Torvo Espada peered into the predawn darkness at the flashes of cannon fire while humming a song to himself. The rhythm pounding through every muscle in his body matched the distant cannon volleys. Beside him Melinda Gosse called out orders to the crew and then glanced at him. "It's time. They're so busy trying to blow Papa out of the water, they won't see us coming." Her
voice had a quiver that he hadn't noticed when they set sail from Utopia.
Torvo nodded and stepped quickly across the deck, double-checking on the grappling cannon. It was ready. Behind him, Melinda and her husband spoke together in hushed tones. Tense minutes passed as the two battling ships grew closer. The Uncharted Course fired volley after volley towards the Black Freighter. But the shots seemed to have little or no effect. The Freighter fired only occasionally, but every shot struck home. Only the Course's fine construction kept her afloat.
Melinda called out to her men, "We all know what's at stake. Maximillian said that if we can take out the figurehead and Necros, that thing will sink. Nothing else will do it. So we grapple on and hold off the skeletons long enough for Papa to board and get back to us. We've got to keep the Toro clear or no one makes it off that thing alive. Now, full speed" Her men rushed to obey.
Minutes later the Toro Rojo slipped through the water just aft of the Freighter and fired the grappling cannons. Skeletal forms smashed apart as the grappling hooks crashed through them and into the decking. Thick ropes pulled tight and anchored the two vessels together. The Freighter's crew were so focused upon the cannon duel that they hadn't even tried to evade. With a shout, Torvo led Gosse's Gentlemen onto the Freighter.
The planking and decks were made of men's bones hammered tightly into place. Above, sails made from human flesh quivered with screams of torment. Dozens of crew in various stages of decomposition shuffled forward brandishing rusty broken swords. Torvo lightly danced into their midst. He turned in time with the song in his mind and slashed to the right and to the left. Two figures slumped to the ground as his sword sliced through their dead flesh. Yet more crowded in close and he thrust madly about, cutting into skeletal forms with each motion. A white haired skeleton dressed in a Montaigne naval officers uniform stepped forward and slashed out with a sword. Torvo bowed low and the sword passed harmlessly over his head. Then he stood and easily parried the next blow. A lightning fast riposte sliced across the figure's bony neck and the long-haired head toppled to the deck. The rest of the body collapsed beside it. All around him a horde of skeletal figures reached towards him with clawed hands or rusty cutlasses. But Torvo pirouetted to the song only he could hear and lashed out with his length of fine Castillian steel.
The other Gosse crew rushed to fill the opening he had created and push the creatures back from their ship. Torvo glanced around as he wiped the sweat from his brow. Another ship had appeared amidst the early dawn light and was rowing closer. Torvo wondered who would be foolish enough to want to get involved with a fight against the Black Freighter. The Uncharted Course had approached to only a few yards and Pete Silver fired a load of grapeshot onto the Freighter. The rain of iron crashed through the massed crew and cleared the deck.
"Come on," Torvo shouted and the crew rushed onto the bone scattered main deck. Before them, a wave of undead figures lurched towards forward. Even worse, an ominous click-clacking sound arose all around them. Torvo slashed open one of his opponents and whirled about. The bones they'd smashed apart were snapping together again and reforming. The bones of the decking were pulling free and forming into even more creatures, leaving gaping holes which threatened to drop Gosse's men into the bowels of the Legion-spawned ship. The scholar was right. Destroying these lesser things wasn't working.
Suddenly, a beautiful woman wearing only wisps of silk and two scimitars drifted before him. She spun lightly around and the silk twirled with her, giving flashes of pale skin. As he marveled at her dance, he suddenly spotted a gaping cut beneath the silk where a sword had ripped open her stomach. Maggots writhed within the wound. She lashed out with her scimitars, but he swayed to one side and one weapon passed harmlessly. Still gazing at the awful cut that marred her beauty, he barely parried the other blade and stamped his feet in a new rhythm. Instantly years of training reasserted itself and he ignored her appearance and concentrated upon her whirling blades. He thrust at her, but she brought her weapons together to block his attack. The two fought for several heartbeats until he cut at her strongly. The blow drove one of her swords to the side and the two locked eyes for a long moment. Both of them knew at that moment that the dance's rhythm was stronger within his still-beating heart. She could not defeat him today.
Before he could press his advantage, a line of fire separated them. Both turned to see a man dressed in Crescent robes holding a lash made of living fire.
"Who in Theus's name are you?" Torvo asked.
