Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Helldiver

Part II

by Dan Edelman


(Click here to read Part I)

Dexter laughed. "Nah," he said with an annoying mug. He hefted his shoulders against the relic slung there. Clearly the thing was uncomfortably heavy.

Cinnamon realized then that she just didn't much care for Dexter Revenant. None of the Westerners really. With their agenda. Trading weapons for haven. Western currency seemed always to be violence. "No?"

"No." Dismissive. "Kai Ferracane doesn't die."

"He was shot down," JackLuck said, annoying Cinnamon further for even responding. He leaned in toward Dexter, huge and looking as irritated as Cinnamon felt. The old Wavery fighting knife dangled in Dexter's face. Huge long fingers flicked into a spherical shape. "Poof! They say his ship come apart like that."

"He doesn't land either."

The bay doors slid shut with an echoing clank, cutting off the brightness of the renewed day and the smoldering nightmare they fast left behind. Lights dropped gold cones on the dark water and the launches moored to the narrow dock that ran around the bay's three sides. The red evacuation light began to whirl and the alarm sounded, drowning out the stand down signal. The three of them clasped their ears as powerful pumps blew the water from the bay, draining it quickly. The alarm silenced and the red light turned off. The launches, secured to the dock hung suspended over nothingness. Thumps and bumps resounded throughout the bay, and the murmurs of sailors walking the dock checking the hull and mechanisms for damage blurred with the echoing gabble of dripping water.

JackLuck picked up the conversation. "I don't even know what means, lubber."

Cinnamon's head ached, and the rank blend of seawater and fuel fumes, the casualty reports lacing her thoughts like stuttered lunacy, weren't helping. That she wouldn't be stuck on a launch with Dexter Revenant was a minor blessing; he seemed little more than an obnoxious façade hiding, no, protecting, not much.

"It was a running joke among the RAITHs," he said amiably as if having a chat in a tavern where ale and meat scented the air and not fire and blood. "Kai Ferracane crashed more helis than any three pilots. He walked away from them all."

"Right, his much touted piloting prowess."

Dexter gave Cinnamon a big grin, brittle beneath eyes bright with uncertainty. "That you're standing here digging on him seems to confirm that."

"I doubt he walked away from this one," JackLuck said. "Swim maybe. Sink most likely..." His eyes took on the middle-distance stare that came when receiving a personal thought on the com-web. "Captain wants you and that relic of yours in his stateroom, Dexter. He is a merciful man." He held out a giant hand. "No weapons." Dexter seemed about to protest, then handed over the C-CAPR.

"I'll be in my cabin," Cinnamon said through gritted teeth, letting the men's responses tap weakly off her back as she headed toward the bay's oval hatch. On the com-web, the broken drone indicated that Ghost had been hard hit, with some moderately serious hull damage, nearly a dozen gun positions destroyed or damaged, and a high body count. With Sei Javala's sounding charm damaged, Helldiver's Ghost was silent to the outside world. Rodonovan had long ago secured mooring rights with Chiming Harbor, some fifteen leagues inside the Misty Broom, where they allowed him to anchor a supply barge. Hull breaches, weapons systems, and other damage would be repaired; new sailors were another story.

Cinnamon wanted hot dark rum and a hot shower, knowing she'd be more likely to get the former than the latter. More than either, she wanted a good cry, but on this ship, any ship, no sailor could afford such a luxury. That Kai Ferracane was dead meant nothing. Her whole life, people had suddenly been ripped away from her. Far more important people than that untouchable Westerner with the devil's eyes could ever have been. Yet, dread spidered through her.

####

A ruckus of colors jagged over the mouth of the strait called Misty Broom because of the heavy fogs that swept through it nearly every eventide. Through the now glassless window framing, Rodonovan watched the hump and dive of its arc changing in the same slow manner in which a cloud morphs. The wind of Ghost speed howled around the damaged bridge, pulled tears from his eyes; he'd opted not to wear the goggles that the other sailors wore to pilot the ship.. Rodonovan had taken Ambra to the Broom years ago -- before Omen was born -- to watch the vast butterfly migration called the Rainbow Bridge. Not a bow of colors spanning the strait in orderly bands, the Rainbow Bridge smeared the air like an artist's genius afterthought, and he and Ambra had stood on the bow and raced each other to pick out different colors. Everyone had thought he'd married the daughter of a Wavery warlord for the alliance it brought. He wished that had been true.

He'd seen the Rainbow Bridge a couple of times since, found the silent march of the insects simultaneously breathtaking and soothing. Now he stared with little interest. His anxiety had shifted from battle fear to what part of him knew was irrational pathos over Helldiver's Ghost's condition.

The dead had been returned to the sea in a short and strained ceremony conducted by Sei Javala. Seventeen more sailors for a total of twenty-three in two days. While not as terrible as the Trilly massacre six years ago, the crew had certainly been depleted.

He'd planned to put Ferracane and his booty ashore at Chiming Harbor, which lay a few leagues inside the Broom, and ask who among the sailors of The Flying Sprite might join him or sail with Ghost, then return to the Myriads. But Ferracane was dead, and he couldn't quite get himself to free the sailors from the hold. And he had nothing to return to and no way to ascertain where else he might find familiar haven. By the hells, he had no way of knowing if Goblin Rod prowled Fool's Cap wondering what had happened to Ghost, or if he had found his own troubles.

For his entire life, the self-proclaimed First Nations had been Rodonovan's enemy; his overriding quest, the return to his ancestral lands of Taelemone. That pursuit had, over time, succumbed to the cancer of politics and mutated into civil war. He had been a principal part of that. How the First Nations must love watching us kill each other. The Myriadians were farther from regaining Taelemone than ever and now such a desire seemed small minded.

The eastern side of the strait, which the locals called the Strait of Shandra Razh, the Moon King, spilled into the Far Ocean. If he could negotiate passage with the reclusive tribes that jealously hold and squabble over bits of the Strait, Rodonovan could take the less cantankerous southern route around the Dead Continent and sail to the farthest East. With any luck, they might find the Drakar's Fan, and with questionable old charts and Sei Javala's magicks, they could navigate the unnavigable maze of the Aqua Reticula, and meet the West from its western backside.

They could do all that. Or one of a dozen tribes might slaughter the crew. Or the Far Ocean might drown them with a rogue wave. Or the phantoms of the Dead Continent might overwhelm them. The Aqua Reticula might simply lose them.

And if they made it where countless others failed?

It shocked him sometimes, how much he missed Omen, but to be by his son's side again only to be fighting a war he couldn't comprehend left him feeling twisted, confused. He despised this new sense of helplessness.

Rodonovan had made sure to walk among the crew before returning to the bridge. He praised their defense of Ghost and their care for her now. He laughed with them -- that forced near strident evacuation of nervous energy -- shared their grief for fallen comrades. For the most part, they seemed to understand that, this time, he had not chosen the battle, that this was something far different. Yet in their eyes, Rodonovan had seen the dimming of the light that all captains feared.

It looked like they would make Chiming Harbor near dawn. With the com-web and hard communications gear offline, he had doubts he'd be able to hail the prefect to give the customary notice of their arrival once inside the Misty Broom. He'd also like to know if the city-state had seen any of the kind of action they'd just sailed out of. Sei Javala's efforts to reconstitute the sounding charm had borne little fruit. That the sorcerer's hearth of rare metals and stones might be ruined was a grim prospect.

"I'll be in my stateroom," he told the two sailors on duty. He left the bridge. Mantra swooped from the forecastle to settle on his shoulder. Soaking Madge trailed after him. Though he could do without a crowd in the stateroom, he didn't order her away. That she was unwilling to stand down vexed him in a strangely welcome way. Javala, please meet me in my stateroom. He repeated the order to make sure it was understood.

Aye.

Dexter Revenant curled on the velvet-wrapped sofa when Rodonovan entered the stateroom. The Westerner's mouth gawped in slumber, and he clung to the relic as if hugging a favorite toy. A devastated decanter of port stood on the cherry wood table beside a half-full snifter. Rodonovan grunted: price paid for locking the Westerner in his stateroom for the day. Soaking Madge moved a smoking chair into the shadow of the lava rock hearth and sat down. Any bare bulkhead had been painted olive and layered with shelves of leather-wrapped books, dark cherry wood wainscoting, moldings, and floor. The hearth glowed red. Rodonovan acknowledged the room to be an extravagance, particularly as he spent little time there, berthing most often in the cramped at-sea cabin behind the bridge; but the place had been his sanctum, a place to meditate, confront his daemons, and rejuvenate while his sailors caroused about the Aestiva's countless ports of call. Not to mention a place to woo various dignitaries and public officials from around the Rim. Now, the natural warmth of the room was gone, replaced with a cloying and funereal dimness.

