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His Third Home
Shirt O' Cannonballs
Shirt O' Cannonballs
TRACLUSE DRAPED the shirt o' cannonballs over his shoulders as he gripped his right hand, the stump of his pinkie finger gushing blood. Moments earlier they released him from the contraption, and that brought its own torment, as his stretched joints protested violently once gravity reclaimed dominion over them. He bent double, but the knee of a sailor in his face brought him up again.
The captain stood against the wall, hands clasped behind his back, watching with a detached grin on his face. He seemed to be waiting for him to do something, and Anurag, despite his shocky state, knew what it was. The captain wanted him to curse and rage at them—at him—so he could hang him once again and bring the whip down and do him in that way.
He kept his mouth closed. He glared instead, his face crimson, his teeth gritting against the throbbing in his maimed finger like a salted ice pick in an open wound, and fury caught like hot coal in his throat. His eyes streamed and his nose bled, and spit ran from both corners of his mouth, hung off his chin.
The ordnance about his shoulders felt like a metal python. The weight of it was enormous, but evenly distributed as it was, was just possible to stand against. They finished wrapping it about him; the one in front ordered, "Take this."
It was the end of the chain.
The captain patiently waited. One of his eyebrows rose as he stared at him.
Anurag released his injured hand and grabbed the chain, which was just reachable. He knew if he dropped it he’d be hung back up. He pressed his halved stump into a metal link as hard as he could to stem the blood loss. The pain made him cry out.
The captain marched up the hatch stairs.
"Up, you," growled a Tracluse behind him.
The huge weight of the shirt o' cannonballs burned through his long-unused legs as he lurched forward. At the foot of the stairs he looked up. There were only twelve or so to climb, but from his vantage point they looked impossible.
The point of a sword dug into his lower back. "Up, or lose a kidney, sea rat.”
He took the step; then, before the Tracluse could threaten him again, he powered up to the tenth, where he stopped, winded and woozy.
Another sharp poke in his back.
"Time to drown, sea rat. C'mon now, you're holding up the captain, and he doesn't like to wait."
He took the eleventh step, his legs shaking.
He had heard a commotion earlier; now he knew what it was. The ship's crew had gathered and were waiting for him. They stood in two long lines which began at the hatch and ended at the plank. When they saw him they started singing.
"Sea rat! Sea rat!
Walk the plank, an' that'll be that!
Sea rat! Sea rat!
Deep is thy grave,
Crush ye flat!
Sea rat! Sea rat!
Dive like ye mean it,
Walk the plank, an' that'll be that!
Sea rat! Sea rat!
Deep is thy grave,
Crush ye flat!
Sea rat! Sea rat!
Dive like ye mean it,
He took the final step to the top deck, squinting against bright sunshine.
He stumbled forward, the sword prodding him on. The crew spat on him as he marched between them. Some had small whips of their own. As he passed they took a lash or two at his head.
The plank was starboard, not too far from the bow of the boat, just next to the anchor chain. He took note of the fact as he did of the captain, who stood now at the foot of the three stairs to the plank itself, smiling in satisfaction and holding a necklace with a small leather bag pendant.
The whips bloodied his head, making it difficult to see. He stumbled forward as quickly as he could. At the plank he watched as the old man approached and draped the necklace over his head. The Tracluse stopped singing.
"Your finger," said the captain. "Bon voyage, Anurag de Bouchard, bon voyage. When you arrive in Perdition, say hello to your mother for me. Tell her Captain Hippolyto de Bouchard took his vengeance on her bastard son and now we're square. Up you go now ..."
He motioned grandly, sweeping his arm out toward the plank.
The crew began singing again.
Stinging with pain, his legs just about spent, Anurag could barely manage to grasp it: Hippolyto DE BOUCHARD?
He mounted the stairs and staggered forward.
In the foreground was the smaller warship—the Gourei. And just to the left of it ...
It too was anchored, which meant the warships were in shallow water.
Tracluse aboard the Gourei were hanging over the side, watching and singing as well.
Demons circled blackly overhead.
In the misty distance were islands; to the far right skied a tremendous single peak, snowcapped.
He gained the end of the plank, his bloody gaze back on his ship. A sailor stood at its bow, watching as well.
The shirt o' cannonballs constituted a passive aecxal claim upon Anurag's Transformed self.
It was time to make it active and shed it.
He took a deep breath and stepped out into open space.
The cannonballs hanging over his butt caught the plank and sent him spinning down. He splashed face first in gray seas and sank quickly. The sounds of cheering Tracluse were replaced instantly with the burbling calm of cold water.
