The Adventures of Penney Dreadful The Chase

Reads: 151  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


A black, ashen ship is stalking the skies, hunting pirates and Regency alike. Penney finds herself tasked with the hunt and destruction of this "ghost ship", unaware that Reaves has received the
same assignment.

Submitted: September 18, 2017

A A A | A A A

Submitted: September 18, 2017

A A A

A A A


The Chase

William Reaves walked in shadow. He saw nothing, but heard many voices. The voices of the dead and dying. The voices of his crew. Even, to his chagrin, the mocking voice of Penney Dreadful. But one voice spoke up above them all. The voice of an angel who had been cast down to the sinful earth. The voice of a long lost Rose. Reaves followed this heavenly voice everywhere, blundering in the dark. He called her name, but it seemed like the only voice he could not hear was his own. He did not know how long he blindly followed her voice, but it was far too long. His legs ached. His head and heart were empty. But still he trudged on through the featureless expanse. Still, he reached out for her. If he could find her here, perhaps he could bring her back. Back to the land of the living. It was a faint hope, but it was hope nonetheless. At this point in his life, he always took what he could get.

Suddenly, Reaves saw something. His heart soared. But as he approached the pale, faraway orb, his hopes were shattered once more. For it was not Rose he saw before him, but the thin, grinning face of Horace Cutter. The face laughed. Reaves backed away. Cutter had never been the strongest man among Reaves' old crew, but he had been clever. And now he had some artifact. Some blasted thing that enabled him to disappear seemingly on a whim. No man could be trusted with power like that. And in this realm of shadows, Reaves could not be entirely sure if Cutter was indeed a man. Anything could be hiding behind that face. Anything could be hiding in the dark. The face of Cutter approached him, slowly but surely. Reaves ordered him to stop, but his voice was lost.

Rose still spoke to him, but he could not understand what she was saying. It seemed important...like instructions or directions, but Reaves could hardly hear her over Cutter's incessant laughing. His former crewmate advanced closer and closer. Soon enough, Reaves could see the whites of Cutter's eyes and smell the tangy sharpness of his breath. Cutter's teeth were like sabers; thin and sharp. They opened wide, revealing a darkness even more profound than the void currently surrounding them both. Reaves instinctively put up his hands. Cutter's visage was upon him, ready to bite down. Somewhere in the dark, Rose's voice was cut mid-sentence, replaced by a harsh, masculine growl.

"Captain!" said the voice.

Reaves screamed as Cutter's saber teeth snapped shut.

 

"Captain!" shouted a familiar voice.

Reaves jolted out of bed. He found himself in his quarters, a bottle of brandy on his nightstand. The lights were dimmed low, but any light, no matter how feeble, was welcome. Reaves had hoped the brandy would stop the nightmares. Clearly, he had been wrong.

"Reaves, are you in there?" said the voice from outside his door.

"What is it, Blake?" said Reaves, finally recognizing the voice.

"We've arrived, sir."

"Very well," said Reaves. "Give me a moment."

Reaves got out of bed and dressed himself. He took a swig of brandy before leaving the room.

 

Tower Georgia loomed in the sky like a gigantic black spike. Everett Smith shielded his eyes as he looked up at the great structure. The sun gleamed like a beacon before it was obscured by Georgia. As the Rose pulled into port, Everett could see the finely wrought metals and the innumerable scars along those surfaces. He also saw the cages. Forged from black iron, dozens of gibbets hung suspended by diamond-hard chains. Pirates and other assorted wrongdoers were held inside each one. Most of these felons were long dead, nothing more than shriveled corpses frozen in tortured agony. Everett plugged his ears as the ship passed a live one. The naked, rail-thin man reached out for the ship, screaming nonsense obscenities. Everett wasn't sure if the man was begging for help, or cursing the Regency. He was sure, however, that he did not want to know.

"Never been to Georgia, have we, young Smith?" Barron sneered.

Everett jumped. The freeloading writer grinned. "Don't worry," said Barron, "all the bad men are locked away here. They won't hurt you."

"Enough foolishness," said Reaves, stepping in between the two men.

"Oh, but I love foolishness!" cried Barron, still grinning.

"Barron, I am not in the mood for this." Reaves growled.

Barron sighed, but obeyed. He made an overly theatrical mock bow and frolicked away, winking at Everett as he went.

"Can I please kill him?" Blake whispered to Reaves.

"Later," said his captain. "First, let's get this over with."

"When should we expect you back, sir?" asked Everett.

"Soon, my boy. Redford is not one to waste time, unlike some people we know."

Everett snickered. Reaves smiled at that, which was a rare sight indeed. It faded swiftly however, as always. Reaves gave Everett a reassuring nod and prepared to disembark.

About a week ago, a Regency scout ship had intercepted the Rose. Her captain had given Reaves a summons from Ian Redford, head of the Royal Offices on tower Georgia. Reaves was to receive classified intelligence and direct orders from Redford. Reaves was not sure why the scout captain could not have given him the orders himself, but the document had been signed by Morgan Sim, so Reaves had wisely decided to keep his mouth shut. Whatever it was his superiors wanted from him, it was serious.

The Royal Office was the seat of naval intelligence. Each tower had one. Captains and admirals were to return to the offices periodically to receive orders and communications. It was also where pirates went to die. As Reaves was escorted through the halls, he listened to the anguished screams of the condemned. Behind iron bars, pirates and outlaws were being tortured, branded and executed. It was music to his ears, heavenly music. He ached to see Penney Dreadful in here, locked in chains. He would brand her himself. He would cut off her fingers one by one. He would gouge out her eyes and leave her hanging in the public square. It would not be slow. No, he would savor it. Oh, how he awaited that day. Reaves allowed himself a small smile at the thought.

But of course, he wiped the smile from his face when he entered Redford's office. The place was small, windowless and devoid of decoration. Redford was leaning back in his chair, boots on his table. A wooden pipe was clenched in his teeth. Through the smoke filled air, Reaves could just barely make out Redford's black, curly hair and dark gray eyes. Reaves bristled at Redford's blatant disregard for protocol, but allowed himself to be seated.

"William," said Redford, finally releasing his grip on the pipe.

"Ian," said Reaves. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Redford produced a file from his drawer and slid it across the desk. "Read this," he croaked.

"Orders?" asked Reaves, taking hold of the file.

"From the top," Redford nodded. "I know you've got your hands full with Dreadful, but this case is...unique, shall we say. Given your experience, I suppose Sim saw this as a fitting assignment for you."

Reaves nodded absently as he read the file. His eye widened as he went along. Redford watched impassively, sucking on his pipe. Finally, Reaves tore his eye from the document and gawked at Reford.

"This sounds-"

"Impossible?"

"Dangerous. I would help...but as long as Dreadful lives, she is my priority. I must bring her to justice."

"And you will."

"Not if I take this case. Why not assign this to another specialist?"

