Ysilde woke from nightmare with a cry. She opened her eyes wide and sat up suddenly. Her brother caught her.
“Easy, sis,” Tybald tan Throg told her. “Calm.”
“I’m here. You’re safe. Try and relax.” The young lordling passed the girl a water-flask. “Drink some of this. Sip.”
Ysilde splashed the water into her mouth. Her lips and tongue were dry.
Tybald watched to make sure she was being sensible with the flask but didn’t say anything until she had drunk what she needed.
The sixteen year old maiden looked round the room. “Where are we?” she asked. She felt the whole chamber sway. “Are we in a boat?”
“Yes. A steam-wheeler on the Amazonis Sea. We left port three days ago, in quite a hurry. You’ve been asleep all that time.”
Memories started to come back to Ysilde nim Loret. “I was in the Cathedral of the Silent Sisters! The Brides of Night were there. And… the Sorcerer of Night himself came for me?”
“That’s right. We pulled you out of there, me and some friends. Allies. Friends, I think.”
The maiden’s eyes widened. “Out of the Cathedral? How is that possible?”
“They’re remarkable friends. You met them briefly. General Blackthorn, a warrior from old Earth reborn in new flesh, the sorceress Princess Aria, and Oglok, who is an atypically warlike Mock-man. Only last time they came to rescue you, you ran away to the Sisters of Silence.”
“Why would I do that?” Ysilde asked. She could hardly tell Tybald what David Morningstar had planned and why she’d had to face the ordeal of the ritual. Her brother would not understand.
“I don’t know. The Brides of Night can beguile and hypnotise. Maybe that was it. You’re free now. We slipped away amidst the commotion of an explosion, while the Sorcerer of Night was… distracted. We’d already commissioned a fast boat out of Hyblaos harbour. By now we’re almost at the Wayward Islands, what the old maps called Brontes.”
The girl pushed her tangled blonde hair away from her face. “I don’t really understand what’s happened,” she confessed.
“Don’t think about it for now. You’re safe and away from that terrible place. Since you’re awake Aria’s going to want to examine you some more though. She wants to check what those rituals were that the Sisters were trying, and to make sure there’s no residual compulsions on you to go back to them.”
Ysilde wasn’t too keen on the sorceress examining her, but she had to show willing.
Aria was on the deck outside the main cabin where Ysilde had lain in troubled sleep for three days and nights. In that time the steam-wheeler had shunted away from
the fog-swathed Elysium shore. Now it was on the high seas under a turbulent crosswind that broke spuming waves over the prow. The fifth Martian season of windtide, between fall and winter, was a time of gales and storms. The rough weather fascinated the princess.
She came in though when Tybald called, and quickly shooed the lord’s son out of the cabin. She sat on Ysilde’s bed and looked at the maiden critically. “Welcome back to the land of the living,” Aria said. “Literally.”
“Thank you for the rescue,” the girl replied politely.
“Now listen carefully, because there’s some things I need to explain to you. While you were in the Cathedral of the Sisters some things were done to you. Rituals. Complicated spells, some of which seem to have been started before you were even born. I can’t quite fathom them out yet.”
“I see. Well, at least you tried.”
“Oh, I’ll get there. The lack of my laboratory and not being able to dissect you handicap me, but it’s only a matter of time. Tell me, does the phrase Interlock Incantation mean anything to you? Or Transition Sacrifice?”
“I think… maybe the matron who was looking after me and some of the functionaries might have said it. What do they mean?”
“Can’t say yet, but I’m working on it. There are spells on you, Ysilde. Powerful, complex ones. A lien on your spirit, I’m afraid, which means if you die before we can break it your soul will get drawn back to the Lord of Night. A whole bunch of other things I haven’t done the math on yet.”
Ysilde tried not to shake. “Where are we going?” she ventured. “Tybald said we were on the Amazonis.”
“Yes. We’re on a dreary steam-wheeler, which is about the highest tech that Lord Erebus allows in his precious harbours. Fortunately we won’t on here for very long now.”
“We’re setting in at the Brontes?”