He struck bottom seconds later. Still gripping the end of the chain, he flashed and emerged a shark. He could feel the weight of the shirt o' cannonballs, though of course it wasn't draped over his shark form; as a shark its weight was very nearly negligible. The pain of his stumped pinkie finger, however, was still very much with him, so too the sting of his whipped scalp. His right pectoral fin throbbed fiercely, and his shark head felt like he'd swam through a huge mass of stinging jellyfish.
The anchor was lodged between two boulders in deeper water. He swam down to it. One of its flukes stuck out, unused. He came up close to it. He would have to be quick: once he flashed back to human, he would have seconds to hook the end of the chain over the fluke, thereby making the shirt o' cannonballs an active—and therefore escapable—aecxal claim.
He circled the anchor twice, came back to the unused fluke.
Blurred vision. Seawater that felt like acid in his eyes, his wounds. Iron spikes in his ears. Biting cold. Darkness. An enormous weight over his shoulders. Restrained. Helpless. Faint from fatigue and loss of blood.
He hooked the end of the shirt o' cannonballs over the fluke as the air in his lungs ran out.
Speed. Acceleration. Mass.
He flashed and with all his might swam away.
The now-active aecxal weight of the shirt o' cannonballs held on for a fraction of a second, then released.
He was free.
He swam furiously for the Selaki, praying that the Tracluse was still standing at its bow.
His shark eyes spied him as he neared the surface. The sailor was actually looking over the bow's edge, as if he'd dropped a cherished jewel into the water.
Anurag broke the surface like a living missile. He flew over the bowsprit, grabbing the hapless sailor in his gaping jaws, then over the other side, falling back into the sea with a tremendous splash.
The Tracluse shrieked and flailed helplessly. Anurag released him, angled down into deeper water, came up again. The sailor was crying for help and swimming desperately for the ship. Anurag got under him and opened his mouth and chomped into his midsection until his teeth met. The man’s cries were horrific, which was exactly what he wanted. He thrashed him around on the surface, for show, wildly, until his torso separated from his hips and smashed gruesomely against the hull of the ship and sank. He flashed in the guts and gore and grabbed the sailor's broadsword, still in its scabbard at his mangled hip, and flashed back and dove.
There was a second man aboard the Selaki; Anurag had spied him as he dispatched the first. He surged up for the stern, exploding out of the ocean and flashing in mid-air, sword in a double grip high over his head.
The Tracluse stood frozen in mortal astonishment.
Anurag brought the weapon down on the crown of his skull, cleaving him all the way down to his clavicle. The Tracluse collapsed at his feet. Anurag hacked his corpse like he was splitting wood: CHUNK! CHUNK! CHUNK! The pain of his stumped pinkie finger and his lashed skull had been dulled utterly; so too the weakness brought on by chains and torture and time. His newfound freedom pulsed ragefully through his neck, caressing his naked body in the cool and beckoning sea breeze.
He raised the dripping blade towards the warships and roared. There was no curse in it, no words. What came out of his throat was dredged from the very bottom of his lungs and coated his larynx and teeth with the sweet relish of revenge.
He dropped the blade and bolted to the anchor as alarm bells sounded out on both warships. He cranked it up and rushed back to the wheel. He didn't have time to do anything else; demons were already flying for him, their ear-piercing shrieks stilling the restless sea air, their lightless shadows passing over the boat like massless harbingers of doom. It would be difficult for them to land. But it was certain they were going to try.
Bending as low as he was able, he scampered into his cabin. It was in remarkably good shape given that two Imperial warships had fired on it. He made a cursory note of the fact as he opened the closet and then a seamless hidden hatch in the back. He pulled up a bottle of large reddish-yellow liquid with a long, wiry fuse, and a box with first-aid supplies. He opened the box and fished out gauze, a small tourniquet, and a large bottle of clear Gaian liquid known as hydrogen peroxide. He tied the tourniquet about his pinkie, pulling it tight with a scream (knowing that the other half of it was hanging in a sack about his neck), then opened the bottle of peroxide and poured it liberally over the bleeding stump and his head. For a long moment his cries drowned out even those of the demons circling overhead. He wrapped the foaming, sizzling stump in gauze and then scurried out of the cabin with the fuse-topped bottle and a striker, both of which he set next to the wheel. He raised the mainsails, stooping like a man bent with arthritis. The warships had weighed anchors and were raising sails and turning about.