"Most of our specialists are tied up at the moment. I don't know if you've noticed, but it's been a busy year. We take who can get."

"This is a waste of my time, Redford!"

"Is it?" Redford leaned forward. Reaves waved the smoke out of his face.

"What do you mean?" he demanded.

"Most pirates would kill for a chance to chase down an artifact like this, even if it was broken. This one, though, this one's active. And it's being used to kill other pirates. You and I both know that pirates are a vindictive bunch. I know I'd want blood if a Regency man started killing other Regency men with some magic engine."

"You think Dreadful will seek out the artifact?" Reaves said, glaring at Redford through the smoke.

"I can't guarantee that, obviously. But it is a possibility."

"It's a big possibility, Ian."

Redford nodded, taking a moment to relight his pipe. When he was finished, he glared at Reaves, and the captain of the Marianne Rose felt the icy pressure of those stone grey eyes upon him.

"Yes," said Redford. "It's a big one. Uncertainty is a fact of life, William. But you've been hunting this bitch for months, my good man. This could very well be an opportunity worth taking."

Reaves let that sink in. The smoke entered his lungs, and he suppressed a cough. By this point, he was covered in a fine layer of soot. While he digested Reford's words, he idly wondered how the man remained alive.

"What do you say, William?"

Reaves leaned back in the chair, listening to the sweet music drifting down the halls. In his mind, Rose sang to him. She danced and twirled and sang in a grand old parlor while he played a tune on the piano. He hardly looked at the keys, entranced as he was. The song merged with the screams of dying pirates until there was but one melody. It was a song of duty and vengeance. A song of blood and iron. Once more, Reaves repressed the urge to smile. Instead, he let out a deep sigh, pushing the smoke with his breath back to Redford.

"Memory is a  wonderful motivator," he said.

"Is that a yes?" Redford inquired.

"It is." said Reaves.

 

Penney Dreadful sat alone, surrounded by drunkards and rapscallions. A half-empty mug of grog rested by her elbow. With a grin, she listened to the insistent jabbering of a dozen alcohol-loosened lips. It took great skill to decipher even a fragment of so much noisome chatter, but Penney had plenty of experience. Gossiping mouths spat out tall tales and half-truths and flat-out lies like rattler fire. Penney kept one ear open, on the off-chance that one or two of the million lies were true. Her other ear perked up at the sound of familiar footsteps on the soggy wooden floor.

A skinny man dressed in green and black walked up to her. He leaned over her shoulder and whispered; "The Sage will see you now."

"Thanks, Willow." said Penney, rising from her seat.

She followed Willow to the backroom behind the bar. In that small, smoke-filled space, quiet men played dice and sharpened knives. They all wore green and black. They did not look up as Willow and Penney passed. Penney returned the favor by keeping her eyes forward. She knew that each one of these men could easily clear out the entire bar using nothing but fists and knives.

Smoke drifted out from behind a green beaded curtain. Willow stepped to the side and raised the curtain. Penney did a mock courtesy and went inside to meet the Sage.

Sage Grover was a large man with a white, poorly kept beard and a belly the exact size and shape of a cannonball. He dressed in black, with a green sash tied about his waist. His eyes were emeralds gleaming in a nonexistent sun. He sat at a low desk crowded with paper and booze. A hookah rested in one corner of the room. In the other corner, a tall, lanky man leaned against the wall. He had short, reddish hair and wore a sleeveless vest. A dozen belts were looped around his chest and waist. In each one, a knife glinted in the dim gaslight.

"Penney," exclaimed the Sage. "You have returned to us!"

"Who said I ever left?"

"Lass, you disappeared for five years. The whole world thought you were dead. Then, months ago, I hear word of a certain fire-haired pirate sailing around in a rusty old tub. Why didn't you get in touch?"

"I was busy,"

"Well, that's a sorry excuse if I ever heard one."

"I also don't like you."

"Fair enough," Sage laughed. "But now you need the ol' Sage, don't you?"

"Well, I need information, and I heard that you were still the best in the business. How are you still alive, by the way?"

"You can thank Kirkman for that," Sage said, jabbing a thumb at the knife-wielding  man in the corner.

"Great," said Penney. "I'll add him to my hit list."

"Ah, Penney," Sage guffawed. "Still got 'yer wits, I see!"

Sage slammed a fist on his desk and motioned for Kirkman to join him in his raucous laughter. The tall man let out a slow, dry chuckle. A thin grin, wide as the sky, crawled from ear to ear. Penney crossed her arms and let the men laugh. She could easily take out Sage with as shot to the face or a knife to the belly. She was sure that she could dispatch Kirkman as well. She also knew that Sage's men would reduce her to a thousand bloody pieces if she attempted such a thing. Still, the thought crossed her mind, as it had many times before.

At last, Sage stopped laughing. "So," he said, "what do you require, me wee lass?"

"I need ships," she said. "And people to man them."

"Looking to build another fleet, are we? Tell me, girl, why could you not have done that yourself? What were you up to for five whole fucking years?"

Here, Penney briefly averted her gaze and cursed herself for it. "I took a hard hit, you know that."

"Yes, yes. That Reese fellow blew you out of the sky, and then you ran away. We all remember, dear."

"Reaves," said Penney, in a more defensive tone then she expected.

"What?"

"His name is Reaves."

"Right, whatever. Anyway, why come to me for this? Why not just scrounge up some ol' scallywags in some dreary pub somewhere? That's how it's usually done."

"I tried that," said Penney. "And besides, I need the best scallywags you've got. The best of the best."

"Oh," said Sage, leaning over his desk. "Planning some revenge, are we? How interesting."

"Can you help me or not?"

"Oh, I can. But first, I need you to do something for me."

"Naturally," said Penney, rolling her eyes. "What is it?"

"Well, I'm sure you've heard the rumors. Word on the wind says someone got their mitts on some kind of artifact, or a new piece of tech, although that seems unlikely. A pirate. One of our own. Preying on scoundrels and tin soldiers alike."

"I've heard," said Penney. "Fleet Foot. The 'Ghost Ship'. You want me to go after it?"

"If you wouldn't mind." Sage grinned.

"Do I have a choice?"

"Sure, you have a choice. You can either accept my generous offer, or you can die where you stand."

Penney did not have to turn around to see Sage's men behind her. She could feel them gathering behind the beaded curtain, eager to draw blood. Penney smiled.

`"It's always so fun working with you, Sage. Couple of questions, though; why me?"

"Oh, I just want to see if you're as ruthlessly efficient as you used to be."

"And I'm expendable, right?"

"Most people are. I didn't say you're going to be the only one on this case, did I?"

"So, if I do this, you'll give me a share of your top ships and crew?"

"I'll lend them to you, my dear. Once you kill dear old Reaves, I'll expect my property to return here."

"Fine. Do we have a deal?"