“No, we’re getting handed over to pirates. The captain of this junk-heap put sleeping draughts in our food this morning. John detected it immediately with the equipment in his combat pouches, but we pretended breakfast was delicious and we’ve been acting sleepy since. Judging by the toxin’s effect we should rendezvous with whoever’s buying us in a couple of hours tops.”
“Pirates?” Ysilde choked. “Because raiders and undead were not enough!”
“We needed to find some,” Aria confided. “Hiring a crooked captain who’d sell us out was the quickest way.”
“I don’t want to be captured by pirates.”
“I said we needed them, not that we were going to get caught by them. Oglok’s quite looking forward to it.”
Ysilde looked a lot like her brother when the world baffled her. “What do we, um, need to find pirates for, then, if I may ask?”
“You can ask, but there are a couple of problems,” answered the princess. “First one is that I can’t tell yet whether there’s monitoring enchantments on you. If so then the Sorcerer of Night could scry you, or see through your eyes and hear through your ears, or even read your mind perhaps. So there’s a good reason not to explain all our plans in your hearing.”
“I see. What else?”
“I don’t trust you.”
Outside, the lookout called a sail to larboard. The brigands had arrived.
The raider ship was sleeker and faster than the steam-wheeler. Its primary propulsion was wind, so it had three laden masts catching the brisk gale that buffeted the Amazonis, but it augmented that with a pair of grav-rods on each side to improve manoeuvrability. That meant that when the vessel wanted to run silent, emitting no energy signature that could be spotted or traced, it could rely solely on its complex sheeting. For actual combat it could sail circles round its prey with its powered equipment.
“A crew of around sixty, I’d say,” Blackthorn judged, passing the field glasses to Oglok. “Try not to hurt them.”
Oglok snarled something about what happened when you played with the big boys and went to fetch his vibra-hammer.
The steam-wheeler’s captain seemed disconcerted that his passengers intended to put up a fight. “There’s no way we can win against those marauders. If we try to resist they’ll kill us all. “ It sounded strangely rehearsed.
“Don’t worry,” Blackthorn confided in him, “they’re not our first pirates.”
“They’re my first pirates,” Tybald tan Throg admitted, “but I’m keen to learn.”
The captain shook his head. “It’s my ship’s at risk. I won’t have it. Stand down.”
“We can’t,” Blackthorn grinned. “Not after that delicious breakfast you served us.” His smile turned wolfish as he regarded the steam-wheeler’s crew. “For the record, I’m trying to do this with the minimum of casualties. But since I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve sold your passengers to these raiders I really don’t mind too much if you want to force the issue. Choose now.”
The sailors outnumbered Blackthorn and Tybald twelve-to-one. As the General powered up his Sword of Light it suddenly didn’t seem like enough.
The Earthman inspected his blazing weapon. “Hmm. Looks like she’s back to full power again at last, after her encounter with the Sorcerer of Night.”
Oglok returned to deck. The five-foot-long hammer he carried whined a little as he switched on the vibra-charge. The Mock-Man’s snarls were deep and guttural.
“My colleague reminds me that he expects a refund of our passage fee, Captain,” Blackthorn interpreted. “He says a prompt payment is best as having one’s head torn off often offends.”
The sailors began to discretely disappear off to attend to urgent ship’s duties. The Captain glanced at the approaching wind-skimmer and back at the determined men who commanded his foredeck.
“Tybald, you go with the Captain and get our money back, plus say a twenty percent inconvenience charge. Oglok, invite the entire crew of this wheezy bucket to assemble in the for’ard cargo bay. No exceptions. I don’t want to have to look over my shoulder when I’m already knee-deep in pirates. Have Aria do something clever with the seals there to keep the sailors in.”
“You cannot fight the pirates!” the Captain cried in near-despair.
“I don’t intend to fight them. Only to capture them and their ship and sail it to Tortugos.”
There was no good answer to that. Tybald grabbed the Captain by the scruff and steered him towards his cabin money-chest. Oglok herded the crew below-decks by the simple method of screeching in the face of everyone he got near until they fled. The only man who dared turn a weapon on him was carried to the for’ard hold by his mates.