"Up," he said, nudging Revenant's shoulder. The soldier emitted a low moan and tried to roll over, halting halfway through at a lean against the sofa's back. Rodonovan bumped him again, a little less gently. The Dagian Guard's eyes fluttered. "Wha-a..." He grimaced, smacked his lips. Seeing Rodonovan looming over him, Revenant propped himself up on an elbow, grimaced again. "Ugh."

"Guzzling fifty-year-old port will elicit such a response."

"Nothing else to do, nothing else available," Revenant said groggily. He rubbed a hand over his head, then flipped it out: see for yourself.

Sei Javala entered the stateroom and sat at the table.

"Any luck?" Rodonovan asked him.

"I have been able to repair the hard equipment and I understand the damage to the charm."

"That's good news, isn't it?"

"I need a sustained period of concentration on the problem."

"So why are you here, your tone indicates?" Rodonovan pulled a chair close to the sofa and sat. Mantra cooed, flapped her supple wings. Javala tipped his chin. "Let's talk about this relic of yours," he said to the Westerner.

"It's not mine," Revenant said.

"What is it?"

"Who knows? Seems a weapon to me. Take a look yourself. I don't think even Kai knows."

Rodonovan ignored the present tense. "Javala?"

Javala undid the leather thongs, eased back the leather flap, and slid the sheath down the length of the relic as if undressing a lover. The rise of his thin eyebrows and flare of his nostrils startled Rodonovan. "It is an empire builder, an empire killer," the sei said. "It is wealth beyond imagining."

Rodonovan frowned. "All very... dramatic, is it what it appears to be?"

"It is a key," Sei Javala said. "The Key."

"To what?"

Sei Javala paused as if debating speaking. "To everything," he said.

Rodonovan didn't know what to do with that; he turned back to Revenant. "Ferracane told you to take it to Zahariad. My knowledge of Seven Valleys geography is sketchy at best. Where exactly is that?"

"In the eastern Maidenstones."

"It's the city of the Claymage, Zahariad is," Sei Javala said. He replaced the flap and quickly retied the leathers. His fingers anxiously massaged his chin. "This is for her. It is the Key. And perhaps in her hands it is the most dangerous weapon ever."

"Maidenstones are mountains?" Rodonovan said, discomfited by Javala's reaction. "Where relative to the western coast?"

Revenant laughed once. "Nowhere. About as far away as possible."

A simmering annoyance began to percolate through Rodonovan. He'd had his fill of Javala's grim hyperbole and this Western lubber's flip mouth. Sitting there like some eastern sultan. He curbed a deep breath. "Then how did Ferracane expect you to return it there?"

Revenant laughed again, but this time without guile and with a resigned shake of the head. "That's what I've been saying. Kai Ferracane is all about mission objectives. He's only about the objective. I mean, didn't you wonder why he was naked in the middle of the Aestiva? Completing his mission, that's why. So when he says get the relic to Zahariad, that's what he means. Get it there. Meet the objective. I mean, they say go and he does. He didn't even know what it was he went to the Lornlands for. If they said cross Fugue Pedulae and assault the Miniak home world, he would. A thousand leagues of blue water or desert, or a hundred thousand soldiers, don't much figure into it. If you got the right gear, great, but if not, make do."

Rodonovan was about to tell him to shut up when a low voice from the far corner of the room said, "Machine Boy." Soaking Madge's clipped accent and high, sweet tone always jarred with her warrior's presence.

Revenant looked over as if startled someone was there, but said, "The stories I've heard -- "

Ghost shuddered way down in her guts, nearly tossing Revenant from the couch.

Bridge, status.

The ship was losing speed.

Engines one... sev -- ten are -- We've lost the number -- screw... raise the engine ro --

You always anticipated trouble with replacement engines, but the entire first bank?

Ghost shuddered again.

Status report, engine room. Now.

Nothing.

Bank two is -- We've two -- screws. Thank you, sailor, I can count, Rodonovan thought. Master Squeezebox, I need a status report from engineering.

Every -- going to be fine, Cap -- .

Helldiver's Ghost slowed further.

We have -- ! Enemy on!

-- come from?

Enemy on!

Gunshots. First a few, then a barrage, then silence. Rodonovan had gladly stowed his mini at first sight of the Rainbow Bridge; he now felt its absence like a gaping wound on his hip.

Repel! Rep -- !

Rodonovan looked at Sei Javala and stood.

The stateroom hatch whipped open.

####

Cinnamon Rogue stared absently through a porthole at the Rainbow Bridge, remembering the callous scrape of the white Memory Shrouds as her dead comrades slid off the teak burial boards, the wink of hastily applied runes of hate. She caressed the rune on her widow's finger, let the tears boil and a weak, whelping sob escape.

A jolt smacked her nose into the porthole glass, startling her from her grim reverie. Ghost groaned deeply and immediately slowed. Panicked thoughts crippled across the come web, and when gun fire shredded the air, it took her a moment to realize the noise came from inside the ship. She grabbed her mini and moved into the dim light of general berthing, head throbbing, body aching, wearing what amounted to sleep clothes, thin cotton shortie breeks and a thinner cotton shirt, both black.

Cinnamon slammed into someone stinking of sweat and let out an involuntary yelp as she bounced back onto her arse. A fat, shirtless sailor with a top knot lunged toward her with a streaked black machete. She fired two shots at enraged eyes and skittered aside as the man dropped. She got to her feet quickly, but moved more slowly now to allow her eyes to adjust. Her shared quarters were portside of the general berthing space, and she could tell the main firefight was occurring forward of her, near the passage to the engine room.

But the weapons fire quickly trailed off to a smattering of cleanup fire, leaving raving partial thoughts.

Nobody knew who had gotten onboard or how. Daemons and monstrous machines walked the decks. Once again, death thoughts poisoned her mind.

Then a silence so sudden, it made Cinnamon's eyes water and her ears thunder.

Her bare foot squished into a puddle and she thought Ghost was somehow taking on water until she stubbed her toe on something solid that skidded sluggishly ahead of her. She saw long, tangled hair and a dull gleam of an earring. Cinnamon grimaced and quickly took in the carnage. Nearly every bunk held an unmoving form. She slid past arms, ribboned with blood, protruding from stained blankets, and stepped over other heads, avoiding empty gazes but not spilled blood.. The stink hammered her. She tracked footprints.

Where berthing met the passage to the launch bay, Cinnamon squatted next to the body of JackLuck. His throat had been cut, his chest a bloody swamp. Low voices murmeled from the launch bay behind her. She couldn't understand the words, but recognized the language as Malakite.

How had they managed to board without notice? This far east? She wiped the prickles of fresh sweat from her brow. The quiet and the loss of speed suggested that the ship had been captured. That was supposed to be impossible. The engine room had been taken, and the intersection of passages at the `tween decks ladder to it would be controlled. Part of her suggested she leave. There were ratways throughout the ship, loaded with rafts and supplies; she could slip off the ship and row to... wherever the Aestiva would allow her to go. No. That she couldn't do. Rodonovan had saved her life. He was her anchor. She couldn't abandon ship without confirmation that the captain was dead or captured.

Cinnamon looked up the passageway. Darkness squeezed the paltry glow of the lights. She squinted. What was that? Something had ghosted along the edge of the light that ought to mark the intersection where --

Then all the hells broke loose, and in the muzzle flashes Cinnamon saw something that tweaked an ironic, near manic, utterly joyless grin from her.

####

The stateroom hatch whipped open.

Dexter Revenant rolled off the couch, a small pistol somehow in his hand, snapping off shots from the deck. Rodonovan had no time to ponder where the man had hidden the pistol before his target, a massive, machinelike thing, obliterated the Westerner with a thundering weapon too big for a humyn to hold.

Rodonovan knew the thing was a Miniak. It turned its helmeted head toward him and he eased his hands up. His ears rang and parts of Dexter twitched in his peripheral vision. There too, on the sofa, lay the relic.

Don't move, he thought to Soaking Madge, then realized the com-web had been broken. He looked at Sei Javala, holding his arms delicately out, palms up, as if in supplication. The mage offered nothing. Helldiver's Ghost remaining engines bellowed in full reverse, and the ship shivered in protest. The bridge had fallen.

The Miniak moved deeper into the stateroom, making space for a distinctly uncomfortable-looking humyn sailor who took up a position on the other side of the table, near Soaking Madge, but gave no indication that he saw her. Rodonovan prayed she didn't try anything foolishly brave. The sailor wore blue and red enameled mail armor. Bone trinkets stitched his earlobes, and his blond hair, pulled back into a tight bun, dripped sweat; no doubt, he found the southern climate a might sultry. Despite his discomfort, ice blue eyes simmered with smug malice. He was a Malakite, and if Rodonovan was correct, the captain of a marine maniple.