"I believe we do."

Penney and Sage exchanged coin. Sage grinned as he counted the doubloons tinkling through his fingers.

"Don't fuck this up, lass." he said. "I want this rat bastard dead."

"He's already dead." said Penney, turning to leave.

 

Penney slammed a fist on the railing of the Ruckus, which seemed to shake the whole ship. Her face was as red as her hair.

"I'm guessing it went well, then?" said Parker, calmly lighting up his pipe.

"He's just as infuriating as I remember. I really, really hoped he would be dead."

"Someone just like him would have taken his place, then. Or someone worse."

"I know, Park. I just...I hate being told what to do."

"What choice do we have? We need a fleet, a good one, before we even try getting close to Reaves."

"Pirates shouldn't follow orders. It ain't natural."

Parker nodded in agreement. He rested his elbow against the railing and leaned into it. He eased up when the railing protested with a metallic creak.

"Can't blame him, though," he said, sucking thoughtfully on his pipe. "If those bastards really do have an artifact on their hands, someone needs to take them out."

"Why don't we steal it?" said Smither, sauntering into the scene.

"What?" Penney and Parker exclaimed, glaring at him.

"You heard me," said Smither in between bites of apple. "Why don't we steal the artifact, or whatever the bloody hell this thing is, and trade it in. We could use the money."

"Smither," said Penney. "Don't you remember what happened the last time you fucked with a deadly, ancient artifact?"

"Yeah, you almost killed me."

"Yes, because you were a threat to yourself and the crew. Aren't you smart enough to realize that fucking with these things is a real bad idea?"

"I didn't say I'd fuck with it. Besides, a whole other crew is using this thing. Why aren't they dead yet?"

"Smither, no. When we find this artifact, we are destroying it. End of story."

Smither glanced at Parker. The old engineer shrugged. Smither nodded, took a big bite out of his apple and stalked away.

"I really hate him," Penney muttered when Smither was out of earshot.

"Then why keep him on?" Parker asked.

"Keeps things fun. Now, raise the sail, Mr. Parker! We've got work to do."

 

It was as slow day for Captain Sanford Hale. The skies had been quiet for weeks. No Regency ships. No innocent merchant vessels. Absolutely no one to murder and rob. His crew was growing restless. Fights were breaking out. And worst of all, the booze was running low. Sanford hoped that he could hold out until they got to port. Assuming they could afford more booze, at this point. Some days, he thought he really should have listened to his mother and stayed at the factory. Sure, the air there had been slowly killing him, but here, out in the open sky, he was dying of boredom anyway.

As Sanford lamented his career choices, he heard his crew whispering. He didn't need to listen closely to know what they were talking about. Rumors and stories about the miraculous disappearing ship were being tossed around like mud. At first, when the attacks began, Sanford had been delighted. It was new, it was exciting! But now it was old news. Wasn't the first time something strange had occupied the skies, either. The sky was full of stories. When he was a lad, Sanford had adored the tales of ghost ships and strange flying beasts, lost towers and, of course, the endless mysteries of the great Abyss. Now, as a captain of his very own ship, the rickety old Early Riser, those old stories had lost a little charm. He had seen the strange beasts, in the form of ghastly harpies and the occasional antisocial griffin. But he had never seen a ghost. And the Abyss...well, admittedly, the Abyss scared the hell out of him. Yes, reality had really sucked the fun out of his life.

"Quiet down, lads!" he shouted from his cabin. "Yer captain's tryin' to get some beauty sleep!"

He was answered with chortles and snickering laughter. Sanford sighed, and tried to sleep. But all he could see when he closed his eyes was the infamous Fleet Foot. What if it was real? Could he keep his crew safe with a damned ghost ship and that blasted Penney Dreadful flying about? At least Penney was real. Although, some said that she was a ghost herself. Some said that the real Penney had died five years ago over Sanford's own home, tower Isabella and that the new bloody haired pirate running around was nothing but an avenging phantom. People said a lot of things.

Finally, his crew seemed to quiet down. He sighed in relief and shut his eyes. Before he could enjoy even faintest taste of sleep, however, he was thrown out of bed. The Early Riser swayed wildly as if it had been hit with a great cannon strike. But there had been no sound of impact, no audible sound of damage. Sanford ran outside. On deck, the skies were clear and blue. His men looked just as confused as he felt. Sanford suddenly became aware of a sort of electric discharge in the air. His hair stood on end. Judging by their looks, his men felt it too. A storm was coming.

Without further warning, a great flash of light blinded Sanford and his crew. He fell to the deck, only to be deafened by the roar of thunder. Gradually, his sight was restored. Vision came back to him, and what he saw made him wish he was still blind. A sleek ship, painted smoky grey, loomed beside the Early Riser. Ash or soot appeared to drift off and away from the hull and masts. Sanford looked at the name on the hull of the grey ship and whimpered. The Fleet Foot had arrived. Honestly, he thought it would have been bigger. Without delay, the Fleet Foot launched grappling cables, which bit into the Early Riser. The small grey ship reeled in her prey. Her crew connected their dark little ship to the Riser with a bridge and began to cross over. Within minutes, they were onboard and slaughtering everyone. Sanford's crew were still in shock. Those who managed to escape from their awed, frozen states were too late to save themselves. Sanford, still deaf, watched his crew die.

With herculean effort, he raised himself to his feet and unsheathed his cutlass. He saw his first mate getting skewered by the dark-clothed crew of the Fleet Foot. More men from the ghost ship ran down into the bowels of the Riser, gunning for the maintenance and engineering crews. Sanford stumbled about in a daze. What he had seen was impossible, unbelievable. It had been...exciting. Despite himself, he smiled. With cutlass and flintlock in hand, he waded into the frenzy. He knew he was walking into his own death, but at least he had seen a bonafide ghost ship before going down below. How many people can say that?

Despite his daze, Sanford managed to kill some of the dark-clothed bastards. So, they weren't ghosts after all. How disappointing.

Sanford paused as his hearing returned gradually. Now he could hear it. The death of his crew. Muffled screams and metal clangs. A mocking laugh behind him. Sanford turned, coming face to face with a man with bloodshot eyes and ashen skin. The man grinned. Sanford could hardly hear his own scream. But he felt the blade cut into him. He felt warm blood drip down onto the deck. The last thing Sanford Hale saw was that grey, grinning ghost. The last thing he heard was a howling laugh, and the roar of thunder.

 

The Ruckus emerged from a wall of clouds. Penney had followed the coordinates given to her by the Sage. She did not like what she found there. Two ships floated side by side. She recognized them both instantly. The Whirlwind was a sleek, black vessel lavishly adorned with red markings and gold trim. Beside her, the Last Chance was a bulky beast, bristling with wires and spikes and strange devices of dubious function.

"Sage, you slimy old bastard." Penney muttered under her breath.

