BLACKTHORN: SPIRES OF MARS
The online serial novel
by I.A. Watson
Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us
16. TORTUGOS' LAST STAND
Like the spectre it was, Vash-na-Koras’ Ghost Ship shifted through the fog. It did not disturb the choking roil that had settled round Tortugos after the storm. So thick was the cloying pea-souper that it was impossible to see that the sun had dipped to the horizon; but the undead could feel their eternal enemy setting and knew that their time had come.
General John Blackthorn awaited the galleon alone on the rickety wharf of the floating flotsam city. “Undead admiral,” he called across the water. “Under the rules of warfare, I’m giving you notice. We reject your demand. Your illegal presence here is not welcome. You and your fleet are required to withdraw to a distance of not less than fifty miles from this location and stay that far away. Any attempt to land or to use military or arcane force against this place or its people will be treated as an act of aggression and responded to with maximum force.”
The ship glided closer, drawing in alongside the jetty where the Earthman stood. Vash-na-Koras, who spoke for the unquiet Ghost Fleet, looked down from the quarterdeck with disdain and distaste on the lone human.
“Where I come from that’s called a fair warning,” Blackthorn concluded. “It’s the only one you get, buster. What’s your response?”
The wight turned to whip-wielding shadowmen that tormented the undead oarsmen to effort. “Fetch him to me!”
Blackthorn watched the dark shapes scrambling over the ship’s side, dropping to the jetty’s planking, skittering round to cover him on all sides.
He flashed a feral smile. “You know of course that this means war?”
The shadowmen lunged at him.
He vanished; or more properly the illusion of him that Princess Aria was projecting through the fog from the nearest crow’s nest of the ship-salvaged pirate refuge vanished. The real Blackthorn had spoken those real words, but not from where the human-shaped knots of undead energy now clustered.
“Hit it,” the General told Tybald.
The noble’s son pressed his hand onto the detonator’s plunger. The explosives he’d planted under the decking earlier – the explosives treated with thaumic charge by Blackthorn’s sorceress so they would interact with creatures of shadow and ectoplasm – ignited with a fog-dispersing boom.
The whole of Tortugos rocked and swayed. The creaking wharf that the Ghost Ship was alongside was reduced to matchwood splinters. The silver pieces-of-eight concealed beneath the planking shot out like silver bullets, spraying the undead.
The transparent vessel caught the blast sideways on. It keeled too far in the blast, its masts toppling, its rigging shredded to mere phantom mucous. The gout of flame seared through the ship, clinging like napalm across the creatures aboard. The solemn haunted galleon turned into a frantic shattered wreck, then dissolved into mere vapour that tangled with the dispersing mist and was lost.
Two or three of the strongest night creatures fell into the sea and were immersed in the choppy waters. Vash-na-Koras remained alone, hovering in bare air where he had previously trodden a deck, burning from the blast, wounded by the silver. His eyes burned with a vengeful wrath. He turned and vanished.
“I believe we got their attention, gentlemen,” Blackthorn announced to the captains who stood atop the ruined wheelhouse with him. “Weigh anchor now, if you’d be so kind.”
“Aye aye!” responded Captain Kenned enthusiastically. “And devil take the hindmost!”
The signal bells sounded from the watchtowers of Tortugas. Men ran to stations and hands cast off as the pirate fleet left port. Each ship carried green glass lanterns fore and aft to distinguish them further from the phantasmal enemy. Frightened weapons-masters made mistakes, and Blackthorn wanted no friendly fire accidents.
Oglok the Mock-man loped from pier to pier, making last minute checks on each ship. No vessel left port unless it was attached to one of the long drums of cable that had been laboriously reeled in the last twenty hours. It limited the corsairs manoeuvrability to three hundred feet or less from harbour, but they could still turn to aim their guns and to respond to the need of other ships.
Ysilde nim Loret ran after the beastling, skirts kilted, struggling to keep up. She insisted on the tour to check that the children placed as runners all knew their jobs and the stretcher bearers and fire-wardens were in place. A part of the maiden still couldn’t believe she was doing this, but her sterner self took charge, and like her mother and foremothers she steeled herself and those around her to face the foe.
“Signal from Korzan’s ship,” Tybald called to Blackthorn. “The Ghost Fleet are coming in. As if we couldn’t tell by the sudden chill.”
“Let’s hope I figured this right, then,” the General responded. “I hurt their Admiral’s pride. I hope wights have pride to hurt. Anyhow, he’ll want to restore the fear his fleet instils in humans, to give us chance to taste the fear in our mouths. He’ll bring his ships in close where we can see the grinning faces of the dead swarming the rails. He’ll let us take our shots to prove how useless our assaults are against a hundred and fifty phantom galleys. Only then will he slam the hammer down with deadly force.”
Oglok roared in anger and frustration. He gestured up, his signals agitated and hasty.
“We have a problem,” Tybald interpreted. “One of the ships has slipped its cable and is trying to break away. Captain Adaskas and the Seal. He’s set all sail and punched in turbines to move off.”
