and locates Magabe 10 km to the south. The sun shines brightly upon the isolated port and the barren hills behind it.