"What's wrong, cap'n?" asked Kristen.

"Hullo there!" cried a booming voice from the Last Chance. Penney winced.

"Quiet down, will ya? We're right next to you, for crying out loud!" hollered another voice, this time from the Whirlwind.

"Let's get this over with," Penney sighed, moving her ship to the others.

"Welcome to the party, Ms. Dreadful! Didn't think you'd make it, on account of being dead."

"I'm just happy to be here, Mr. Dunn!" Penney lied. She could see Bertie Dunn on the deck of the adjoining vessel, shouting into an amplifier.

"How's the wife?" she added.

"Why hello, Penney! How wonderful to see you again!" Bertie's wife, Lorna Eade had no need of an amplifier.

"She's full of surprises, that one." said Jason Betteridge of the Whirlwind.

"Why did it have to be these sods?" Penney lamented.

"What's wrong, captain? I thought you hated everyone equally." said Smither, leaning against a mast post.

"No, Smither. Some folks deserve more scorn than others." Penney cast a glare at Smither as she said this.

 

After much arguing and name-calling, it was decided that the captains would meet on the Ruckus, so they didn't have to wear down their voices yelling at each other. Dunn had been paranoid that someone would break some valuable piece of equipment on his ship, and Betteridge had been paranoid that someone would try to steal something on his.

"Maybe you shouldn't stuff your ship full of gold and jewels, then." Penney had told him, to which he had replied with silence and a deadly glare. Now, all three captains were gathered around a sky chart in Penney's quarters, squabbling like children.

"How are we supposed to track them down if the damn ship can disappear?" Betteridge complained.

"Well, assuming we can trust Sage's intel, the ship still leaves an Aether trail. I can trace it easily enough."

"Then what?" said Penney. "We need a plan of attack."

"How about we just shoot at 'em 'till they die?" said Betteridge.

"No," Dunn snapped. "They'll just run if they see three ships coming after 'em. It's a cloudy day, so we could use that to our advantage. So far, the sky is on our side."

"I've got an idea," said Penney.

"Let's hear it," said Dunn.

"They won't run if they see just one ship. So, one of us will have to fly out there in the open and wait."

"Bait," sputtered Betteridge. "You want to use one of us as bait!"

"Got any better ideas?" she inquired.

"It makes sense," said Dunn.

"Alright, alright!" Betteridge consented. "Who's it going to be, then?"

The pirate captains looked at each other, considering the options.

"It should be an easy looking target," said Dunn. "Not too big, not too small. Lightly armed."

"Rules out my ship," said Betteridge.

"Mine too," said Dunn. "They might get intimidated by all the fancy weapons on board."

Slowly, Dunn and Betteridge turned their eyes on Penney. The diminutive pirate sighed and said, "Sometimes, I wonder why I even open my big old mouth."

 

"Are we there yet?" Barron whined.

"Now can I kill him?" Blake asked.

"Not quite yet," answered Reaves. "I'm saving him until we run out of food."

The Marianne Rose pierced the cloudy skies, hot on a fresh Aether trail. Redford had informed Reaves of the last known location of the dreaded Fleet Foot, and Donald Welter, the ship engineer, had swiftly locked onto the Aether trail. All Reaves had to do now was find the ship and stick to the clouds. A simple, yet effective plan. Why, then, did he feel so nervous? He ached to find Penney, to haul her to Georgia and have her finally face justice. Yet her trail had gone cold. It had been erratic and difficult to follow to begin with. Like all Aether trails, it dispersed in time, leaving Reaves with nothing. Now, Redford had supplied him with a new trail, a new task. He was proud to serve the Regency of course, but he still thought of it as a waste of time. But perhaps it wasn't. There was a chance Penney would be following the same trail, slim as that chance might be.

Redford had certainly seemed convinced that the chance was high. Reaves wondered why. If he really did find Penney there, it would be a hell of a coincidence. He would need to have a nice long chat with Redford. If the smoking man was keeping secrets, Reaves would have to pry him open to uncover them. Secrets were dangerous in his line of business.

"So, captain, may I ask you some questions?" Barron suddenly asked, fluttering his long eyelashes.

"You may not," Reaves answered.

"Come now, Captain. We've been traveling together for months and you've given me less than two lines for my report!"

"I'll give you two lines," Blake muttered.

"I wasn't asking you, half-wit."

"That's enough!" said Reaves. "Both of you, be quiet. I need some time to think."

"You do an awful lot of thinking, captain." said Barron. "What, I wonder, do you think about?"

"The mission," said Reaves without hesitation. "The well-fare of my crew and my ship, supplies, food, water, clothing, funds and just about everything. As a captain and admiral of the Royal Regency, there is always much to think about. I have responsibilities, Mr. Barron, and babysitting a whining dandy is not among them."

"Actually, it is." said Barron after a moment's pause. "As long as Morgan Sim employs us both. I have a responsibility to that esteemed gentleman. I have been tasked to record the exploits of the legendary William J. Reaves, and I will see that through, with or without your cooperation."

Barron hopped off the barrel he had been squatting on and walked away.

"By the way," he called over his shoulder, "thank you for answering my questions, captain."

He made a mock salute, whisked out a notebook and began scribbling as he descended below decks. Reaves let out a sigh.

"I seriously will kill him," said Barron. "Just say the word."

"I thought I told you to shut up."

"Of course. Apologies, sir."

Everett Smith and Gregory Ware had been watching the whole scene from their workstation on deck. Ware shook his head.

"Poor man," he mumbled. "I'd go mad within a week if I had that prissy bastard whispering in my ear."

"Indeed," Everett nodded in agreement. "The captain has shown remarkable restraint."

"We're lucky, you know. To follow such a man."

"We sure are," said Everett, smiling at Reaves. Slowly, his smile decayed into a frown.

"What's wrong?" asked Ware, glancing up at the lad.

"Well...it's just that...Barron is an ass, we can all agree on that. But is it bad that I want to ask Reaves the same questions?"

"How do you mean?"

"I just...want to know. For all my life, I've been looking up to this man, and now I'm sailing under his leadership, but I still know next to nothing about him. I know his legacy, of course. I can recount the stories by heart. But I don't know him. I know Reaves the hero, Reaves the legend, but I do not know Reaves the man."

Ware thought for a moment, scratching his freshly trimmed beard. "Well," said the big man at last, "you will know him in time. Not by pelting him with questions, of course, but simply by following him. I've served under many men, Everett. Half of them were uptight pricks. The other half were raving, power mad idiots. But a few, a tiny few, were real men. Men you could trust with your life. Men who give a damn about those under their wings. Reaves is one of those few men. Hell, he's better, from what I hear. It may take him some time to thaw out, but he will. I know the type. They always do."

Everett stared bewildered at his friend. He glanced back at Reaves and smiled again.

"I hope so, Greg. I hope so."