The Miniak hulked beside the Malakite, head near the raised ceiling and completely protected inside dull armor plates with flexible joints of a dark color that might've been green or grey or black. Dexter's pistol had done no visible damage. Its weapon looked to be integrated into its armor; it was hard to tell.

Rodonovan's wonderment gave way to revulsion when the next thing stepped into the room. Right from Myriadian folklore. Not quite as tall as the Miniak, nor as wide, the daemon seemed larger anyway. Mantra's talons dug into Rodonovan's shoulder and darted past the creature and through the hatchway with a terrified bleat.

Where the Miniak's armor was of indeterminate color and the Malakite's was a veritable festival of color, the daemon wore light-sucking black. A cape partially wrapped its body; Rodonovan saw writhing faces on it and swore he heard distant wailing as if from the far end of some catacombs. Its humanoid face was moon white and as blotched. Its eyes were concealed behind fine lacings of the same chalky flesh, its nose a stub of bone over two gill-like nostrils, and its mouth an arsehole-like pucker. Its first words -- perfect Malakite -- graveled the air: "The key sickens me. Get it back to the ship and secure it in the pyx." The captain grabbed the relic, stumbled under its weight with a surprised grunt, hoisted it onto his shoulder, and lugged it from the room.. Rodonovan noticed that the daemon shied away from the relic, the "key."

"Is that what you came for?" Rodonovan said as coolly as possible. His words were muted in his ears. He wondered how the daemon and the Malakites had been able to approach Ghost without being seen -- some kind of cloaking sorcery?

"Come for the relic, stay for the souls," came a familiar voice at the doorway. Squeezebox Davy kind of shuffled, kind of swaggered into the stateroom. He scratched vigorously at a grey-spangled muttonchop, looked around, a blend of disgust and outrage twisting his face, and chuckled a bit self-consciously. "So this is what this room looks like." Sweat matted his hair and darkened his clothing. His red face might've been exertion, but the glitter in his eyes suggested drink. "Don't look so gods damned surprised!" Squeezebox said to Rodonovan, then looked past him. Other sailors stood behind him slathered in sweat. Rodonovan recognized them from The Flying Sprite. They carried weapons from Ghost's armory. The engine room, the bridge, the armory. The impossible had happened: Ghost was taken.

"Get out of the dark, you slithering bitch," Squeezebox said. Soaking Madge drifted into view, placed her deck swab and ammunition belt on the table. If she was concerned about developments, it didn't show on her too-young face.

"All of them," Squeezebox said. He pointed a broadbore at her. "I'll burn you down you try to game me." Soaking Madge reached down slowly and brought up a couple of small throwing knives and a pistol. "Over there," Squeezebox said, using his broadbore to point her over to the Miniak. "And you," he said to Rodonovan, words slowed by contempt, heated by fury, "look at what you've done."

The firefight somewhere within the ship had subsided to nothing and now all engines had been shut down, leaving only the distant lament of the daemon's cape. Dexter's guts stunk. Terrible shock crept through Rodonovan on waves of ice water. He still had the toy fishing trawler that Squeezebox Davy had whittled from a hunk of teak driftwood over three decades ago. Still remembered the time the old sailor -- he'd always seemed old -- had somehow found him in the bowels of a Samphire Atoll brig after one of his youthful extravagances. He said somehow, because Rodonovan himself hadn't known how he'd ended up there, having started the evening on Kava Kava with two ladies of delectable proportions and delightfully dubious moral fiber --

" -- listening to me!"

Rodonovan snapped back to the present where Squeezebox shook with fury and stabbed the broadbore at his face. Soaking Madge moved, and the Miniak backhanded her. She smashed against the paneled bulkhead and slumped to the deck.

"Hold," the daemon said raising a gloved hand. To Squeezebox it said, "Your miserable humynity will not deny me these souls."

"You actually believe this thing cares one whit whether you live your last days in solace, Squeezebox?" Rodonovan asked. "This thing may take my soul, but you gave yours away."

The daemon's chuckle was a death rattle. "I would call you perceptive," it said with a royal sort of laxity, "but quite frankly it is more accurate to label the old foo -- "

A short eruption of weapons fire echoed through the bulkhead. A level below and aft, Rodonovan thought.

A sharp crackle and a tinny voice growled from what was likely a communication device somewhere on the Miniak's armor. The Miniak grunted back and then cocked its head toward the daemon and grunted some more. The daemon replied curtly in the same primal language, and the Miniak marched out with a menacing heft of its giant weapon. A moment later, a Malakite with a multitude of wire-like blonde braids circling his pale, sweat-slick skull slipped through the crowd of sailors and took up a position inside the stateroom with a large-bore boarding rifle at the ready.

JackLuck and Cinnamon? Rodonovan wondered. Had they marshaled a repel? And how many other sailors? Against how many? There had been near about a score of men taken from The Flying Sprite. Add to that at least a Malakite maniple -- another 60 sailors -- and who knew how many Miniak warriors like the one heading out to counter the counter. Rodonovan did not like the odds.

Soaking Madge stood slowly, tongue swiping angrily at the blood coating her lips. Rodonovan took her chin in his hand and studied the laceration exposing her upper teeth; he avoided the fury in her eyes and the warnings of the Malakite. She pulled her head away and spit.

"Once the ruckus is controlled, you three will accompany me back to my ship," the daemon said with a kind of buoyancy that made Rodonovan's skin crawl. It propped a hand on its hip and the screaming cape swung jauntily. "I've heard much about you Rodonovan Swords. Nothing quite like harvesting a robust and seasoned soul. And a witch is always nourishing. Don't look so alarmed, it will be painless. Not that I couldn't make it excruciating, but I am civilized..."

Rodonovan was hearing the words, but not quite registering them. Not quite... He strongly doubted that he could take the beast hand to hand, if half the stories about daemon strength and sorcery were true. And even if he, by some miracle, escaped the creature, he still had a shipload of humyn and Miniak enemies to overcome. And what? Harvesting his soul? Seasoned? What exactly did that mean? Would he end up in that cape? An opportunity might come on the transfer to this daemon's ship. He'd take his chances with the Aestiva. Maybe Chiming Harbor would have a patrol out. And how bloody likely was it that the prefect would involve himself in this mess?

The cardiac thump of the Miniak weapon pulsed through the deck and bulkhead, crushing, it seemed, the other gunfire. The bellow ended abruptly, and the daemon grunted with satisfaction. To Squeezebox it said, "The ship is yours."

"Not too fit to sail, is it?" Squeezebox grumbled. "Sail it, sink it, it matters not to me."

A murky satisfaction wafted through Squeezebox Davy's bloodshot eyes.

The Malakite sailor uttered something a little nervously.

The daemon favored the Malakite with a witheringly dry tilt of its head, and said in Malakite. "Tell your Empress, should she see fit to make arrangements behind the back of an agent of the White Pantheon again, I will personally remove her heart." The sailor blanched and the daemon turned his gaze upon Squeezebox. "Now get out of my sight."

Squeezebox paled too, but quickly moved out into the passage and barked, "You and you! Follow me to the bridge. You, you said you're an engineer, right? Pick your crew and get down to the engine room. Kill anyone you don't recognize and restore power, get as many engines online as soon as possible. You're now the busiest sailor on the ship."

There were lackluster "ayes." The daemon turned its veiled eyes to Rodonovan and seemed about to speak when gunfire, a lot of guns, rattled the bulkhead. Squeezebox froze and looked aft. The Malakite looked up with alarm. Rodonovan thought: that's on this deck. He tossed a quick glance at Soaking Madge, stormily impassive with her chin trimmed in blood; Javala too showed little.

The communicator strapped to the Malakite's shoulder armor crackled and a panicked voice cried, "We can't hold our position! We're falling back!"

"How many?" the Malakite said.

A crash of static obliterated the response.

"Repeat!"

"One! Just -- !"

"You!" the daemon growled, pointing at Squeezebox. "You told me he was dead!"

"I-I saw him go down!" Squeezebox Davy yelled. The daemon charged the old sailor.

"A body! Did you see a body?"

"I SAW HIM DIE!" Squeezebox screamed, cringing. "The flying ship went to pieces!" But the daemon pushed past him and forward to the main deck ladder.

Rodonovan reached across the table and dragged the Malakite to him by his throat. The decanter of port tumbled to the deck and shattered. He crushed the sailor's windpipe and took his weapon. He fired three shots into the scattering crowd of sailors in the passage, wildly disappointed that none of the bodies dropping to the deck belonged to his mutinous Master Chief.

