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Posted on August 14, 2017 at 09:34:35 PM by aspelta
Beyond the dome and above the water, the clouds had gathered into an angry grey morass, like poured concrete. Morgana squinted at the sky, wary and wind-beaten as Angmar’s powerful flight took them out beyond any glimpse of land. She clutched the flute tightly in one hand, the other clinging to a bony crest on the dragon’s shoulder. Her hair had pulled loose from her braid in places and whipped around her face.
Beneath them, the sea had begun to ripple with new waves.
They flew until Morgana’s fingers were numb, her cheeks burning from the high-altitude chill. She set her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering and focused hard on the churning expanse of the sea to keep her mind from focusing too much on the flute’s muted song. The effort was dizzying and a headache was beginning to press against her temples when Angmar banked suddenly right.
“There,” he rumbled, his voice reverberating through her bones.
Below, the water was darker than it had any right to be, and that darkness moved. Angmar was big, but the shape they followed was enormous – beyond imagining, looming like a mountain under that thin veneer of water, the current eddying around it and flattening like footprints where it neared the surface. Angmar swooped lower but maintained a cautious distance as they followed, close enough to get the monster’s attention but far enough to evade if it attacked. When it attacked. At least, that was the plan.
But Therait was not merely a monster. He was a force of nature, the chaos and destruction of the sea, the vortex that opens suddenly beneath a ship and swallows it, the wave that levels cities and drags the plunder back into the deep. When Therait rose to meet them, it was with a sound like an earthquake, water exploding upward, higher than their flight. The body of the seamonster rose up, and up. Morgana would have had to crane her neck to catch a glimpse of its massive head, towering above them.
But she was preoccupied with hanging on, and trying to put the flute to her lips.
Both were easier said than done. Angmar was banking sharply, turning in a gyre, his wing-beats hard and jarring beneath Morgana’s knees. As soon as he levelled out enough for her to think about the flute, Therait would move and force the dragon to move with it, darting away from falling water or worse. As they dodged and swerved, it occurred to her that she wasn’t sure how to play the damn flute, and why hadn’t she thought of that in the war room, and why hadn’t anyone mentioned it, and now the fates of everyone were heavy on her shoulders and – there! They were canting around the back of the sea-dragon’s skull. It was now or never. She jerked the flute up toward her lips and blew.
The flute, it turned out, required no playing. The flute was not played – it played you. Morgana felt the air siphoned from her lungs, could feel it as it spun and eddied through the flute, her fingers finding patterns over the holes that she had never learned. The music it made was eerie and atonal, chords one might hear in nightmares playing counterpoint to sweetness – a leviathan’s lullaby. The notes formed the shape of the sea-monster in her mind. Her eyelids felt heavy but unable to lower as they swooped around Therait’s head, her body oddly numb. It was as if she had stepped out of time. It was as if all this was a dream.
They turned, and she stared into the massive red-veined eye of the beast as its pupil dilated into an abyss.
Mordred stood alone in the Great Hall, his hand resting on the back of his brother’s throne. He could hear the guards pounding around on the floor above, running to their assigned position to keep an eye on the horizon. He smiled to himself as he stepped down from the dais and poured himself a drink in the King’s golden goblet. Red wine, smooth with a bitter twang. He sat down on the steps rolling the cup between his hands, waiting.
When it was time, he slipped easily into his dragon’s mind. Where are you? Angmar let him in with no complaint. He could hear music, see the ocean stretched out beneath his feet and Therait sinking beneath the surface, drifting down peacefully into the depths. Mordred cut his link with his familiar and drained the last of his wine. It was time.