"I know so. Now, let's get back to work before he kicks our arses."

 

Penney was bored out of her skull. It had taken the three ships five hours to pin down the last known location of the Fleet Foot. Here, the trail went cold, but the winds were still suffused with excess Aether. An excess of excess, in fact. Dunn had chewed Penney's ear off about his theories.

"This device-artifact, if you like-it must use Aether since we're getting a trail. But if it does, it must use a lot of the stuff. I bet that's why her crew have been so...active. This device of theirs must consume Aether at an astonishing rate, requiring an equally astonishing refueling process. Oh my, this really is all quite astonishing! Now let me tell you about this other astonishing thing-"

Penney forced the memory out of her mind. It had been so, so boring. Dunn was now tinkering with his toys, and Betteridge counting his jewels, both safe and snug aboard their ships hidden in the clouds. Only Penney and the Ruckus were out in the clear, blue open. Waiting for the ghost ship to come. Penney had thought anything involving a ghost ship would be quiet exciting. Oh, how wrong she had been.

Kristen and Qri played dice in a corner. Caixia scanned the skies. Parker was busy down below. Rackham was sitting way up high in the crow's nest. Penney did not care what Smither was doing. Heydrich was...actually, what was Heydrich up to? The surgeon had been spending the last few days locked in his room. Penney made a note to check on him later.

"Anything?" she cried out to Caixia and Rackham.

"Not yet, Captain!" Rackham cried. Cai shook her head silently. Penney sighed and leaned over the railing, resigned to watch the clouds roll lazily along. Within seconds, her mind was wandering. She didn't let it get too far, however. Penney tried to visualize the rolling clouds as animals and objects, but all she could see were amorphous monsters. As she watched these wispy monsters glide and clash, something caught her eye. Something small and dark, far below the Ruckus. She squinted, reaching for her spyglass.

"Movement ahead!" Rackham shouted from above.

Penney looked out. There, ahead of her, the clouds were breaking. A large shape cut through the monsters like a great flying cleaver.

"Ready weapons!" Penney commanded.

"Aye, aye!" her crew replied.

The ship that broke through the clouds was indeed a ghost ship. But not the one they had been looking for. Penney paled. There, before them, was the Marianne Rose. There, before her once again, was William Reaves.

"Defensive maneuvers!" Penney cried. "Fall back to Dunn and Betteridge!"

"Aye, aye!" came the frantic reply.

Penney ran to the wheel as the Rose turned her cannons to the Ruckus.

 

At first, Reaves did not believe it. The crew of his designated scout ship, a small skiff, had told him that the Ruckus, the feared and noisome vessel of Penney Dreadfu,l waited beyond the clouds. For a few moments, he was at a loss for words. Then, he felt a hot rush of blood. The spark was lit. Fire raged within him. He forgot all about Sim and Redford and the Fleet Foot. Only one thing mattered to him now.

"Sir?" said Blake. "What shall we do?"

"Prepare to engage," said Reaves. "I want all hands battle-ready."

"What about the mission, sir?"

"This is our mission, Blake. This is why Morgan thrust me back into the sky in the first place. If you don't like that, you can complain about it later. For now, just follow my goddamn orders."

"Yes, sir." said Blake.

Reaves narrowed his eye. His knuckles whitened as they gripped the wheel.

"This is for Rose." he whispered.

 

The Rose fired. Explosive cannonballs struck the Ruckus, knocking most of the crew on their feet. Penney struggled to keep her grip on the wheel as the volley sent ripples of fire and thunderous noise across the hull of her ship.

"Parker," she called down the voicepipe, "I need more power!"

"Working on it!" Parker called back.

"Bring out the mortars!" Penney shouted to Kristen, who stood close by, waiting for her Captain's orders.

"Bring out the mortars!" Kristen repeated the order to Smither and Caixia.

"I thought we were trying to flee!" Smither yelled out.

"Damn it, you bunter, just do what I say!"

"Damn it, you bunter, just d-!"

"Thanks, Kristen, I got that part!" Smither rolled his eyes, but did what he was told.

Rackham came scrambling down from the crow's nest.

"What can I do?" he said, panting.

"Get down there and help Parker!" said Penney.

"Yes, Captain!"

"Oh, and try not to die, new kid!" Penney yelled after him.

"Another volley coming!" said Qri.

"Brace for impact!" Penney screamed.

Cannonballs tore through the air. They slammed into the Ruckus, producing bone-aching vibrations throughout the entire ship.

"We just need to get through the clouds," Penney panted. "With two other ships on our side, we might have a chance here."

As if on cue, twin blasts of fire shot out from the clouds. They passed the Ruckus and struck the Rose dead on. The Regency vessel wobbled and slowed. The gray clouds parted to reveal the bulky mass of the Last Chance. Her forward facing cannons were still smoking.

"You can't go a day without getting shot at, can you, Miss Dreadful?" Dunn's voice boomed from his ship.

"Thanks for the help, Dunn," said Penney, ignoring his comment. "Where's Betteridge?"

"Running away, most likely."

"Coward," Penney said under her breath. To Dunn, she said "Alright, it's just us now. I suggest we flee while we still can."

"Agreed," shouted Dunn. "I'll keep 'em under fire. Get yourself and your crew outta here. I'll be right behind ya!"

 

"Damage report!" Reaves shouted at his men.

"Nothing serious, sir." reported Ware.

"Think this was a trap?" Blake asked his Captain.

"Unlikely," answered Reaves. "How could they have known we would be heading here? Perhaps Redford was right; perhaps we are all hunting the same quarry."

"How many more do you think are out there?"

"Impossible to say. We'll have to play it safe."

"Of course. Now, there's only one thing that worries me."

"What's that?"

"Where's our quarry?"

Reaves digested that question. He did not like the possibilities that he saw. The whole setup reeked of trickery. The whole assignment was questionable.

"Incoming!" cried Blake.

Reaves looked up just in time to see dozens of flying machines soaring toward his ship. They seemed to be coming from the bulky ship. The machines appeared to be miniature explosives with metal wings and propellers. They flew like drunken pilots, wobbling and swerving this way and that, coughing up smoke the whole time. A few even puttered out and fell uselessly into the Abyss. Crude machines, but Reaves felt certain that he should not underestimate them.

"Evasive action!" he cried.

The Rose accelerated and swerved away from the onslaught as best she could. The flying bombs tried to follow, but most puttered and fell or exploded prematurely. The few that followed were shot down with mortar fire. A stray bomb plowed directly into the side of the Rose. The resulting explosion was small, but it damaged one of the cannons. Another bomb fell onto the deck, sending three men sailing in a blast of fire and splinters. A third soared by Reaves and Blake. The two men ducked, and the machine passed them by, although it nearly cut off their heads. It skidded onto the deck and exploded, melting a portion of the metal railing.

"How the hell did a bloody pirate make these things?" cried Blake.