####

Blood blatted the bulkhead when Kai Ferracane swung his hair out of his eyes. When he'd bailed out of the heliunit, his leg had crumpled on him and he'd opened his scalp on the edge of the canopy's frame. Or maybe he'd been struck by a piece of the disintegrating `unit despite using the canopy as a shield on his descent into the sea. Something had certainly broken a rib or three. Frankly, most of that scene remained a blur. In bits and flashes, he recalled pulling the emergency canopy release, following the curved canopy slab into the black sky, then repositioning it behind him and sailing toward the water, tucked like some animal in its egg. Clarity had returned sometime later when he found himself clinging to a stanchion in the ship's waterless launch bay beneath a boat suspended precariously, it seemed, over him. The body machine had gotten him there. He didn't ponder how; it wasn't the first time. In the darkness he could feel blood gumming his hair and leg. His back hurt, possibly wrenched from the flip and twist to get the canopy between him and the explosion. His head throbbed from wetwire hangover, and, domo, someone jabbed a knife into his chest every time he breathed. So he took himself to the clean black.

Sometime later, pain drew him back to awareness. Helldiver's Ghost shook and began to slow. Then weapons play rattled the bulkheads, and the body machine took all the pain away. Rest time was over.

Kai had hoisted himself onto the service deck running around the launch bay. Two sailors had been ambushed in the otherwise deserted area, throats cut. The firefight blazed close and intense. Already dim lights glowed an even more feeble orange; maybe emergency lighting. His eyes gathered all available illumination. He moved into general berthing and smelled the massacre before seeing it, a score or more sailors murdered in their sleep. This then was a mutiny. Where might Dexter go during a mutiny?

The gunplay ended and he heard urgent voices hissing at each other in and around the crack and pop of mop up. From the body of the giant sailor with the funny name, Chuck Luck or something pet-like, Kai took a gigantic knife and headed forward. The hissing voices chilled to the murmur of reporting, likely to whoever or whatever now controlled the ship. So Rodonovan was dead or detained. Dexter might be with the captain -- dead or captured. Meaning the relic had been lost.

Kai familiarized himself with the giant knife, sized somewhere between a dirk and a machete, as he moved as silently as his reopened leg and broken ribs would allow. Well-balanced, but ordinary blacksteel and leather. It would have to do until he found a better weapon; nasty as it was, the knife would be sloppy at best against Miniak armor and useless against a daemon.

Moving through the darkest patches, Kai approached the chokepoint where he counted six men in a tight, clumsy cluster watching all directions. He should've been able to eliminate his targets before they saw him. Not with the injuries.. Three of them spotted him and, in a braying chorus of alarm, opened fire.

Not a lot of maneuver room, but Kai dropped into a tactically lame deck crawl that drew a groan from him and covered the three-pace distance, not quite evading hot sprays of shot. Although his move lacked any aesthetic appeal or mercy, the oversized knife served him well. Back on his feet, he quickly silenced the sailors and grabbed a drum-fed combat loader -- clearly a RAITH weapon. Now his back stung.

He sensed stealth and turned to see Cinnamon Rogue skulking about back near general berthing. He headed forward.

####

Cinnamon watched Kai fade into the murk and followed as quickly and quietly as possible, watching for any movement. She reached the passage intersection and ogled the bloody pool in which six feet all removed below the calf scattered about six footless and throat-cut men. She recalled Ferracane's light chuckle over the com-web as he killed ship after ship with his flying contraption, like a child having a private adventure with a toy. Had he giggled over this too?

At the ominously darkened sick bay, she stepped through the portside hatchway and straight into Kai Ferracane's eyes; fresh bullet holes, huge black pupils ringed by thin crimson irises. Two runes of hate etched in a face painted in blood. Cinnamon shivered. "Move," he said, forcing her back through the hatchway and behind the bulkhead with a blood-streaked hand in her face.

"Hey!" she said.

"Now," he said.

The low clatter of gear and the thud of heavy boots from behind him drew his attention. Cinnamon lifted her mini and prepared to step back through the hatchway to meet the enemy. No one, no one would keep her from a fight. But as she stepped forward, a weapon bellowed so loud, the innards of her ears felt like they might implode. With deep-toned Ponks! a slew of fist-sized pimples erupted in the bulkhead near Cinnamon's face -- pretty much where Kai had been standing -- sending her ducking and stumbling back against the sick bay hatch. She recovered and flung herself through the hatchway, weapon up, expecting to see Ferracane crumpled on the deck.

In grimy orange emergency lighting, she saw instead some kind of mechanized giant take a vicious swat at Ferracane, who slid aside like a wind-pushed feather, then suddenly changed direction to dart right at the thing. The thing moved incredibly fast to sidestep his charge, but not fast enough to crush the Westerner with another hammering blow that shook the passage when its weapon struck the deck with a weed of yellow sparks. Ferracane slipped inside the thing's reach, flinging away a rifle of some kind. Cinnamon heard a horrible inhumyn gurgle as Ferracane's left arm swept up under the thing's chin and forward. He whirled with an incredibly sexual grace, something -- a knife -- floating before him to strike the creature again. The thing twitched once and fell in two directions. Its helmeted head rolled to a rest against the open hatch. Cinnamon stared at it and then looked at Ferracane whose composure finally seemed to have fractured.

"What was that?" she asked. He was soaked in blood.

"Miniak light infantry," Ferracane rasped. Near the bulkhead, he bent to pick up the abandoned drum-fed combat loader.

"Light?" Cinnamon wondered why he just didn't shoot the damned thing, then recognized the fighting knife.

"He was dead," Ferracane said in response to her expression. "Already dead. I'd like to think he'd want it used against those who killed him rather than -- "

"You couldn't possibly know what JackLuck wanted."

"That his name?" He continued forward. "You're right. I didn't know him at all."

The passage was quiet, but Cinnamon heard activity above and below. Ferracane's noisy breathing irked her -- so much for the tough Western warrior. What had that other fool said? Wall to wall? "How much of that blood is yours?" she asked.

Over his shoulder, Ferracane tossed a blank look with eyes now black.

"Are you hurt?"

The Westerner responded with a feeble smile.

"I say something funny?" Cinnamon snapped.

They reached the ladder. Out of line of sight, Ferracane stared up at it like some kind of halfwit.

Cinnamon leaned in close, smelled blood, smelled him. His labored breathing was not exhaustion, she realized. Too wet. He maybe had a broken rib or a bullet wound. "They'll be up there," she whispered.

"I know," he said.

"So what're we going to do?"

Still looking up, he closed his eyes. His breathing quieted. His eyes opened and he looked at her. She wished he hadn't. Apparently he found that question amusing too.

####

Rodonovan charged into the passage and saw the very much alive Kai Ferracane rampaging through a clot of panicking sailors. Yet rampage was not quite the right word. He glided through the throng, breathing fire and striking like a serpent, standing frozen and flashing like lightning, moving in a beeline and dancing drunkenly. Sailors collapsed like sacks or blew back against the bulkhead. It made Rodonovan's eyes ache to watch. He stepped aft to help but found himself stumbling back into the stateroom. Soaking Madge had him by the belt band of his breeks. "Child!" he bellowed.

"You'll need to captain this ship when we get it back," she said, meeting his furious glare with one of her own. "We'll wait for the Western Machine Boy." Pistol in hand, she moved toward the hatch, dipped to the deck, fired a shot, then was knocked back by a Malakite sailor swinging a heavy double-gripped battering ram, a traditional boarding weapon ideal for close-quarter fighting. Soaking Madge sprawled under the table, groaning and clutching her right arm over her chest.

With a huge grin on his pale face, the Malakite stepped into the stateroom with two more sailors. Others poured past them to join the fight aft. He let the ram fall to hang from its thick strap and brought up a broadbore from a belt of bones and cartridges. "You drop," he said in thickly accented L'Endish, "or I dead you."

Rodonovan let out a disgusted sigh. He made to hand the rifle over, then flung it at the Malakite, who stepped sideways and fired his weapon. Some of the shot tore into Rodonovan's left shoulder and chest. Stay on your feet, he told himself, unwilling to be put down like some dog. As he staggered back, he saw Ferracane, resembling the dancing devils of the Helian Steppes, whirl through the hatchway and take down the two Malakite sailors. He slammed his knife blade tip into the tabletop and twirled over it to alight in front of the sailor with the battering ram. He jammed the combat loader up under the Malakite's chin, lifting him off the deck, and fired the weapon.

Under the raining gore and raging silence, Ferracane gazed into some distance only he could see. His hair hung in matted strings, the congealing blood all over him like some ritual paint. Rodonovan shuddered when the Westerner's eyes flushed from crimson to black like the quenching of a fire. His gaze roamed the room, stopping for the briefest moment on Dexter's remains. Then he helped Soaking Madge to her feet.