Back to the wheel. The Selaki was constructed of Antarctic Cottonwood and designed with speed and evasiveness in mind. The
Cottonwood wasn't just impervious to
the most fearsome of Imperial artillery, it was also very "slick" to
the sea and lightweight. Those lumbering warships made of corrupted Sky Fir had
no chance to catch him once he got out from under their enormous shadows.
The demons were taking big chances now, swooping just over the deck, their talons outstretched, trying to snatch him. Others made for the mainsails, ripping at them as they flew by.
He grabbed the striker and lit the thin fuse, then seized the bottle and scurried like a rodent to the stern, waiting.
He heard the demon scream before he saw it. He stood and chucked the bottle at it just as its shadow swarmed over him. The Mephastophian, its talons outstretched, tried to swerve away—but the bottle smashed dead-center into its body just as the burning fuse reached the liquid inside.
Multicolored fire bloomed with a breathy WHOOOOOSH! and instantly consumed it. The monster banked hard left then right, then dove for the sea. When it splashed down the fire exploded soundlessly, overtaking his ship and half of the Gourei in blinding rainbow light and mushrooming into the sky. But it had no heat, and it did not burn.
Not, at least, for humans.
The demons no longer circled his ship. Screeching desperately, they made for the fire as it swirled over the sea like a wild, twisting tornado, diving into it and disappearing in bursts of black ash. He clenched the captain's wheel and sailed for the Gourei.
Cannonfire boomed out from the frigate; plumes of water spouted high next to the Selaki. Anurag cranked the wheel to starboard and came up almost within touching distance of the warship's starboard side, using it to block possible fire from La Argentina. The Gourei's cannons quietened.
Tracluse shouted curses over its edge and threw things at him.
The demon-consuming fire tornado would only last a few minutes. He wanted to be clear of both warships when it died away.
The frigate swung ponderously towards him, tried to crash into him. That was a battle he was happy to have. He spun the wheel and the side of the Selaki ground into its huge hull, biting a long, deep scratch into it.
Tracluse had resorted to throwing flaming trash; some had armed themselves with more accurate weaponry. He had to duck from the occasional volley of arrows that skittered off the deck and plunked like deadly dragonflies into the sea. He cleared the Gourei’s bow before any of it could strike him or set the Selaki's sails alight.
The wind wasn't completely in his favor, but that hardly mattered. Those big, lumbering Imperial battleships were no match for his singleship’s speed.
A big surprise: La
fired a volley at
He was barely away from the Gourei when it sounded out. A cannonball smacked harmlessly into the hull, the ricochet deafening, the boat shaking ... but most of the fire tore into the frigate, spewing flaming hullwood into the sea!
Captain Hippolyto de Bouchard (de Bouchard!) was so enraged that he was willing to sink one of his own rather than let him escape.
Another volley. It lashed the sea just behind him—but nothing struck the ship.
He made for open water. The fire tornado was dying away, and the demons were gone. But he was certain they hadn't all been killed. Even from here he could hear more shriek their rage from the bowels of the ships. When the aecxal fire was gone, they'd be released.
He navigated into the unsteady breeze to the best degree of his training and long experience as a courier. He was on a north by northwest bearing and easily outpacing the Imperials. He turned to watch the fire tornado sputter and spin a few last flames into the sky, then fade away.
The surviving demons would now be released, and if they managed to get at the sails or land on deck, all this effort would be for naught.
He didn't have another bottle of taurin to throw.
La Argentina fired another volley at him, then another, as did the Gourei. He was leading the battleships now by half a mison; still, the captain refused to give up.
The captain—his father? His father?
Was he the "beast of a man" his mother spoke of?
That beast had given her the scar on her cheek, she told him once. And she had given him two.
There were scars under the captain’s eye …
She bit off one of her assailant’s fingers as well.
The captain was missing half a pinkie finger.
And now, so too was he.
There was that look of vacant lunacy that drained his countenance when he told him her name was Claire, as if the only soul in the universe that could sate that lunacy was she, and he had searched across the face of Aquanus for her.
His father’s revenge hadn't stopped hurting, and he gave into the pain, and the harsh stings over his scalp, bending over against both. He clenched his right hand and stared at the wound.
The gauze was soaked through. Blood dripped from his hair and down his neck, and it leaked into his palm and along his arm and cascaded off his elbow. A small puddle had formed under the wheel.