But Reaves wasn't listening. The Ruckus was fleeing. The bulky ship turned and accelerated, following Penney's ship.

"Full speed ahead!" Reaves commanded. "We are on pursuit!"

"Sir," said Blake, "is that wise? We don't know how many other ships are out there. She could be luring us into a trap!"

"That's a risk we'll have to take. Penney Dreadful has to die."

"Of course she does," Blake said, still worried. "Of course she does."

 

Jason Betteridge was indeed running away. Facing down an elite Regency warship had not been part of the deal. True, he would not be rewarded with Sage's handsome prize, but at least he would live to fight another day. His life was worth much more than his wealth. Penney and Dunn could sink down below if they wanted, but there was no way in hell he would sink with them. He glanced over at his first mate, Kaja Crofford. The diminutive, orange haired woman wore a frown.

"What's wrong, dear Kaja? Upset about this loss?"

"If you mean the loss of the prize, no. I just feel...well, are you sure we can't take the Regency ship?"

"Kaja, it's an elite. We can't take on something like that, and you know it."

"But with Penney and Dunn on our side, perhaps we can. We have three ships, Jason. They have one!"

"My dear Kaja," Betteridge smirked. "I believe your compassion is showing."

"Is it that obvious?" Kaja looked away as her cheeks reddened.

"It is. And it's not healthy. A little compassion here and there is permissible, but more often than not, it only causes pain. And I do not care to see you in pain, young Miss Crofford."

Kaja swallowed her guilt, and compassion and every other emotion which Betteridge claimed to be poisonous and smiled at her Captain.

"Thank you, sir."

"Think nothing of it. Now, where's our next target?"

"Can we steal food this time?" Kaja asked as she produced a finely written list from her pouch. "Maybe water?"

Betteridge cocked an eyebrow.

"That's not compassion, sir." Kaja hurriedly stated. "That's just common sense."

"Very well," Betteridge sighed.

Suddenly, the Whirlwind buckled under the impact of a fiery blast.

"What the hell was that?" Betteridge hollered.

In answer, a great black ship rose from the clouds beside the Whirlwind. Her hull was wreathed in ash. Pale forms scurried about on deck, casting hideous leers at Betteridge and his men.

"Captain," said Kaja, "we appear to be under attack."

"Thank you for that astute observation, my dear." said Betteridge.

The Fleet Foot unleashed another volley. The Whirlwind shuddered like a dying beast.

"Get us out of here!" Betteridge shouted into the voicepipe.

"Working on it, sir!" replied his chief mechanic.

"It was a trap!" Kaja cried. "They must've known we were coming."

"Impossible!" said Betteridge.

"Really? Does Sage seem like a reliable ally to you?"

"I've got other things to worry about now, thank you very much."

Betteridge steered his ship away from the Fleet Foot, hoping to escape from her range of fire. But the Fleet Foot followed, cutting him off. The black ship cut through the sky. She fired once more at the retreating Whirlwind. The ship lurched and Betteridge nearly lost his lunch.

"Hull breach!" cried the mechanic. "Cabin fire in the engine room!"

Men began to rush down the stairs, carrying buckets of water. Betteridge could hear the racket of frantic mechanics toiling away from his position at the helm. He hit the accelerator, propelling his ship forward at great speeds.

The Fleet Foot was faster. Another volley. Another explosion. The sounds of busy workers were replaced by cries for help. Kaja wept as she listened to the mechanic burning.

"Rear engine lost!" someone shouted. "We're losing altitude!"

"My jewels," whispered Betteridge.

"What?" said Kaja.

"My jewels!" Betteridge screamed and let go of the wheel.

"Captain, what are you doing?" Kaja shouted. She grabbed hold of the wildly spinning wheel. Her stomach turned as she slammed on the brakes.

"It's too late for this poor ship and her fine men," Betteridge called to Kaja over his shoulder as he ran, "but I can still save my treasure!"

Kaja rolled her eyes.

The Fleet Foot swiftly cut in front of the Whirlwind. The black ship opened fire. Kaja released the wheel and ran to Betteridge just before a majority of the front deck exploded. She tackled Betteridge to the ground, saving them both from a volley of deadly splinters.

"Release me, woman!" Betteridge cried, beating on Kaja's head. She kneed him in the groin, rendering him into harmless idiot. She began to drag him to the lifeboats, holding him by the coat collar.

"No," he whimpered, clutching his throbbing groin. "My jewels...must go back for them."

"There's no time, Captain!" Kaja berated him.

When they reached the lifeboats, the Fleet Foot impaled the Whirlwind with boarding spikes. Slowly, but surely, the black ship began to reel in her prey. Kaja threw Betteridge into a lifeboat, climbing aboard with him. Without looking back, she brought the engine to life and fled from the dying ship. Other lifeboats followed. Not many others, she noted. Not many at all.

Sound travels fast, but the death cries of the Whirlwind did not reach the other ships. They were too busy trying to stay afloat themselves.

 

"Incoming!" Captain Dunn screamed to his men. The Marianne Rose was hot on their tail. She loomed closer and closer, parting the clouds in her path.

"Ready the rattlers!" Dunn cried.

Gleaming metal guns emerged from hidden compartments on the deck. Mortars were readied, and the men prepared themselves for a fight against one of the most feared ships in the Regency fleet. Dunn sweated bullets as he watched her approach. Death dressed in white and gold heading right for him. Lorna came to his side. They embraced and awaited whatever fate had in store for them. Dunn knew that whatever it was, he probably deserved it. His wife knew it too.

The Rose pushed relentlessly on. She approached with a speed that Dunn's ship could never hope to match. She was so close now that Dunn could see Reaves himself. Despite the eye patch, Dunn could feel both sky blue orbs staring right through him. Lorna tightened her grip, dug herself deeper into Dunn's chest. The rattlers began to spin.

The Rose took a nosedive. She plummeted bow first into the obscuring clouds below. Now she lurked somewhere underneath the Last Chance. Dunn released his wife and looked after the retreating form of the Ruckus. Dunn cursed himself for being so bloody idiotic. Reaves wasn't interested in some two-bit pirate and his wife. Reaves had his eye on one target alone.

"Full speed ahead!" he bellowed.

 

Penney panicked when she no longer heard explosions and gunfire. Looking back, all she saw was the Last Chance speeding toward her, all alone.

"Where'd they go?" Kristen asked.

"In the clouds," answered Penney. "They could be anywhere."

"What do we do?"

"We wait, and prepare."

The silence that followed was maddening. Every eye was on the sky. Penney strained her ears. At first, there was not a sound to be heard, aside from the billowing sails and the creaking floorboards. After some time however, Penney discerned the tell-tale sounds of Aether engines. The distinct hissing hum grew louder and louder.

"Brace yourselves!" Penney warned her crew.