A skeleton rushed the man and he flicked his wrist. The fire engulfed the thing and consumed it before it took another step. The woman hissed, "Espera."
"I've come for you, Dalia." The man's accent and swarthy features were Castillian, but he spoke the Crescent tongue without an accent. Torvo raised an eyebrow and asked, "Waiting? Isn't that a somewhat obvious pseudonym?"
"You should speak. Aren't you the swordsman who calls himself Grim Sword?"
Torvo blushed. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
They both turned, but Dalia was gone. Ernesto swore quietly. "I must find her again." He whirled the whip of flames about him until the undead creatures backed away and then he threw himself into the press of the battle. The skeletons turned to Torvo with a hungry eye and rushed towards him. For several moments, his life became the swords thrusting towards him, the parries that the music dictated and the rhythm in his head. Suddenly Phillip Gosse stood beside him and cut into the dry bones of Torvo's attackers. They drew back for a moment and Phillip took the brief moment to speak.
"This is my last voyage, Torvo, not yours. I'll take care of the figurehead and Necros, you light the fuse and save my daughter." The urgency in his voice spoke louder than his words. "Save all that you can. Let everyone know what we did this day. Let them all know. This world needs to know that there are those willing to do what must be done."
Torvo nodded and tried to speak, but his heart was too full. Finally he choked out, "It was a pleasure to sail with you, sir."
Phillip turned to look him in the eye. "Your father would be proud of you. I know I am." Then he stepped away into the swirl of the fight.
Torvo called out at the top of his lungs. "We've done our job, men. Back to the boat!" He stood his ground for a moment longer and ducked back as two decaying pirates lumbered at him. They collided and fell to the ground in a tangled pile of bones.
Leaving Torvo behind, Phillip pressed into the fray alone. The Castillian had drawn the most skilled and bloodthirsty to him already, so Phillip was able to push through quickly, almost mechanically as he dwelt on his memories. Since stepping aboard this unholy vessel, Gosse had known that it would end today. Either Méchant
or himself would not survive this day. And Necros could not be allowed to terrorize
the innocent any longer. Everything else was unimportant. Well, perhaps not everything.
Melinda meant as much to him. She was kind hearted, but adventuresome. Brave
and beautiful. Full of life and hope. Everything he could have hoped for, the
best of himself and Clarissa. If only Clarissa could have seen her grow up.
Phillip felt the familiar pain in his heart. Clarissa had been his heart and soul. He had cherished every moment with her. His only regret in his long life was in repaying her murder with the brutality that she had always despised. Every day since her death, Phillip had gone over it in his mind, his one loss of control. Even for her own death, Clarissa would never have approved of how he had killed Méchant, left him broken and tied to the mast of his flaming vessel. But the sight of her...
Phillip choked back a tear and concentrated on the task at hand. A ghastly form lurched across the foredeck towards him; its decaying flesh seemed ready to burst with putrefied liquids and gasses. Phillip drew out a pistol and casually fired into the creature's chest. It burst, sending a wave of foulness onto the skeletal forms beside it, knocking them to the ground. Phillip leaped the foul puddle and continued forward, driven by his thoughts.
Necros was his handiwork, but hindsight sailed no ships, as Andre often said. The boy would be good for Melinda, a cool head to keep her on track.
Ignoring his unholy and unnatural surroundings, Phillip nimbly parried and dodged skeletal assailants, making no effort to attack back. Long years of experience agreed with Maximillian's advice: these poor souls while dangerous, were inconsequential. His men knew their business, and would buy him the time he needed.
Approaching the ship's prow, Phillip got his first good look at the ship's undead figurehead. Legend said that it was the Freighter's first captain, bound to the ship both literally and figuratively hundreds of years ago. The creature lashed to the ship's prow looked as if he had been there at least that long. Any clothing had long since worn off and skeletal face was permanently bent in a scream that its decayed lungs could no longer form - a silent wail of eternal agony.
Easily dispatching the few skeletal defenders around him, Phillip began the grim task of cutting the thing free. What would be the effect of allowing the figurehead to escape its eternal torment? But there was no time for what-ifs. He slashed out and the thing's left arm came free. The bonds that held it in place began to bleed a thick black fluid. After another two swings both of its arms were free and it drew them in tight against its chest despite centuries of disuse. A low moaning began to fill the air around it. As Phillip bent to work on its legs, he saw its face turned to him and a sudden strangled sound escape his throat.