He still had the leather bag with the other half of his finger in it. He angrily yanked it off with his good hand and slung it overboard. He had no means to reattach the digit; it was lost to him forever. There were miraculous Gaian medicines aboard, well hidden, that were created to stop infections in wounds like this and the scores of cuts in his scalp. If by some miracle he got away he would retrieve them and start taking them after setting the broken base knuckle.
The dead Emasculatem about his neck had saved his life. So complete had been the emperor's subjugation of Aquanus with Emasculatems that Anurag's torturers hadn't even bothered to consider that his was inert, lifeless.
Even Tracluse were Emasculated. He remembered when they weren't.
There were no non-lethal means to test an Emasculatem to see if it was active or not—just as his training had taught him; and Transforming was a death-penalty offense. Only demons were allowed to Transform.
Fingering the silver pendant with his left hand, he locked the wheel and hurried back into his cabin where he cleaned and dressed the wound, then opened another hidden hatch with fresh clothing inside (the clothes in his closet had been purloined by the Tracluse) and dressed himself, both as quickly as possible.
The feel of clothing on his body gave him pause.
He looked up. He just heard the distant, echoing screech of demons.
He ran back up to the deck, gazed aft.
Here they came.
The Imperial warships were two or three misons distant. From their decks the lightless forms of Mephastophians spiraled into the sky, with lengthening arms reaching towards him. The monsters were holding torches. They'd be on him in a minute at most.
He wouldn't be able to stop them this time, and Antarctic Cottonwood, though able to withstand extremes in temperature and pressure, would eventually burn. Even if the demons didn't have enough fire to get the Selaki to go up in flames, the sails would go up right away. And so would he.
A mison north was a fog bank. It was small, just a few puffy clouds kissing the sea, but it might be enough to give him some cover and at least a poor man's fighting chance.
But it was clear he wasn't going to get there in time. The Mephastophians were seconds away.
But as the first came within range, an amazing thing happened. A brief but powerful gust of wind blew into them, scattering them and extinguishing their torches all at once. He struggled to keep control of the wheel in the gale. Disorganized and confused, the monsters retreated slightly, circling over open water and screaming frightfully. They dropped their smoking torches and came for him once more.
The fog was still a minute or two away. He did a double take looking at it, because it no longer seemed a small bit of sea-surface clouds, but a fairly large and substantial bank, pearly white and thick, one that was spreading as he watched.
A Mephastophian swooped just overhead, reaching for him with its outstretched talons. He ducked. Soon a second tried, then a third. Others were circling the mainsails, taking dives at them, grabbing and tearing them. He locked the wheel and bolted low into the cabin where he opened yet another secret hatch, this one at the foot of the bed. He had stashed the sea paper there along with his bow and several quiverfuls of fighting arrows. He snatched the bow and arrows and hurried back out just as the ship pierced the fog bank.
He got an arrow fitted as another monster came swooping over. He crouched on the stairs leading up to the deck; the small bulkhead separating the stairwell from it provided cover, however inadequate.
The demons were truly frightening. They'd emerge from the fog suddenly, wings outspread, talons reaching, black on black. Their shrieks seemed doubly loud here, doubly terrifying.
One emerged aft, flapping menacingly, mist trailing off its huge form. He pulled back on the bow and fired.
His aim was true. The arrow sank into the crook where the monster's right wing met its body.
The monster cried out a split-second before crashing onto the deck. Its momentum carried it full into the wheel, which by grace of it being made of Antarctic Cottonwood did not smash into splinters. Nevertheless, the singleship slowed and settled significantly with its huge mass. The demon Transformed as Anurag scampered around it to the broadsword, which lay next to the dead Tracluse. He grabbed it as the invader, dazed, got to its feet and lunged wildly for him, a tremendous broadsword in its grip. He just dodged getting cleaved in two; he tossed the dead Tracluse’s sword behind him and reached for an arrow—
He didn't see the second demon drop down on him from behind. The weak shadow of soundless doom enveloped him and he wheeled about at the last moment. The Mephastophian's talons missed grabbing him, but knocked the bow and arrow out of his grip and sent him sprawling into the very reach of the monster on deck. That one tried to cut across its body to finish him, but he bowled into its armored chest a split-second before it could.
It released its sword and tried to grab him. With his nose smashed against its armor and his legs shaking, Anurag bellowed with a rage equal to any within the demon and pushed with all his might. The Mephastophian hadn't had a chance to get settled, or perhaps it was still dazed. In any case, he somehow managed to shove it to the rail of the ship and then over. It splashed into the sea roaring, grabbing for the boat as he jumped over the edge and in.