On  cue, a ship emerged from the clouds. It was not the Marianne Rose. It was a lifeboat, painted red and black. Penney spotted two souls aboard, moving sluggishly about. As the small boat drew closer, Penney recognized Betteridge and his diminutive first mate. Kaja began waving frantically. More boats followed, though not many more.

"Bring 'em aboard!" Penney ordered.

The lifeboat snuggled up to the Ruckus as Kristen lowered a portion of the railing. Smither and Caixia assisted the other boats and their shaken passengers.

"Oh thank god we found you," was the first thing Kaja said as she stumbled on deck. Betteridge collapsed behind her, clutching his groin.

"What the hell happened to him?" Penney asked.

"Me," said Kaja. "Listen, Penney...the Whirlwind is...we were attacked."

"By whom? Reaves? That doesn't-"

"No, no...it was-"

The arrival of the Marianne Rose cut off Kaja's desperate explanation. The ship rose from the clouds ahead of the Ruckus, immediately firing a volley. The Ruckus rocked. Her crew fell flat on their feet. Fire licked her hull, just barely reaching up to the deck.

"Front engine damaged!" Parker's voice exclaimed.

"Evasive action!" Penney shouted. Kristen, who had taken the wheel, frantically turned the ship so that the front faced away from incoming fire. The Rose copied her movements. Soon, the two ships were circling each other. Penney gave an order to fire, and gleefully watched fire explode across the hull of Reaves' precious ship. The Ruckus descended, but the Rose followed just in time to release another volley. Penney steadied herself and cursed as her  precious ship screamed in pain.

"Captain, I suggest we flee." said Caixia, calm as a clear summer sky.

"I'm working on it, Cai." Penney growled.

"Do you actually have a plan, boss?" Smither asked nervously.

"I was thinking of a distraction," said Penney, flashing an evil smile. "And nothing says 'distraction' like a burning hole in your hull. Fire!"

At her order, the cannons unleashed a volley of fire and iron. The Rose suddenly accelerated out of reach, coming to rest by the other side of the Ruckus. Penney hollered another command, and the mortars fired. The Rose was struck by arcing bolts of fire. Smoke curled up into the sky, mingling with the clouds. The ships circled, trading volleys.

"Penney," Kaja cried out in between bursts of cannon fire, "I should really tell you-!"

"Now is not the time, Kaja!" Penney yelled.

"No, Penney...listen!" Kaja grabbed Penney by the collar. "It was the Fleet Foot!" She screamed.

"What?" said Penney.

"Ash," muttered Betteridge, who was leaning against a mast. Kaja looked to her captain and paled.

"Oh no,"

"Ash in the air." Betteridge pointed somewhere off to the port side.

"Well, where there's fire, there's ash. What are you two going on about?"

"Penney, look." Kaja pleaded, pointing in the same direction.

On the port side, a great plume of ash was slowly rising. At first, Penney was simply worried about a fire on the hull, or in the engine room. But as she looked closer, she could see that this ash was black, pure black, as if someone had ripped a piece of the night sky from the heavens. And as it blew toward her, Penney noticed that it did not smell like burning oil or heated Aether. No, it smelled like flesh. Burning flesh.

"Oh," said Penney. "I see what you mean."

The Fleet Foot rose from the depths, bringing with it a burning swathe of night. The great black ship was mere inches from the Ruckus, so close that the hulls almost touched. The Foot fire off a volley as it rose. The Ruckus tilted upright as she was hit from below. Another cannon ball struck the mainmast, burning through the reinforced cloth. Kaja pulled Betteridge to safety. Penney struggled to get her crew under control.

"You have got to be fucking kidding me!" Smither whined.

Penney watched the Fleet Foot level out. The black ship now floated above the Ruckus.

"Get us out of her shadow!" she said to Kristen.

"Aye, cap'n!"

"The nerve of some people, huh?" Penney mused. "A girl can't even get proper revenge without someone butting in on it."

 

The Marianne Rose ceased fire. Her crew watched in shock as a slim black ship rose from the depths. The newcomer attacked the Ruckus and was now floating above both ships like a vulture.

"What the hell is that?" Blake exclaimed.

"That, Mr. Blake, would be our quarry." said Reaves.

"This doesn't look good," Everett whispered to Ware.

"Well, look on the bright side," said Janet, "Maybe now we can kill two birds with one stone."

Reaves watched the Ruckus retreat from the Fleet Foot's shadow. Every instinct screamed at him to go after her. Blake must have noticed, for he put a comforting hand on Reaves' shoulder.

"We came here on a mission, sir."

"I know," said Reaves. He ordered his crew to give chase, but his eye remained on the Ruckus. As the Rose made her move, Barron rose up from below deck.

"Could you blokes quiet it down up here? I'm trying to write a report, but the whole bloody ship is shaking! Thanks, loves."

Without blinking, Blake produced his flintlock and aimed it at Barron's head. He pulled back the hammer and fired. Barron ducked, lost his footing and fell down the stairs, cursing all the way. Ware guffawed while the remainder of the crew looked wide eyed at Blake.

"You know, next time I really will kill him." he said.

 

The Rose was quickly en route to the Fleet Foot, but the black ship lowered and turned. She then positioned herself between the Rose and the Ruckus. Although they could not see it, and would likely hate it if they did, the captains of the respective ships shared the same quizzical expression. The Fleet Foot did not fire. She simply sat there, waiting. Penney and Reaves both gave the firing order to their crews, not wanting to waste such an opportunity.

The Fleet Foot suddenly accelerated. Penney and Reaves cursed their foolishness even as their ships were bombarded. The Fleet Foot made a sharp turn, facing the two ships. Cannon fire rang out, and the stern engine of the Fleet Foot exploded. The Last Chance emerged from the clouds. From her holds, she unleashed a dozen flying bombs which Dunn had dubbed 'steelbats'. The 'bats were still in the experimental phase, according to Dunn, which Penney took to mean that he was too broke to continue his tinkering. Still, as unreliable as they were, Dunn's contraptions took the Fleet Foot  by surprise.

"Give 'em hell, Dunn!" Kaja cried out, pumping her fist into the air.

"He can't hear you." said Cai.

Kaja raised an eyebrow and looked at Penney. "Is she always like this?"

"Yeah," said Penney. "You'll get used to it."

The Fleet Foot used her remaining engines to balance herself out. Then the ship began to sing. A low, whining hum issued forth from somewhere within the black ship. Even from a distance, it was enough to induce a migraine. The Fleet Foot then began to glow with a sulphurous yellow light.

"The artifact!" Penney hissed through gritted teeth. "That has to be it...they're fleeing!"

"How can you tell?" asked Rackham.

"Trust me, I know magical bullshit when I see it, and that is some magical fucking bullshit!"

"Orders, cap'n?" Kristen inquired.

"I have an idea," said Penney. "But no one's going to like it."

"Is she insane?" Blake asked.