“Let him go,” Blackthorn answered grimly. “He’ll encourage the others.”
The General shook his head. The Seal had vanished into the fog, but even from shore the sudden screams of her sailors could be heard. A red ride frothed up to the moorings.
The princess watched the Ghost Fleet’s slow, inevitable approach through a telescope. “They’re in range now,” Aria judged.
Blackthorn nodded. “Tybald, have ‘em sound the first attack.”
A different peal was struck. Pirate ships and land defences alike turned their bolt-throwers on the phantasmal navy. Six foot whale-spears and barbed waterworm lances flew out to jam into spectral hulls. Each missile had more of the copper cable attached.
If the phantasmal fleet noticed the metal spikes were actually lodging in their barques they did not respond to it. At Vash-na-Koras’ command they closed upon Tortugos, shimmering into close range between the tethered pirate ships.
“They’re getting to attack position,” Blackthorn judged. “How many do we have linked?”
“No way to tell,” Aria judged. “Well, only the very practical one.”
A last minute doubt assailed the General. “Will this work?”
“Only one way to find out. If it helps, I think the Sword of Light is somehow as strong as you want it to be.”
Blackthorn snarled. “Oh, I want it to be strong.”
“Signal from Korzan,” reported Tybald. “The first Ghost Ships are at the chain.”
“Do or die, then,” Blackthorn decided. “Or un-die, I suppose.” He hefted the Sword of Light in his hand and shifted it to energy dagger configuration.
Aria shielded her eyes.
The dozens of barbs shot through the Ghost Fleet were all connected by cables that the sorceress had imbued with a mild arcane charge so they could interact with the ectoplasmic invaders. Those wires linked back to the pirate ships, and each ship in turn was tethered to the big cable-drums on the island itself. From those reels yet more wires twisted through the jumbled gangways of Tortugos until all culminated in a single metal frame on the operations deck where Blackthorn stood.
The General had noted that undead did not usually get on with his Hallows blade. Indeed, the Sword of Light seemed to exert additional energies sufficient to cleanse whatever undeath it encountered.
Blackthorn touched his glowing dagger to the network of wires and willed the energies to discharge.
The Sword of Light lit up the island and the sea beyond from horizon to horizon. The fog was boiled away. Copper and lead cables fizzed and melted as if lightning-struck. Primal energies seared through the web of wires spun by the desperate Tortugans, through their linked ships, through the underwater chains that hardly constrained the Ghost Fleet’s advance, through the metal bolts embedded in the invaders’ hulls.
The Hallows light slammed into the ships, burning and cleaning. Zombie rowers at their oars shuddered and exploded in gobbets of rot. Shadowmen and fleshmorts were shredded. Wight captains ignited, blazing and crackling as if strapped to electric chairs. Below decks a cabal of vampires awaiting the island assault screamed as they might under a midday sun. They flared and were gone.
Three quarters of the Ghost Fleet, all that was connected to the Hallows network, was stricken and destroyed. Plumes of sundered ectoplasm bubbled away like the fog before it.
The Sword of Light went out, its energies exhausted for now.
“It worked?” Tybald gasped, amazed. “It actually worked?”
“Not enough,” Aria judged. “There must be thirty or forty of their armada still out there and functioning. Two or three would probably be enough to take us.”
“It would,” agreed Blackthorn. “Signal the pirates. Order every captain to attack.”
“They won’t be able to harm the Ghost Ships now,” Tybald warned. “Even if the cables connecting them haven’t burned out they’d have to cast them off to go engage.”
“Signal the second attack,” commanded the General. “And tell them… Mars expects every man to do his duty.”
The message bells chimed again. Korzan shifted the Siren of Ammon to face the foe. Some of the other ships fell in behind him.
The Ghost Fleet backed away.
“They don’t know how we burned the rest,” Aria realised. “They think we can do it to them too.”
“They’re retreating!” Tybald shouted. “The ghosts are afraid of us!” He was not the only defender on the island or at sea to shout as much. Then he paused. “There’s still one ship coming in. Coming in fast.”
Blackthorn turned his field glasses on the vessel. “Vash-na-Koras,” he recognised. “Some people don’t know when its over.”
“Tell me about it,” muttered Aria, eyeing the Earthman.
Tybald tracked the phantom galleon. “They’re heading for the Bosun’s wharf! My sister’s there!”
“Not a coincidence, I think,” Blackthorn judged. “Right. Time to go repel boarders.” He jumped from the cabin roof and ran to meet the incoming ship. Tybald vaulted after him, drawing his vibra-blade.
Aria sighed and climbed after them both.
The last Ghost Ship loomed into the Bosun’s wharf – and kept coming!
Ysilde wanted to panic, but there wasn’t time. Too many other people were panicking and she had to get them out.
“Orderly evacuation!” she called to the woman and ancients who were helping at the hostelry-turned-hospital. “Noretta, get everybody out that way. Across the rigging bridge and through the brew-house, and then as far for here as can be. Don’t use the front way.”