####

"Where's the relic?" Kai asked, supporting the girl's obviously broken arm. She pulled away from him. Despite the nasty kink in her forearm and the quavering of her right hand, she looked ready to chew through the bulkhead. A sultry fury darkened her face, her blade-like beauty hardly dulled by the nasty cut splitting her lip nearly to her nose. Her name... something silly somebody somewhere might find somewhat provocative, he remembered. She was so young. "You sound like shit," she said. She spit blood.

"On the daemon's ship," Sei Javala said.

Kai's breathing now rattled and gurgled. And there was pain, like a voice breaking through static. He'd need a doctor soon. He tapped the drum of the combat loader.

"Daemon?" Cinnamon Rogue peered into the stateroom as if seeing it for the first time. She carried a mini and wore what looked like sleeping clothes.

"Gone now," Soaking Madge said. "Scurried off like Satan himself chased it when it heard Machine Boy still lived."

Rodonovan walked to the hearth and pressed a palm against the wood paneling. A hatch popped open, revealing a sleeping berth beyond. "We must retake the ship," he said disappearing inside. "Engine room, bridge, armory, likely the launch bay."

"Definitely the bay," Cinnamon said.

Rodonovan returned, grimacing with the weight of the weapons he carried. He strew them across the table and with a flip of the hand bid the others to partake as if he'd just served a meal. "I suspect the Malakite maniple and the Miniak have withdrawn, leaving us Flying Sprite sailors and... mutineers."

"Dregs," Soaking Madge murmured.

Rodonovan cleared his throat and looked at Kai. "We could use your help."

Kai tasted blood. Domo, he was tired. "I have to get the relic."

"You have to get healing," Sei Javala snapped.

"Your captain would seem to need healing," Kai said.

"The four of us then," Rodonovan said. "Javala and Madge. Retake the engine room. I... I want the bridge. Cinnamon, you'll come with me. We'll worry about the armory and bay later. Communications after that."

Soaking Madge's face darkened even more, but now with a malevolent smile made terrifying by the laceration. "Just the four of us?"

"I think they figure us dead."

"With all due respect, Captain, let me have the bridge," Soaking Madge said.

"That has to be mine."

"Then let me accompany you, Captain."

"My orders stand!"

" Ghost sailors still willing to fight under your flag might remain alive on board," Sei Javala said into the uncomfortable breach.

"Likely they took to the ratways first chance," Cinnamon said.

"Or threw in with Squeezebox," Soaking Madge said, then stared intently at her broken arm as if intrigued by the unnatural lump beneath bruising skin.

"Perhaps," Rodonovan said. He held minis in both hands. The way he moved, his gunshot shoulder didn't seem to be bothering him now. But he wore a scowl, and his eyes were rounded by what looked like a bit of shock. "I suppose I can't blame them."

Soaking Madge busied herself by picking an ugly broadbore off the deck. With a snap of her good wrist, she broke it open, confirmed it loaded, and snapped it shut. She slipped it into her belt, then hoisted a belt of heavy rounds onto her shoulder.

"Is that the best choice of weapon, Madge?" Sei Javala asked. "You need healing too." He took a light automatic rifle from the spread on the table. He held it comfortably, though it looked odd in his delicate hands.

"Later," Soaking Madge said, hefting the broadbore. "And this is perfect."

"Let me at least do something for the pain."

"No. The pain is my rune."

"Here," Kai said, laying the loader on the table. Time to go. He wasn't much interested in teenage bravado. Or the guilt. "Maybe four rounds left."

"You're going to board an enemy ship with just a knife?" Cinnamon said, an incredulous smile wavering on her lips.

"Nice knowing you, Machine Boy," Soaking Madge told Kai with a contemptuous laugh. He glanced once more at Dexter, found himself missing the one or more idiotic comments he surely would've made about Cinnamon's state of undress, his unfazed response to Soaking Madge's deserved derision. Kai started for the main deck. The body machine jolted him with adrenalin. Pain faded to a nagging whisper.

"Stop," Rodonovan said.

Kai braced himself for a tongue lashing.

"Please show him the midships ratway, Cinnamon. It will get him off Ghost without being seen. Then meet me on the main deck."

"Aye."

Ratways? Was that some kind of insult? Kai swallowed blood, his own he thought, and said to the Myriadians, "Luck."

They just stared at him.

####

The strange flotilla surrounding Helldiver's Ghost looked like a graveyard of foundered ships to Cinnamon.

"Malakite submersibles," Rodonovan whispered. "Used to navigate beneath ice floes.... I suppose the military uses of such capabilities are obvious."

They stood in the shadows beneath the navigating bridge. Cinnamon knew why she, rather than the more lethal Madge, was with the Captain. But rather than feel insulted or angry at his protectiveness, she fought exhaustion and fear. The main deck was deserted. The beating that Ghost had taken showed in the scored and twisted armor plate, the scorched housings, the patchwork repairs.

The Aestiva washed almost serenely over the grey ships, tossing spumes against simple stack-like superstructures. With so much of their hull submerged, their dimensions were hard to judge, but the size of the sailors manning single forward gunnery positions or scanning the area with spyglasses from those superstructures suggested the ships displaced at least as much as Ghost. She counted thirteen, including the ship now casting off of Ghost's port side with several sailors pulling a boarding ramp back onto the superstructure with the quick, rhythmic teamwork expected from any seasoned crew.

Neither commented on the plume of black smoke to the east, rising like a yelp from Chiming Harbor.

"Ferracane took the ratway?" Rodonovan asked.

"Yes." Making casual conversation? What were they waiting for? "I doubt there was a raft left in it though." "I'd say he doesn't need one."

"With a punctured lung? Most men would be -- "

"Look."

The Westerner scooted along the deck of the daemon's submersible as if walking on the waves. He reached the superstructure and scurried up a ladder, vaulting the superstructure's gunwale and startling the sailors as they seemed to be heading below deck. He moved toward them and they vanished from view. So did he.

And then so did the ship.

####

"Think he expected that, Captain?" Cinnamon asked. The Aestiva seethed with the white print of the vanished ship.

Beyond a sailor's curiosity about the workings of submersibles, Rodonovan didn't care. Kai Ferracane could burn in every realm of every hell -- he'd known they would come for the stolen property. The Westerner knew. Rodonovan's business was here with Ghost. With Squeezebox Davy. He looked at the young womyn who could've been, should've been, his son's wife if not for youthful ignorance and said, "Stay here. Watch my back."

"He won't be alone up there," she said.

"I'm well aware."

"You're injured. Don't be foolish."

He grabbed a ladder rung. The burning in his shoulder punctuated Cinnamon's insolence. "Just do as I say, girl. I'll hail you when the bridge is clear." He ignored her expression and climbed to the bridge, wincing each time he gripped the ladder with a left hand that threatened to quit. On the bridge walk, he squatted and eased his minis from his belt. Squeezebox's aggravated commands to engineering filtered out to the bridge walk in a voice Rodonovan wouldn't have recognized as coming from the man just yesterday. Now he heard the anger that he really ought to have heard some time ago. Now he heard the bitterness that coated all of his sailors' tongues. When had he deafened himself? Perhaps about the time he had decided these people were his sailors.

Even crouched, Rodonovan's head stood as tall as a shortish man. He saw the Aestiva through the damaged windows, placid, serene, fading into a thin pall of fog, disinterested in his tribulations. Then one of the sailors saw him as he crab-walked through the hatchway. He shot the man, spotted another, but when he lifted his left arm to fire, the impulse crashed against jolting pain in his shoulder, making a quavering claw of his left hand. The mini fell from it. Then a massive fist hammered him to the deck.

Dazed, Rodonovan raised his other mini, but a shirtless and sweating sailor loomed over him and kicked his hand. The mini flew out of it; a finger or two might've broken. The sailor pointed a pistol at Rodonovan's face. He wore a choker of yellowed bones around his neck, more bones skewering his ears and lips.

"DAMN YOU!" Rodonovan roared in defiance of his body's wish to slip into unconsciousness. He would not die prostrate. The sailor flinched, then fiercely jabbed the pistol toward Rodonovan, a vicious smile splitting a heavy beard.

"Stop," Squeezebox said. "Stop, stop, STOP!" Hands shoved the sailor away and the Master Chief's ruddy face filled Rodonovan's greying view. "Prince of the Aestiva. Prince of lies. Feeling a little... out of sorts?"

Rodonovan still could not believe that the man standing over him wearing a look of pure contempt used to bring him a concoction of garlic, ginger, and lemon when he was sick.

"Surely you were promised something more than just this ship," Rodonovan said. "A fleet?"