The Saeire Insu would face countless battles, large and small, against the emperor's overwhelming forces. Most were destined to go unsung. This was one of them. But of all the battles, sung or unsung, the fight between the Great Shark Anurag de Bouchard and this Imperial Mephastophian would rank as one of the very fiercest.
Anurag flashed and dove. He came up under it, which had gained the Selaki's side and was pulling itself on board. He grabbed at a kicking clawed foot and yanked down. The demon resisted, pulling up, but didn't have a sufficient hold to hang on. It splashed back in the water.
He released it. It couldn't swim; it flashed and tried flapping into the air, arrow sticking out of it and all, and it actually got out, but he leapt for it and bit into its legs, pulling it back. The Mephastophian flashed while still in his mouth and was suddenly somehow on top of him, striking out with its razor-sharp claws. Thrashing, he threw it off and came around again, snapping at it with his huge open mouth.
It flashed again, tried flying off. But he had anticipated that and again leapt for it, tail swishing ferociously. The monster’s wings beat down on him, but he got a firm hold of its torso and chomped madly into it.
The Transformed beast’s armor would not let him bite cleanly through. He did manage to find flesh at its bottom and his teeth were soon coated in Mephastophian blood—a poisonous, vile, green, hot liquid that burned his mouth and down his throat. He chomped and chomped, losing teeth, mindless with the urge to kill this horror. But the demon again wriggled free and, flapping, flashed in mid-air and dropped straight down on his back. It latched onto his dorsal fin with its tail, which had double hooks at its end. It roared as he dove, biting into the flesh at his neck and ripping chunks of meat off.
With his shark blood mixing with the demon's and coloring the sea a murky brown, Anurag twisted and writhed as desperately as he could to free himself, but with no luck. He thought the goddamn thing would drown, but its lungs seemed inexhaustibly efficient. As a last-ditch effort he made for the ship and swam under her as fast as he could. The demon smacked hard into the hull and was scraped off, but not without gouging body-length scratches into him, some deep enough to rip cartilage.
It was climbing the side of the boat as he came around for it. It got its feet out of the way just as he went for them. It was safe on the deck of the Selaki. He swam to the stern ladder and flashed, climbing it as fast as he could. The quiver of arrows was still slung over his shoulder; he grabbed it and tossed it to his side as he jumped aboard.
The monster was bleeding and bellowing. It spied him and went for its broadsword. He growled and ran towards it, leaping headlong and flashing just before he got there.
It changed its mind at the very last second left to it and flashed back and tried to take off. But it was too late. The great shark, mouth wide open, smashed into it, swallowing its huge head whole. Predator and demon bowled into the bulkhead and slammed down onto the deck.
The combatants writhed wildly over the wood, life or death in the balance. The tons of their collective mass shook the singleship, made her shudder and list back and forth violently. Anurag flipped on deck, a beached fish, chewing without restraint, while Necrolius’ monster, writhing, lashed out at him with its wicked claws. One found an eye and gouged it out. Biting down with all his strength, he knew he didn't have much time left. He was suffocating to death on the very deck of his ship.
The Mephastophian tried flashing in his mouth, then flashed back. It managed to actually lift him at one point, his entire enormous mass, but failed and fell. Anurag could feel the fatigue in it, and he bit and chomped and chewed as hard as he could, the burning, foul blood draining like a poisonous river down his throat. But fatigue was claiming him too, and his gills were sticking together, and air, ironically, was nowhere to be found.
One of the demon’s horns broke suddenly in his mouth, and it cried out and went still for a long moment before coming back to life with a jolt and making one last attempt to get free. Anurag, chewing slower, ever slower, gasping for air, just managed to expel it from his mouth and flash back to human, where he lay next to it, purple and wheezing.
Choking from its vile blood, he crawled to the broadsword lying next to the fallen Tracluse. He grabbed it and crawled back.
The demon was still breathing, its yellow cat's eyes open and bloody, its head mangled. It stared at him as he struggled to his knees and brought the tip of the blade down on the base of its huge neck.
It growled, then spoke. He would never learn what it said, but in reply he snarled, "To the glory of your emperor," and sagged over the pommel with all his weight.
The blade sank into its corded neck. Hot green blood spewed over its armor and the deck and his arms. The monster gave one last, weak growl and perished with a great shudder.
He was winded and sickened beyond hope. If indeed this too was his end, he no longer cared. He released the blade after a long time and fell across the demon’s enormous chest, where he lay gasping.