Lady Loret’s daughter set her face. “Because that’s the way I’ll be going to face the ghosts.”
It was clear to the maiden that the ship had come for here. A part of her dreaded her inevitable return to the Sorcerer of Night. But if she did not go to him and become the Transition Sacrifice, if she did not enable the Interlock, then Morningstar could not usurp the First Men’s power and cast them down as they so much deserved!
Never mind that now. If I do not distract the undead these people will have no chance of escape. Ysilde lifted her skirts and hurried to the deck outside the Bosun’s Arms. These people look to me. I must protect them.
She halted at the threshold. A wave of horror washed over her. The rotting corpse-galleon was pressing in, through the very fabric of Tortugos, sailing through solid matter to draw to a halt right beside the tavern where she stood. A charnel stench warred with the sudden frost that formed on her flesh to overwhelm the maiden’s courage.
Vash-na-Koras glided from his ship, burned and scarred. He carried his black two-handed sword and trailed evil fumes. Re-forming his exploded vessel had cost him dearly, but he would not fail his mission now.
Oglok caught him unawares with a hefty swipe of a vibra-hammer, a shattering chest-blow that bowled the undead away from Ysilde to spill beside his ethereal ship. The Mock-man followed through with more blows each time the wight tried to rise.
Three more warriors leaped from the ship, the only others remaining that could operate independent of its cursed frame. They all came at Oglok together, pushing the beastling away from their commander, seeking his blood with their pale deadly blades.
Tybald dropped on them from above, slicing through the first with his vibra-sword to see what happened. Whatever twist Aria had added to it earlier worked. The weapon sliced through meat and bone, severing the undead in two.
Oglok recovered enough to shred the second with his claws. It had made the mistake of becoming corporeal to finish him.
The third and last rallied and held off both of them with supernatural speed and precision while its commander returned to the fray.
Vash-na-Koras levitated to his feet and advanced again on Ysilde. Blackthorn blocked his way, hefting a kinetic sabre and a Cimmerian Mk IV bolt-gun. He didn’t say anything to the wight; there was nothing left to say.
The wight made a backwards gesture with his left hand. Dozens of black spites billowed from his shadow, swarming across to engulf Blackthorn. The General’s self-repairing combat suit repelled most of them but a few got through to scratch, tear and numb. Blackthorn fended them off as best he could, knowing them to be distractions from Vash-na-Koras’ charge.
The undead’s black blade slammed into the Earthman’s sabre. Blackthorn got half a dozen hot silver slugs into the wight before its left hand rose and crush-froze the bolt-gun into a wad of scrap. The combatants pushed each other back and circled again.
The restless dead on the Ghost Ship oriented necromantic cannons on the fight and all the surrounding buildings.
Aria subtly crafted a difficult and complicated timespace curve that twisted Newtonian physics and sent the seething black death-balls to slam back into the galleon. The effort knocked her to her knees, but she grinned bleakly. The galleon’s hull splintered and evaporated wherever the charges hit.
Blackthorn matched Vash-na-Koras blow for blow, each drawing upon a deep reservoir of expertise to press his blade at his opponent. The fight would have been easier with the Sword of Light, but the exhausted Hallows blade hung quiescent at the General’s hip. This fight would be determined by the combatants, not their weapons.
The wight cheated. He sliced his black sword through the decking timbers, rotting them in seconds to wormy fragility. Blackthorn’s leg crashed through a brittle timber, holding him in place for Vash-na-Koras’ killing blow.
The human hurled himself onto his back, regardless of the twisting stabbing it caused his calf. The black blade sliced inches above his torso. He thumbed the kinetic blade’s power wheel to maximum, a wide-range pulse that pushed the wight back but sent the sword’s battery reserves to the red line.
Vash-na-Koras rose faster than any dead thing had a right to and lunged straight in at Blackthorn while the Earthman lay prone.
Blackthorn slipped out Aria’s silver dagger so that the wight impaled himself on it.
The undead Admiral stared in disbelief at the weapon in his chest. It had sliced through his armour and spells without a care. Vash-na-Koras watched his own hand crumble to dust, the black blade it held melting back to darkness. Then he was gone.
Blackthorn allowed himself a moment to lie still and breathe deeply. He was vaguely aware that the princess’s knife had blackened and cracked. Aria will be pissed, he thought to himself. That was just a loaner. And she’s clearly spent a lot of time putting spells on it and stuff.
The last Ghost Ship was no longer maintained by the wight’s will; it melted away to oblivion.
Oglok came over and hauled the General to his feet, howling in victory.
Tortugos shook. Something had hit it. The whole island keeled crazily, spilling its citizens to the floor. Timbers splintered.
A five hundred foot high tentacle broke through the central section of the flotsam city, rising up high above before coming crashing down.
The kraken had arisen and it had come for Tortugos.
CONTINUED in Chapter 17: Depths of the Kraken
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Original concepts, characters, and situations copyright © 2012 reserved by Ian Watson. Key characters and concepts from the Blackthorn works of Van Allen Plexico copyright © 2012 by him. The right of Ian Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.
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