He left the hall through the antechamber door and took the back way onto the tower stairs. They wound tightly upwards into darkness, too rarely used to merit burning torches. His footsteps echoed around him, the shadows clawing at his heels. The door onto the landing he required swung open at his command and he stepped out into the carpeted corridor. Taking a sharp-right, Mordred took the now-familiar path to Gaiane’s room. Silently he approached her door and lingered a moment, his ear close to the wood, listening to the sounds within. She was singing sweetly under her breath, a high breathless sound which smothered the words. He reached through the wood with his mind, to the small metal lock on the inside. Gently, Mordred clicked the lock into place and gave the metal a final twist to prevent it from opening again. His prize needed keeping safe.
Returning to the stairs Mordred quickened his pace. Moving up through the castle at a jog, he kept going until he ran out of steps. The hinges of the attic door creaked as he pushed it ajar. The room beyond was a cavern of cobwebs and dust. Filth and grime clung to every surface except one. The dark-wood wardrobe loomed large and immaculate at the back of the space, pushed up against the rafters. Its feet had left a trail across the dusty floor where it had been dragged into place. Mordred reached into his pocket as he approached it and produced a single black feather. He opened the doors, placed the feather inside, and then snapped them shut again with a clunk. Placing a glowing hand on its wooden panelling he waited a while and then withdrew with a satisfied nod.
Mordred’s attention shifted to the pair of wooden crates in the corner of the room, and to the crowbar rested against their sides. He collected it and prized open their lids; the one on the right first, and then the one on the left. They were filled to the brim with bottles of invisibility lotion. When he turned back towards the wardrobe, the cupboard door was creaking open, pushed from the inside. Quickly, he donned his disguise; his hair lengthening, his eyes shifting from blue to gold. A moment later a man emerged, stepping gingerly out of the space that was far too small for him, and Kaliban turned to greet him. He pointed to the crates. The man was just collecting his bottle as another stepped through the wardrobe, then another, and another. They obediently collected their bottles and retreated to the far corner, waiting in silence. This day had been a long time coming.
More and more pirates poured in through the cupboard, each taking a potion and each moving further into the room to make space for more of their fellows. Jefferson was the last man through, and when he arrived the room was almost full, the crates almost empty. Kaliban handed his first mate a bottle.
“You have them wait until the last possible moment.” Kaliban reminded him, fixing the smaller man with a hard look. “You know the signal.”
“Yes cap’n.” Jefferson replied.
All battlefields look the same, Mace thought as he made his way through the makeshift harbor town of the Peaks, a squadron of Alliance soldiers at his back. They took down the pirates as they came upon them but the vermin were everywhere, swarming out of every alley and door. Hyper-aware as he was, the sound of clashing blades and screaming townspeople seemed muffled beneath the drum of his own heart. Muffled, but close. As if he were underwater. In a momentary lull, he tied a cloth over the lower half of his face – the streets were hazy with the smoke from burning buildings, and it was the best they could do to protect their aching lungs. A roof caved in to their left with an explosion of sparks.
That was the thing about temporary settlements, whether they were cobbled together with wood or cardboard or plastic tents… all of them were easy targets for catastrophe. The irony that the people already enduring displacement and hardship were the most likely to be victims of further mayhem was not lost on Mace. He had seen it too often to be unaware – in Bosnia, in Liberia, in Myanmar – but that did not make it easier to endure.
Mace’s fury was cold. Precise. He slashed his sword across a pirate’s abdomen without a glimmer of remorse, picking up his adversary’s weapon and giving it an experimental turn in his off-hand before the sorry sod even realised he was dying. His eyes were red-rimmed, the improvised mask already smeared brown from the smoke. They turned a corner, seeking cover in an alley while they listened for the signal. Out on the main street, which was little more than a rutted river of half-congealed mud, they could hear the raiders shouting as they charged towards the edge of town where Flynn waited with his force of royal and Alliance guards.
Flynn fought with Henry at his back. The brothers’ faces were set in nearly identical expressions: grim, focused, hardened by the knowledge of their plan and the absolute necessity of carrying it out. Flynn’s sword was dripping, his shield already heavily scarred from the fight. Henry’s daggers glimmered with fire. Their men and women fought valiantly, determination and care for the villagers lending strength to their attacks. But the enemy were many – Flynn began to wonder how staged their flight would actually be.