"That is why we have come to this. A fleet. That's your measure of a man? All you see when you look beyond the railings of this gods-forsaken bucket is an absurd claim to land you've never set foot on. Fighting to the death for that is your measure of a man? Even though you paraded it around, you kept it hidden, but not from me. Your father was a true leader, the real Prince of the Aestiva. You though, you wore the costume well, but you're hardly even a shadow of the man. You're pathetic. If your father could see what you've made of his name, he'd cringe, then he'd slit your throat, if not his own. You've killed thousands of your own people chasing the sirens' song."

"What then?" Rodonovan asked, feeling a pain in his heart that had nothing to do with the bullet in his chest.

"Peace." The word exploded from Squeezebox's mouth.

Rodonovan's eyelids flickered. He bit on his cheek to stay conscious, but, oh, wouldn't it better to just let go?

"A chance to live and die like an old man ought to be able to." Squeezebox's eyes pinked up and wetted, his face twisted with rage. "You've spent your whole life looting others' lives from them. And for what? FOR WHAT!"

"Peace," Rodonovan tried to say.

"Hah... Don't you dare. A piece is more like it. A king's share no doubt. Hah. You've made the same mistake as any pretender, thinking men want to live under another's thumb. Under your thumb. You've ignored the most important, the most obvious wisdom of this war you've brought on the very people you believe you can rule: the war itself. Why we fight. We fight because your fanciful idea of nation, of sovereignty, chafes at us. Chokes. Strangles! This land you so covet, Taelemone, have you paid any attention at all to how the First Nations live there? Obviously not, too busy have you been wielding your mighty weapons and dazzling words. And notice I said First Nations. Nationsssss. They've had that land for centuries and they haven't figured out a way to unity yet. They fight and fight. Over last names and petty differences. Over just... difference. Sound familiar at all? What makes you think -- " Squeezebox gritted his filthy teeth in fury. "Your father was a simple fishermyn, and a great leader. He had no designs on the kind of power you desire, yet Myriadians respected him. And with that came a different power. One that you've squandered. You've sullied his name chasing aft -- "

CRACK! CRACK!

CRACK! CRACK!

Squeezebox Davy's head snapped back, face frozen with childlike astonishment, and disappeared from view. Cinnamon appeared, staring down at him. "Bridge is clear," she said to nobody in particular. "Sorry, Captain. Throw me in the brig later. Hmm..."

"Like distant rain," Rodonovan said, gazing at her hair falling toward him in wavy lines as she examined his chest wound.

"Don't try to talk."

Rodonovan tried to hold his lump of parched tongue, but words bubbled from between tangled lips. "Such beautiful grandchildren..."

"What?"

"Omen..." is ignorant....

Cinnamon's face roiled with distress. "I have to get Sei Javala up here."

"A chance," the old sailor had told Rodonovan.

"Stop trying to talk, Captain." Cinnamon stepped away, and he heard her using the comlink to hail the engine room.

"To live and die like an old man...."

"Shut up," Cinnamon snapped from leagues away. "You're not going to die."

"I think..." I already have.

####

She muttered, "Shut up," again and cursed Javala for his silence in the engine room. Through the glassless window of the bridge, the Aestiva was beautiful, donning deep shades to mark the twilight and already cloaked in a mantle of smoky blue fog about a quarter league out. Rodonovan's prostrate shuffling disturbed her. The pool spreading slowly around his head meant he was bleeding out. Cinnamon clutched the black comlink handset and keyed the send button for a ship-wide page. "Gods damn you, Javala! Bridge calling!"

A moment later: "Javala here. Steady down, Cinnamon, steady down. Madge retook the engine room and left little operational in it beyond a bank of engines. But we found more than a few sailors still with Rodonovan's flag -- all of them from the Wavery Islands, not a single Myriadian -- and she's clearing the ship deck by deck. I tell you, Ghost is near ready to scuttle."

"NEVER!"

"Steady -- down -- Cinnamon.... I'm in sickbay using the comlink. Where's the Captain?"

"Down. He's down."

"On my way. Careful now, Madge may be clearing decks, but your page means any remaining mutineers know you're on the bridge."

"Let them come." She dropped the handset, it banged against the console and dangled lamely from its black coiled wire. A sob scraped from her mouth. She knelt beside Rodonovan, watching him and the hatch. The captain's eyes were focused beyond the overhead conduits and his fingers delicately tickled the deck, leaving strokes in the leading edge of the blood pool.

"Hurry up," she muttered. Rodonovan's breathing took on a twitchy cadence, strangled and weak. A mealy panic began to ooze up from Cinnamon's bowels. She thought she heard the low boom of Soaking Madge clearing decks from far below. Had Javala just said no Myriadians survived or no Myriadians remained with Rodonovan? When the comlink crackled, she jumped, and cursed the witch man for lingering in the sickbay. Then she heard a tinny voice in a haze of fuzzy air.

"Ghost, this is Leviathan. Please acknowledge."

Cinnamon hopped toward the console, tripping over Squeezebox's body, and snatched at the still swinging handset. It squibbed from her grasp, but she clutched it after it bounced off the deck and rebounded. "Goblin? Is that you?"

"Aye, Goblin Rod here. Cinny? What're you doing on the `link?"

"We lost the ship."

"Say again. You what!"

Cinnamon opted not to admonish Goblin Rod for fouling the air with colorful strings of oaths as she quickly explained. "Squeezebox fookin' Davy!" Goblin yelled.

"He's dead."

"Unbelievable!"

Cinnamon imagined his giant round eyes bulging even farther from his ghoulish, sunken face as he brayed. "Believe it," she said.

Sei Javala flowed into the room and settled beside Rodonovan. Mantra clung to the healer's shoulder, little coos coiling into questions. Javala leaned in close to the Captain and murmured into his ear. She watched the healer cut away Rodonovan's shirt with a small blade and added, "And the Captain is down."

"Down? As in dead?"

"Not yet..." Cinnamon said, looking over her shoulder. "I mean no, he's not going to die." Javala gingerly laid hands on Rodonovan, eyes shut. "Where are you?"

"We're in the Broom. We are eastbound on your position."

Cinnamon turned to the west and saw only a billowy wall of fog. "How'd you know we were here? And how do you see anything?"

"The Dagian Guards received a distress signal from a heliunit. When they learned it was from this Ferracane character, you'd've thought the gods had descended to walk the seas. They were very... let's say, insistent that we break away from Fool's Cap and sail at full to the Fiery Ring. So we hit the Ring. The hells happened there? Like the whole region was drowned. We found the wreckage... Gods damn, Cinnamon, we found wreckage like the world had ended. But no body. I mean not his body. Which means not a damn thing in the Aestiva, right, but which about set these Dagian Guards into a mad arse frenzy of laughter and japing about good flying and bad landings."

Cinnamon stared with annoyance at the comlink. "Yes, yes, yes. Gods damned children, these Westerners." She paused. "Tell them that Dexter is dead. We have his body."

"Copy that."

"What?"

"That's Dagian Guard jargon for ‘I understand.'"

Why was he so gods damned chipper?

"They won't like to hear that, the Guard," Goblin was saying. "After they identified a lot of the wreckage as Miniak, their mood darkened considerably.... We have the Miniak in our waters now?"

"Aye."

"Well, that killed the laughs for sure and they started making a lot of angry talk and, for some reason, insisted we set sail for Chiming Harbor. So we left Charger and Monstrum to help out at the Ring and headed east. Got to admit I wasn't much liking being told what to do, seeing as I was commanding the flotilla. And Chiming Harbor? Why there? I mean I understand now, but I didn't then. Of all the places in the Aestiva, Rodonovan might chart a course for, how could they know to choose Chiming Harbor? They must have some pretty trick instruments in those flying contraptions. Or magicks, maybe magicks. Who knows? They're mum about that stuff. And Cinny, you should see these crazed lubbers use those contraptions."

"I know. Ridiculous."

"Ridiculous? It's a beautiful thing. Talk about magicks."

Cinnamon managed a grunt. A tear brimmed and rolled down her cheek. She gripped her widow's finger and twisted as if trying to slip off the rune. She glanced at Rodonovan, his blood now mingling with that of the other dead. He blinked in a disturbingly regular fashion.

Goblin Rod said, "The Guard are reading thirteen, repeat thirteen, vessels at your position. One friendly, that's you, twelve unidentified."

"Those twelve are Malakite submersibles."

"Submersibles? I thought that was just a rumor."

"Apparently not."

"Huh, well... They're not underwater now are they? How do you fight something under water, I wonder... Suppose the Guard will show us."

The fog's approach seemed to have slowed, but it magnified the rumble of idling engines and the tish and fizzle of water against hulls while also casting a deceptive tranquility over the twilight vista. "I think some of these ships are an escort for Ghost.... Squeezebox had some business with the Malakite Empire. I-I can't even imagine how that old tar got mixed up with -- you should've seen the Miniak. And the daemon... By the Gods..."