Without thinking, Phillip rolled to his left, just as a cutlass pierced the spot were he had been. He brought his own sword around and cut the skeleton's legs out from under him, driving his rapier through the monster's skull as it collapsed to the deck. Onboard the Uncharted Course, he saw Torvo rally the last of his men and dash off. A powder trail burned brightly behind them, but the skeletons ignored it in favor of the fresh blood of his crew.
Moving more quickly, Phillip resumed his task, rapidly cutting loose the thing's legs and torso. As he did so, a bloodcurdling cry escaped its parched throat and its hands met each other in a mockery of prayer as it toppled free from its confines.
"You are MINE!" The voice that had haunted him for so long was as clear as on the day it swore eternal vengeance against him. Necros stood before him on the deck of the Black Freighter, tall and foreboding. He glared down at Gosse's handiwork. The undead figurehead moaned in horror - or was it relief - as it slid down the prow into the sea.
"Do you think that will save you from me?" Necros howled.
"I don't know," Gosse mused. "Let's find out." He stood and turned his sword towards the undead captain. Suddenly, his limbs felt old and leaden. The energy drained out of him and though he assumed his fencing stance with seeming confidence, a great weight had descended upon his heart.
"It ends today, Méchant," Phillip declared. Even to his own ears, his voice sounded feeble and tired. As the two great enemies met each other's eyes, there was no moment of understanding; none of the grudging-but-mutual respect Phillip had shared with most of his other opponents. In Necros's eyes shone only hatred, and in Phillip Gosse's, sorrow. Sorrow for the innocents butchered by this monster, for the loyal members of his crew that would die this day, even for the tormented souls forced to labor under Necros's lash. But none for the man himself. For Necros, Phillip had only anger. As his rage grew, his advance turned into a charge, his sword leading the way.
Necros easily parried his lunge, and returned a blinding series of ripostes and feints, none going for the kill, merely gauging his opponent. Phillip did not remember Méchant being that fast, as he desperately tried to parry the skilled attacks. Either death had been good to Necros, or life had been cruel to Phillip.
Necros read the expression on his opponent's face, and began to laugh, a horrible, dry cackling. "You've gotten old, Avalonian. Do you find it ironic that your twenty years of life have decayed you, while my years of death have preserved me? I'm going to laugh as I throw your corpse to the Queen of the Sea, and I shall laugh even harder when she returns your skeleton to serve me. Just as Thomas did."
Gosse's face twisted into a mask of rage, as he abandoned any regard for his own life, attacking Necros with reckless fury. But while the spirit was willing, his flesh was weak. Necros parried every attack with contemptuous ease and Phillip's arms grew weaker with each blow. The now familiar pounding in his chest returned and his breath came in gasps. Phillip was outmatched and he knew it. With that knowledge, the rage faded to be replaced with a peace that Utopia without Clarissa could never give him. Glancing past Necros he saw the powder trail still burning onboard the Uncharted Course and he circled to right.
"It's going to end, Necros. It only took one moment of cruelty to create you, and it will only take one moment of heroism to destroy you. You lost this fight before it ever began."
Necros unleashed another furious series of attacks. Gosse parried each of them and retreated with a calm Necros had never seen. Two skeletons rushed towards the man's back, but Necros waved them off.
"I said, HE'S MINE!" As his sword flew at Phillip, Necros realized that Gosse truly thought this fight was already a foregone conclusion, that he considered the outcome...trivial. Necros refused to accept that. He had waited twenty years for this day, sold his soul to Legion and damned himself for eternity, solely for revenge, and this pathetic old man thought it was trivial? With a cry of rage, he pushed his attack harder and harder until the old man's foot slipped from beneath him. He collapsed to the deck and Necros stepped over him with his sword poised at the old man's throat. Still that damned peace in Gosse's eyes made his revenge feel hollow. Then someone cleared his throat behind him.
Castillus wore a cloak of fire around his shoulders as he strode through
the ship of the damned. Anything which came too close burst into
flames. Swords melted, bones sublimed, and rotting flesh burnt into a foul ash.
Still Ernesto continued on, looking for what he had lost. He watched Gosse's
Gentlemen retreat across the decks towards their small vessel. He hoped the Freedom's
Key had more sense than to get too close to the accursed Freighter.
Then he spotted an old man desperately fighting against the decaying figure of Captain Necros himself. The abomination screamed out, "HE'S MINE!" as he drove the old man back towards the Uncharted Course. Ernesto wavered for a moment as he considered. Dalia had a taste for power, she would be near the captain. Three more skeletons rushed towards him carrying muskets. They stopped a few yards away and leveled their weapons. With a sweeping gesture of his arm, Ernesto flung a wave of flames that engulfed them in blazing heat. The gunpowder in their muskets ignited and the guns exploded. Ernesto stalked past them without another thought.