They had come up with their strategy about an hour before on the deck of the Cerridwen, when Mace had been teleported over with Chip on his shoulder. The raven cocked his head at them, inscrutable. Mace leveled them with a joyless stare. He and Flynn greeted each other with exchanged “captain”s.
“We need a better strategy than just sending our troops charging into town,” Henry observed, nodding toward the smoke rising from the village. “Until the rest of the fleet gets here, we’re outnumbered.” The captains nodded.
“We’ve got to get them away from the townspeople somehow,” Mace agreed. “Can we get to their ships?”
Henry shook his head, “too heavily guarded. They’re not that stupid.”
“Then we feint. Draw them out to the west, where the smoke is blowing. Take the bulk of our force and pretend to retreat. If we’re lucky, they’ll be so tickled by the idea of stabbing us in the back that they’ll pursue us. Leave a smaller group, ready to cut them off, keep them from falling back into the town. When the reinforcements land in the south, we’ll have them.” Mace looked between them, registered their nods of confirmation. Everything would depend on the rest of the fleet arriving in time. “Captain, you lead the feint. I’ll take the smaller force,” he clasped Flynn’s forearm briefly, nodding, “give ’em a good chase. Then give ’em hell.”
It had seemed their best option, at the time. But now, as his men fell around him, Flynn couldn’t be sure.
“Retreat!” He bellowed, once it seemed there were even more pirates on the way, a looming wall of mismatched weapons and rot-blackened grins. And then the chase began. Flynn’s force fell back toward the tree-line, its shadows made sinister by the smoke. The captain urged his men on, loping near the back of the group, casting occasional glances behind him to gauge their progress and cutting down any pirates that gained too quickly. In the distance, he could just see Mace and his team assuming their position at the edge of the town. Some of the enemy had already turned around to fight them, but most were intent on driving the King’s men back, as Mace had predicted. Just a little further….come on…
“Advance!” Flynn amended, and the entire squadron skidded to a halt, turning. Like a drumbeat, some began to bang their shields as they turned, eager to be back on the offensive. A cheer went up that transformed into a roar.
The roar transformed into a deafening clatter, like a hailstorm on a metal roof, as the two forces fell upon the pirates from both sides. Flynn’s world condensed into brief flashes, like snapshots in black and red and smoke-brown. His breathing seemed as loud as the clash of swords. He caught glimpses of Henry, daggers glinting, scattering showers of red drops – but that was the only face he recognized in the chaos, and it took most of his energy just distinguishing friend from foe. Somehow, he still heard the shout.
“The ships! The ships!” An unfamiliar voice shrieked. Then the pirates were running, pouring down the main road that connected the town to the harbour… or, what used to be the harbour. The waters were receding with a bizarre, deafening sound – like water in a drain, amplified a hundredfold. The retreating wave was taking the ships with it. But there are too many ships out there, Flynn thought, frowning as he gave the order to pursue. Henry appeared at his side, grinning manically as he ran.
“The King!” he shouted over the cacophony, slapping his brother on the back. He’d lost one of his daggers in the battle. Flynn handed him his shield.
“Don’t celebrate yet,” he cautioned, but a smile tugged at his mouth.
Ahead of them, Flynn could discern the King’s battalion charging up from the harbour, led by the King himself, And Prince Tristan, he noticed with some surprise. Both were fresh and unblooded, along with their troops, and quickly set about subduing the exhausted and dwindling horde of raiders. Flynn got in a few more good hits, but with the arrival of the King the battle was all but over. Without their ships, and with no hope of escape, the enemy were soon brought to their knees.
In the aftermath of the fight, the King’s guards moved through the kneeling pirates, skillfully tying their hands with knotted rope. They’d run out of shackles early. Others set about seeing to the villagers and their needs.
Above them, the first drops of rain began to fall.
Written by Dema and Merlin
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