Fate's Choice
by Rob Vaux

   "Fire again." The General gestured at the gunner to his left and the great cannon belched merciless steel. Across the breach the Hanged Man shuddered from another blow. General smiled. "When they've had enough, board it and bring me Allende. He'll face justice at l'Empereur's pleasure."

   Alesio ignored the fire which spread across the deck, silenced the cries of the wounded in her ears, drowned the smell of gunshot and burned flesh that filled her nostrils. The Strands were more important, the spiderweb links of fate and destiny that bound it all together. "It cannot end here," she whispered as she grasped the first strand. "Allende does not die by the General's gun..."

   "But you will betray him," her doubts whispered back. "We will fall to his enemies by your hand..."

   Her hand faltered and the strand fell from her fingers. "No..." she whispered. "I can save him..."

   "You will betray him. Now or later, your treachery is foretold."

   "I am a Fate Witch," she cried waveringly. "Nothing is foretold!"

   The laughter bit back at her like a razor.

   The explosion ripped across the mast at the speed of sound. Sail and spars fell like rain as Grenouille du Gráce moved closer. Allende tried to shout orders at the screaming men around him, but his voice was smothered beneath the smoke. The Hanged Man lurched lower in the water and he wondered how long the hold would remain intact. "Where's Alesio?" he howled vainly. "Find my mate! Now!" Amid the chaos, he could see no sign of the wayward Fate Witch.

   The Montaigne hurled grappling hooks. His eyes widened and he drew his cutlass. "Prepare to repel boarders!"

   It was too much. Too many possibilities dancing in front of her. She does nothing, he dies by the guns. She silences the guns, he's taken by a knife. She saves him now, he falls by her hand. The webs became a tangle, taunting her, mocking her. "Your treachery is foretold. There is nothing you can do. Nothing..."

   Allende dove from the cannon an instant before it exploded. The Montaigne sailors bearing down on him vanished in a gout of flame. There were more where they had come from, however. He looked up in time to see Denny la Bree plunge overboard, a half-dozen enemies falling with him. "Alesio," he whispered. "We need you now, or the Brotherhood dies here."

   With the eyes of the damned, he drew his pistol and searched for a target.

   "I can't..." she almost sobbed. "Too many strands, too strong a destiny. I will betray him..." The strands seemed to close in around her, wrapping around her like snakes. "It is foretold..."

   There. Her eyes narrowed as she saw it. Hidden beneath the tangle, buried by her doubts: one small shining strand. A possibility so remote that none but the mad would even consider it. But it was there. Eagerly, she grasped it in her hands and began to pull...

   The General could almost smile. It was only a matter of time now. All he had to do was wait.

   The soft, wet tear of reality smacked behind him. He turned in time to bump into the breathless Porté messenger stepping from the shadows between worlds. "My lord," the messenger panted. "You must come back to San Augustin immediately! Admiral Orduño has broken the blockade..."

   Allende watched with disbelieving eyes as the Montaigne sailors began a fighting retreat. One by one, they withdrew, turning back to the Grenouille du Gráce and leaving the Brotherhood sailors behind. Through the smoke and flames, he could see the Montaigne vessel raise sail and turn north - leaving her helpless prey behind. His cutlass fell limply from his hands as he walked to the railing of his listing ship. The Grenouille sped away with unnerving speed, skipping across the waves like a stone. Wherever they were going, they were in an awful hurry.

   "She did it..." he breathed. "Somehow, she did it..."

   From the tattered remnants of the Hanged Man's deck, Alesio dropped the shining strand - the lifeline that had saved them.

   "You will betray him..." her doubts still whispered.

   "Yes," she answered. "But what happens then?"