The wind-skimmer was less than five minutes off. It had a rack of bolt-throwers along its side and a couple of swivel-mounted rapid-fire percussion guns. At short range they would be lethal.
Blackthorn strolled into the communications cabin and extracted the ship-to-ship radio. The same energies that maintained life and magic on Mars also inhibited long-range electromagnetic and arcane signals. Communication over anything more than three or four miles descended into nothing but static. Even the First Men had not overcome the problem. Fortunately the pirate ship was now in range.
“Hello, marauders of the sea,” Blackthorn called into the microphone. “This is General John Blackthorn. I’d like to speak to Captain Neremus Korzan.”
The fuzz of static persisted for long moments before a voice replied. “This is Captain Numar. I command the Casus Belli.”
“That’s very nice for you. I never said Korzan was aboard your ship. I said I want to speak to him. We met some months back. He’ll probably have healed up by now.”
“We have you in our sights. Do not resist as we come alongside and we will not destroy you.”
“What I want,” Blackthorn persisted, “is a ride to that great floating debris-island where you pirates hide out. I need to see Korzan. You are going to take me there.”
Numar chuckled. “You’ve got that part right, land-man.”
“And when I’ve seen Korzan, if you’re lucky I’ll give you back your ship.”
“What? Hold fast, madman. We’re coming alongside.”
Aria came to stand beside Blackthorn. “Having fun, John?”
“Playing at pirates,” the General told her. “Ysilde?”
“Ensorcelled so full I’m surprised she’s not leaking. I hope we can get some answers by tracing the money that paid for her kidnap, because I’ll be weeks working out what the Sorcerer of Night and his fan club did to her.”
“I thought you were supposed to be good, princess?”
“That is why it’ll only be weeks. Go and play with your pirates. They’re almost alongside.”
The Earthman lifted the radio mike to his lips once more. “Blackthorn here again. What a fine array of sea-dogs and salty scum you’ve got lining your poopdeck or whatever it is there. But I’ve got to say, coming this close and relying on your cannon leaves those expensive delicate grav-rails awfully exposed to counter-attack. Not to mention all that linen you’re flying.”
He raised his Hallows blade and projected a fireball right amongst the sails and rigging of Numar’s centre-mast. The wind-skimmer shook as burning canvas and bits of spar showered down on the crew standing ready for boarding.
Tybald and Oglok reappeared on deck. “Did you start without us?” the lord’s son complained. The Mock-Man growled that he’d been about to say that.
Blackthorn used his Sword’s laser mode to precisely shear through one of the relay couplings on the Casus Belli’s outermost grav-bar. The delicate equipment dropped at one end, splashing into the water.
“They’ll panic and fire on us next,” the General predicted. “Aria?”
“One ship-wide weapons malfunction as requested,” the princess agreed. For vessels that had no defence grid against arcane interference, a single sorceress could be lethal.
A couple of pirates cried out as their big weapons jammed and overloaded.
Oglok took a run up and leaped the sixty feet between the parallel ships. He landed on deck, hammer in hand, and began to deter the pirates from further combat.
“He’s going to get them all!” Tybald cried.
“Well, there is always that old trick where we swing across on ropes,” Blackthorn suggested.
Aria turned away with a sigh. “Boys!”
“Why would you want to go to Tortugos?” former-Captain Numar almost wailed as he surrendered the Casus Belli to her new command. “The Brotherhood doesn’t take well to strangers, especially not there.”
“But we’re pirates!” Tybald pointed out joyfully. “See? We’ve already captured two ships! We’re really good pirates!”
The battle had been brief. With major weapons jammed or disabled, upper sails in disarray, and an enthusiastic Mock-man loose on their decks, morale had dropped very quickly.
Ysilde looked at her brother with as much disbelief as the marauders. “Tybald, did you just capture a pirate ship?”
“Well, maybe a quarter of it,” the lord’s son told her with a flashing smile. “Now we’re sailing her to Tortugos!”