Necros had forced Gosse to the deck and stood over him. Ernesto cleared his throat and said lightly, "Forgive me for interrupting, señor Necros..."
The undead captain whirled to face him. His harsh features twisted into a look of astonishment. "Who in Legion's name are you?!"
"Just a man looking for something he lost."
"Son, leave me!" Gosse shouted. "Get out of here right now or you'll die!"
"I didn't come to die, old man. I have come for Dalia."
"Fool," Necros sneered "She has joined the ranks of the undead and none may return from that."
"I refuse to accept that. Not while I have this." Ernesto held up a fist sized glittering gem. "The Guiding Gem of Hierro has the power to fulfill any wish."
Necros suddenly grinned broadly. "Any wish? It can return the dead to life? True life? Not this filthy mockery? I can have my vengeance upon Gosse and be restored to life? This is even sweeter than I imagined!" He gestured to his crew. "Get me the gem!"
Ernesto grimaced and the cloak of flames about his shoulders expanded into a sheet of fire three strides wide. The skeletons that didn't move fast enough screamed in agony as they were incinerated.
"You're more foolish than I thought," Necros laughed. "Legion has granted me complete power on board this ship." The captain waved negligently at Ernesto and the flames disappeared. Ernesto gasped in sudden panic as the skeletons began stepping across the burnt bones of the deck towards him.
Suddenly Dalia stepped from the closing circle of skeletons that had gathered around the three of them. Her features still held her cold beauty amid silk scarves. "What did you expect, Espera? Were you just going to rush aboard Legion's own ship and sweep me off my feet? Is that what you wanted?"
Ernesto calmed at the sight of her and stood up straight. "I am Espera no longer. My name is Ernesto. Ernesto Castillus. And I want what I always wanted. What I always waited for. What I always wished for. I wish for you, Dalia." As he spoke Ernesto concentrated on the passion in his heart, the love he felt for her and trickled that heat, that thread of fire into the gem in his hand. It splintered into dust and flame and then a ball of fire exploded from it that towered over the figures beneath it. One side of the inferno reached out and it formed an enormous wing. Another wing emerged from the other side. Then a massive head reached out. The figure of an enormous bird created of fire and grace and power spread its wings and cried out in exhilarating triumph.
Necros began to step forward, only to feel a strange stiffening in his foot. He turned to see Gosse looking serenely at him, his hand clutching the hilt of a dagger - a dagger which had just pinned Necros's foot to the deck.
"Where do you think you're going old friend?" he old man smiled.
Beyond them, the firebird expanded across the deck. One wing passed through the Uncharted Course and the carefully prepared kegs of gunpowder exploded. Torvo had just jumped onboard El Toro Rojo with a handful of others and he turned in horror to watch as wood splinters, bone fragments and fire filled the air where the Uncharted Course had been. The wave of destruction engulfed the members of Gosse's Gentlemen still struggling to reach safety and then hurled the Toro Rojo far from the flames.
The Black Freighter shattered under the double explosions and cracked apart as scores of figures were instantly consumed by flames. At the center of the firestorm, Gosse sighed in relief as the wall of flames washed over him. Necros screamed out his frustration and anger as his vengeance turned to ash before his eyes, then he too ignited and burned in the inferno. Ernesto grabbed Dalia's hand as the wall of fire engulfed them as well.
The phoenix extended its neck far into the sky, absorbing all of the flames into itself before sweeping its wings down and launching itself into the air. It rose high into the sky before becoming no more than another star in the early morning sky, leaving behind it the shattered wreckage of the undead Freighter.
Ernesto landed with a splash some distance away. The water absorbed some of the impact, allowing him to keep his grip on the woman still locked in his embrace. He gazed around at the burning scraps of bone still floating upon the sea's surface. He had told Dunti to return when he received Ernesto's signal. The firebird should have been enough signal for any man. Yes, there in the distance, he saw the Freedom's Key slipping towards them. In Ernesto's arms Dalia's warm figure stirred slightly and he lifted her head a bit more. Allowing her to drown after so much effort was far too bitter a fate to allow. The sun finally broke through the thick clouds and scattered droplights of light across the sea.
"For you, my darling," Ernesto whispered to Dalia's softly breathing form. "All for you."