Goblin Rod said, "Well, well... this should be quite interesting. Are you in command then?"

"No, no, no, thank the gods. Sei Javala is here."

"Aye. I'm guessing you need sailors, yes?"

"Engineers for sure. And gobs who'll handle the weapons without turning them on us."

"Hah. I'll dispatch a tender to help you with that. See that the launch bay is open. And don't be surprised if you see a bunch of lunatic Westerners leaping out of the sky.... We are battle firmed and time out two minutes."

####

Rodonovan heard these chiding words: "I think it's safe to say that you've ruined this shirt." Ambra favored him with a one-sided smirk, almond eyes thinned into wry slits and veiled by a fall of black hair stippled with stardust. It wasn't her voice. "This is a bloody mess," she continued. "But you'll be okay." He knew that voice, coming from somewhere near his left ear. He tried to turn his head to get a look. "Don't move, Rodonovan."

Odd pain curled through his chest, as if a prickly, velvet spider scampered through him. The voice faded away, began to sound like it came from behind pillows. Velvet pillows. Ambra loved her bed piled with pillows. They annoyed the hells out of him. She would laugh and laugh as he burrowed through them to reach her. Like excavating a rainbow. "We need to get him to a working surgery. Did I hear Goblin Rod on that comlink?"

Another voice, nearly lost, said aye.

"Some kind of miracle..."

"Those Dagian Guards. Apparently."

"We need Leviathan's surgery. Please hail Goblin. Have him send a launch. If Sei Atlai's available, I could use his help. I need to stop this bleeding. Sooner rather than later."

"Getting a launch through a dozen hostiles might be tricky."

"The alternative, Cinnamon. Please consider that."

"Have you considered the alternative, Roddy?"

"You mean a life of solace? Without war, without death, and disconnect? Yes I have." Rodonovan looked down at Ambra, who sprawled across a rocky pile of pillows, colors lost beneath the spill from the gaping wound in her throat. One dull eye, nearly hidden behind a bruisy, drooping lid, had drifted off to gaze at the Misty Broom's fog.

"You quit on Taelemone and you would never feel connected," she said. "Never. And that would be the death of us. I love the man whose passion is the unity of his people."

"My passion is only you."

Her smile was open-mouthed, lazy. "Who are you lying to? I love you precisely because your passion is split."

"And if you had it all?"

She giggled. Her dead eyes locked on him. "That's an intriguing thought. Isn't it?"

####

When Cinnamon hailed Leviathan to request a launch for Rodonovan, an unfamiliar voice responded: "Helldiver's Ghost, this is Commander Cyrus Quartz, Red Shrike Unit, Dagian Guard, flying Plague One. Acknowledge. Over."

"Aye... uh, Commander Quartz?" Plague One?

"Please have Captain Swords and Corporal Dexter Revenant on deck and ready for aerial evac in two minutes. Stay on frequency, and be advised we are coming in hot. Do you copy? Over."

"C-copy, aye," Cinnamon said. She looked at Javala, who said, "We'll need help getting the Captain down there. Send a page and get some sailors up here with a gurney, but we don't want to arouse the Malakites."

"And we don't want any holdouts onboard to show up."

"That would be ideal, yes."

Cinnamon gave the sei a baleful look as she sent a general page throughout Ghost. She pawed at the tears on her cheeks and waited with weapons pointed at the bridge hatch until four beefy, but exhausted-looking sailors appeared. They were all Waverly Islanders. Terence Eight Legs carried a folded gurney tucked against his side. One eye was swollen shut, and a large scarlet and blue bruise burst across a handful of colorful spider tats ranging about his stout torso. "Ah, Cinny, good to see you," he said, making it clear it was good to see her dressed as she was. "I think we made it without attracting any unwanted attention. Not sure, but the salts on the closest ship seem a might agitated."

"Probably wondering what Squeezebox is up to," she said.

Eight Legs spat on the old gob's corpse. The others followed suit, adding curses.

"Gentlemyn," Javala said, "to the business at hand." Under his direction, the sailors muscled Rodonovan onto the gurney. He barely fit. "I trust someone has managed with Dexter Revenant," the healer said while scrutinizing the Captain's wound, which, although he had cleaned, welled anew with blood. "His remains are in something of a state."

The four sweat- and soot-streaked sailors loosed chuckles. "Aye, a bit of a mess," one of them muttered. "A fookin' tragedy, that," another said to more laughter.

"Soaking Madge said she'd handle it." Terence tried and failed to mask his amusement.

"I'm happy you poltroons are entertaining yourselves," Cinnamon said, disconnecting the comlink's handset from its wire and clipping it to the band of her shorties. Over the sailors' laughter at her name-calling she said, "Any ideas on how we make the move inconspicuous?"

Sei Javala shook his head. "The fog will help some. But we certainly don't want to be lingering on deck. Ideally, arriving on the deck same time as -- " The handset vibrated against her hip, and the comlink speakers crackled.. Cinnamon expected to hear the Quartz fellow's terse voice or Goblin Rod. Instead she heard something else entirely.

"That's fookin' Malakite," Terence said and shushed everyone before they could chatter over the voice. "Har. He's wonderin' when that ‘old arsehole's' gonna get Ghost under sail. Figurin' that one o' his own was to be handlin' the `link, I suppose."

"You speak Malakite?"

Terence Eight Legs winked at Cinnamon. "If you was an expeditionary sailor in the Waveries, you had to. Them Malakites are greedy for our land and resources and whatnot and they been sniffin' around down south for decades with their posy, shark-grinnin' diplomatic retinues." He added some snoot to the last two words. "Never knew when we might haveta sniff back. Want me to respond?"

"Never mind," Cinnamon said, thumbing the handset's volume knob down . "We have to move the Captain right now. Let's go."

The four sailors lifted the gurney with a collective grunt. They balanced Rodonovan precariously on the narrow canvas, his legs hanging absurdly over the end, spread wide to accommodate the two bearers. His blood had already left a fist-sized black stain on the olive canvas. He mumbled incomprehensibly.

They shuffled along the overlook, keeping low, and stopped at the ladder. No one said anything, but Cinnamon thought, this will be a trick, as she gauged the steep descent. "We wait here until Goblin Rod arrives," she said, peeking over the railing. As far as she could tell, the Malakite sailors, apparently none the wiser despite Eight Legs' worry, relaxed at their deck guns on the nearest ships. She could see conversations, smiles, easiness. "Then we have to hustle the Captain down this ladder without you tumbling and without him slipping off." Twilight lingered. Her handset scratched and murmured with clipped snatches of impenetrable Western military lingo. The heaviest of the fog seemed to have stalled, hanging back about a quarter league like a motley grey veil and blurring the submersibles farthest to the west into shades. Chill, silken threads of mist haunted the air surrounding Ghost.

"We wouldn't drop the Captain, if'n we were in the middle of a typhoon," Terence said, his swollen eye crinkling his face into a grave mask. The other three sailors looked deadly serious as well, as if she'd just insulted their mothers. Cinnamon almost laughed, but the realization that these men, with no real stake in any part of Rodonovan's quest, were the only ones still standing with him -- and her -- strangled it to a halting breath. She looked west over the railing before they saw the shame in her eyes.

Shapes burst from the wall of fog. Goblin Rod's juggernaut, Leviathan, and the two dreadnoughts, The Wandering Witch and Tessa's Chance, bearded in whitewater, formed a grey wedge that crushed two outlying submersibles in a puff of hull pieces. Just over the huge jug's prow, like some kind of shadow, flew the Western heliunits. Four small Vipra gunships like Rodononvan's ornament, four plumper Falcons, and the massive three-rotored Drakar, what they called an aerial fire platform.

"Let's move!" Cinnamon said as the sound of destruction rolled over Ghost and the heliunits broke formation, the Drakar curling skyward, the others dropping below the height of Leviathan's ram. The four sailors hunkered over and hauled Rodonovan down the stairs with surprising agility. They hit the main deck, and bent at the waists, ran aft with the gurney held between them. Low grunts puffed from them, reminding Cinnamon of the strange rhythms Sei Javala had had the men making.

They halted on the port side of the lighted afterdeck where Rodonovan's heliunit used to be moored. Soaking Madge, squatted next to a black-stained grey canvas sack that had marked her trail on the black deck with a wide glossy band. Blood and bruises and sweat blotched her face, and she cradled her right arm. "I didn't know how else to move what was left of him," she said through a horrendous gash in her upper lip. Deep, exhausted breaths barked from her. Sei Javala tried to examine her injured arm, but she shook her head violently. "Not now!" She realized who she just snapped at and said, "Please, Sei, not now."

Cinnamon volumed up the handset and took a look-see over the railing. Heliunits threaded among the submersibles with the grace of innocent insects. From the Falcons' open side doors, black-clad men trained exotic weapons on the Malakite sailors, who scurried to bring ship-to-ship cannons to bear on the airborne threat. Overhead, the giant Drakar wheeled around the purpling crater of sky, its main rotors like twin parasols. The rapid tattoo of rotor blades pummeled the air like drums, echoing off the fogbank to create a mad polyrhythm.

Mantra cooed in distress, possibly at the noise, and umbrella-ed her wings protectively over the Captain's face. Rodonovan, however, was oblivious to that gesture, focused, it seemed, on things well beyond the immediate.

The handset clicked and crackled, startling Cinnamon and making her curse her jumpiness. A monotone voice just audible over the noise, said, "Black Death One, in position at heaven mark, all weapons systems gold to go," and was answered by another nonchalant, but scratchy utterance, "Copy that."

Before she could consider what that might mean, yet a third voice, this one amplified, reverberated among the vessels in Malakite.

"It's our flying lubbers," Eight Legs said, eyes roving the sky. "The accent is terrible. ‘Stand down or die.' Heh heh. ‘Hold your fire or be met with... an overwhelming response. Stand down.'" He paused, fresh sweat steaming off the spiders on his head. "Then it repeats."

The handset chittered again, and Commander Quartz said, "Helldiver's Ghost, this is Plague One, are you in position? Over."

With chilled fingers, Cinnamon fumbled the handset from her waistband. "Aye... copy... Uh, over."

"Prepare for dust-off. Over."

Leviathan had veered to the north, skirting the wall of fog, tall and long, running lights blazing like a king's cutter, while the dreads had cut south, all weapons directed at the much smaller Malakite ships. From the west, a large launch bounded toward Ghost, escorted by a bevy of fast boats and a single Vipra trailing behind like a gull.

Sei Javala said, "Madge, please go back down to the bay and await the launch."

"Aye." Soaking Madge jogged away, huddled over her injured arm.

The comlink crackled again: "Chaos Three in position on Resource One."

The Falcons converged on Ghost, Low, nearly identical voices droned from the handset: "Chaos One in position." "Chaos Two in position." "Chaos Four in position." Three Vipras faced the submersibles in a long, low arc to the east. The Falcons hovered just off portside, their rotorwash abrading the water. At the side doors of one, two Dagian Guard readied a thick-armed winch from which swung heavy black straps. On the closest Malakite ship, the sailors still wrestled with their deck weapons.

"Plague One, Chaos Two. Over."

"Copy, Chaos Two. Over."

"All bogeys remaining hard. Bogey Seven, Bogey Eight, and Bogey Nine bringing weapons to bear on Resource One. Repeat, Bogeys Seven, Eight, and Nine going red. Over."

"Copy.... Black Death, Plague One. Over."

"Copy, Plague One. Over."

"Please remove Bogey Seven from the battlespace. Over."

"Copy that."

The Drakar lit up like a sun vomiting its guts into the sea. Booming, whirring, and booming some more, it raised a fire-wrapped fountain where once were three submersibles. A gargantuan concussion slapped Ghost, spiking deep into Cinnamon's ears. The others grimaced and Mantra darted away aft, ducking down below deck height probably to hide on the fantail. Even Rodonovan stirred from his death reverie.

In the dirty silence that followed, the Dagian Guards renewed their warning. Cinnamon worked her jaw, trying to get her ears to pop. A surge of angry water set Ghost to rocking. One submersible had vanished beneath a black cloud twisting into the sky, rising like a soul from a Wavery death song. A second had foundered and another had capsized, revealing a mysterious propulsion system that, under different circumstances would've fascinated Cinnamon. Cross-chatter sizzled from the handset, confirming what she saw: crews on the Malakite ships stepping away from their weapons, tossing arms in the air.

More Malakite echoed among the ships. Eight Legs laughed. "The Westerners just thanked them for their continued cooperation," he said.

Leviathan's launch neared Ghost, and a low vibration in the afterdeck told Cinnamon that the bay doors were opening. With Sei Javala accompanying the Captain to Leviathan, that meant she had the helm. She'd need a plan. She wished Omen was there. Gods damn him.

"Plague One, Plague Two. Over."

"Plague Two, go. Over."

"We are making out some kind of disturbance on the water. Approximately fifteen degrees aft of your grave mark. Can you confirm?"

"Copy that. Can't tell. Chaos Team, Black Death, can we get an assist?"

Various staticky voices chimed in, acknowledging the phenomenon, but unable to identify its cause. Cinnamon looked over the railing to see a patch of boiling water between the approaching launch and the closest Malakite ship. Two of the Falcons had turned bright spotlights on the area. Had one of the submersibles fired some kind of underwater weapon at the launch?

The sea blistered and burst, releasing a gray behemoth that leapt skyward. The escort Vipra, Chaos Three, sidled away from the thing as it whomped down within paces of the Leviathan's launch, drenching it and the fast boats with a silvery fan. Its glistening hull shed rivers of water.

"Another submersible!" Eight Legs said, as one of the Vipras shifted its position to cover the new ship.

"Black Death, Plague One. Target new bogey. Over."

"We are locked and gold for fire. Over."

"Copy that."

Thick black smoke suddenly spewed from the new ship's superstructure and shredded into threads under the Falcons' rotor wash.

"Hatch is open on new bogey," a Dagian Guard said. "Repeat, hatch is open."

"Black Death, stand by for fire call. Over."

"Standing by."

Cloaked within the twirling smoke and lighted from below by flickering fire, a figure rose. In the evenfall and thickening fog, it seemed red, blood red, and its eyes, flashing in the parrying white bands of the two spotlights glowed red too.

"We have movement on deck. Over."

"What in the hells..." Cinnamon's skin prickled.

The figure pumped a red arm in the air. It held a sword, one that glittered in the spotlights like a gem. It howled bloodlust. The handset rattled with excited hoots and singsong cries of "K-Dom!" and "Wall-to-wall!" that made Cinnamon forget her utter exhaustion and despair and stoked the fires of her annoyance. Then Colonel Quartz's voice broke through: "Plague Two, Plague One, please extract that lunatic. Over."

"All due respect, Sir, you remember what happened the last time. Over."

"Just give him his space until you get him to Leviathan. Over."

"Well, sir, we're combat heavy, we haven't much space to give, and he's, you know, got a sword.... Over."

"Plague Two, make the pick up... And whatever you do, don't look at him or make any sudden moves or noises. Over."

Laughs and japes followed that remark as a Falcon moved away from Ghost to hover over the smoldering superstructure. It settled down, down, down until it seemed it might alight on Ferracane's head. He grabbed a handle beside the side door and hoisted himself up. The Falcon peeled slowly away and curled toward Ghost. Cinnamon's annoyance withered as quickly as it had bloomed when she saw Kai Ferracane sitting in the doorway, legs hanging over the edge, sword across his lap. With his eyes closed, he seemed at peace; he was drenched in blood.

The Falcon sped up and faded to the north toward Leviathan.

"Helldiver's Ghost, Plague One is gold for dust off. Over."

The flurry of debris and unsecured items kicked up by the Falcons' rotor wash helped Cinnamon define "dust off." Squinting, she reached for the thick, looped straps dropping quickly from Plague One. Eight Legs helped her work one strap over Rodonovan's suddenly restless legs and under the rear of the gurney. Sei Javala fitted the other carefully over the Captain's head.

Cinnamon looked up to see a masked and goggled face peering impassively back at her from beside the winch. She tugged the line twice and thrust a fist upward to indicate they were ready. The soldier returned a black-gloved fist with an extended thumb. The gurney began to rise.

"HOLD!" Rodonovan's hoarse voice broke and his hand clutched feebly at the winch strap, flopped away and continued to hop and grasp at the air like a landed fish.

"You mustn't," Sei Javala said, trying to calm the captain. But Rodonovan swatted at the healer, then grabbed his hand, making him wince. "NO!" Rodonovan managed to turn his head toward Cinnamon. "Set a course," he said, his eyes wide, fevered, and desperate. "Set a course east. We're going to the West."

THE END


© 2009 Dan Edelman

Bio: Dan Edelman lives in Ramona, CA, where he does contract work as a writer/editor. He mostly look after the kids and has not, sadly, done much fun writing in recent years. Fortunately for Aphelion readers, his stories Swords in the Fire (to which Helldiver is a sequel of sorts), Bone Up Yar and The Jazz-Jazz (which featured the fearsome Kai Ferracane), appeared in this very webzine (in November 2004, February 2005, and March 2005 respectively). Part I of Helldiver appeared in our previous issue (link provided at the beginning of this file.)

E-mail: Dan Edelman

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