Reaves did not respond. He was too busy watching in disbelief as the Ruckus fired her grappling cables. They struck the ashy hull of the Fleet Foot, and the Ruckus pulled herself closer to the glowing ship.

"If you think that's insane," he finally said, "you are going to absolutely hate what I'm about to suggest."

Blake looked at Reaves, eyes wide with alarm. "Sir?"

"We can't let either of those ships escape. You know that, Mr. Blake."

"Sir, you can't be serious!"

"I'm afraid I am." Reaves turned to face the rest of his crew. "But it is not my decision alone. I do not know where this will lead us, and I don't know if we'll come back alive, but no sailor became legend without taking a few risks. We have an opportunity, and if we wish to take it, we must be quick. But as I said...it is not my decision alone."

He met all of his assembled crew in the eye as he spoke, and then waited, letting them soak in his words. After but a moment's hesitation, Everett Smith raised his rifle into the air.

"I'm with you, sir!" the young man shouted proudly.

Ware was the next to raise his rifle, followed by Janet. Soon, the whole crew had their weapons in the air. For the first time that day, Reaves smiled.

"Good," he said. "Then let's take a bloody risk."

 

"Are they insane?" asked Lorna.

"Yes, I believe so." said Dunn.

The couple and their crew watched as the Rose attached herself to the Fleet Foot with magnetic grappling cables. Dunn had seen similar tactics, of course. But he had never seen such a tactic used on a ghost ship before.

The humming of the Fleet Foot increased in pitch until the air itself vibrated and pulsed. Seconds later, Lorna and Dunn were blinded by a flash of light. When they recovered from the flash, and when the ringing in their ears had subsided, the couple looked out to see nothing but sky.

"Dear...what just happened?" said Lorna.

"I'm not sure, my love. But I don't think we'll be getting that reward now."

 

Penney Dreadful burned. At first, the horrible hum made her want to tear her ears off. Then  the light, brilliant as an exploding sun, blinded her. Now she could see all too clearly. She could see her skin sloughing off of her scorching bones. She could see her crew suffering the same fate. She felt like she was dying. But there was light ahead. Light and ash. So much ash, swirling in a great gray vortex. She didn't know how she was seeing all of this, for she was fairly certain that her eyes had melted long ago. She only wanted it to stop.

And stop it did, when they reached the light. Penney was blinded again. She doubled over and caressed her tender skin. When she opened her eyes, she could see, but there was no ash. No fire. Smither kneeled beside her, retching.

"We...are...never doing that...again." he coughed.

"Agreed," said Penney.

Penney's crew groveled around her, moaning in pain. Except, of course, for Caixia, but she at least looked perturbed.

"Is everyone alright?" Penney called out.

"That depends on your definition of 'alright'." Kristen mumbled. Qri helped his creator get to her feet.

"What the hell just happened?" Parker's voice, raw and ragged, bellowed from below.

"Don't think about it too much. Just bring everyone up here, yeah? I've got a plan."

"Is it as bad as the last one?"

"Shut up and do it."

Rackham stared nervously at the Fleet Foot. This close, he could see her crew-scrawny, gray skinned things- scurrying about. He could feel their eyes upon him.

"They've got mortars," he said to Penney as everyone gathered around. "Why don't they fire?"

"This close to their own ship? Surprisingly, I have yet to encounter any captain who would risk such an idiotic maneuver."

"Haven't you done that?" Said Smither.

"Shut up, Smither. Those were different times, and we were desperate."

"We're always desperate."

"I said shut up. Alright, everyone, listen up. Marina, Qri and myself will search for the artifact. Smither, Heydrich and Rackham, I need the three of you to disable those mortars. Parker and Kristen, stay here. We may need a quick escape."

"What shall I do, captain?" said Caixia.

"Do what you do best, Cai. Kill people."

"What about us?" asked Kaja.

"You feeling good enough to fight?"

Kaja unsheathed her cutlass and grimaced. "Oh hell yes." she growled.

"Jason?" Penney asked.

"I think I'll sit this one out," said Betteridge. "I enjoy living a little too much."

"Then you should fight!" Kaja cried.

"You kicked me in the ballocks," said Betteridge, squinting at his first mate.

"You did what?" said Kristen.

"Because you were being an ass!" Kaja screamed.

"Enough, you two!" said Penney. "We're going to miss the distraction."

"What distraction?" asked Rackham.

On cue, the voice of William Reaves, joined by a chorus of devoted followers billowed in the wind.

"Boarding action!" the Regency captain cried.

"Oh Willy," said Penney, shaking her head. "You are so predictable."

 

Reaves was not surprised to encounter an army of ashen pirates when he boarded the Fleet Foot. He had seen worse. Blackened ships and twisted corpses. Men with bones on the outside. Entire crews reduced to quivering piles of pale flesh. Yes, Reaves had seen what the treasures of the surface could do to a man. So he did not hesitate when the first gray thing ran to him, brandishing a wicked sword. Reaves cut him down and continued on as if this was a normal excursion.

Much of his crew, however, were not so experienced. Bain and Smith froze as soon as their boots hit the deck.

"Come on you two, fight or die!" roared Ware, opening fire into a crowd of gray men.

Bain spurred into action. Smith followed her after a momentary hesitation.

Reaves stared past the wave of ashen bodies rushing toward him. His eye rested on the Ruckus, chained to the Fleet Foot just as his ship was. Reaves began to march forward, never moving his eye from that pitted bronze ship.

"Sir, where are you going?" Blake called after him.

"Retrieve the artifact!" Reaves responded.

"Sir!"

"Keep them safe, Blake." Reaves said, cutting his way to the Ruckus.

"Damn it," Blake muttered, watching his captain wade through a gray sea.

 

Penney, Marina and Qri went off fighting in one direction while Heydrich, Rackham and Smither went off fighting in the other. Steel met flesh and the gray men were painted red. Marina picked off opponents with guns and spears with her two flintlocks. Qri smashed  his foes onto the deck when they got too close to the little group. And Penney was the greatest artist of them all. She danced with her blade, to the music of screams and gunfire. She was a little red tornado, devastating anyone foolish enough to get too close.

The trio moved as one, backs facing each other. Marina whooped, which could be considered a war cry, but Penney thought it was too high-pitched for that.

"I haven't had this much fun since...well, since last week, I guess." said Marina, laughing as she shot a rifleman full of holes.

"You ladies have all the fun."

"You were there, Qri."

Penney grinned as she killed. With her crew in tow, she was unstoppable. They were unstoppable. None of those gray bastards could touch them. That artifact was as good as gone.

A bullet whizzed past Penney's nose, stopping the trio in their tracks. Penney turned to see where the shot had come from. There, among a clashing army of gray and blue, stood William Reaves, flintlock pistol aimed and smoking.

"I was wondering when you'd show up," Penney muttered to herself.

"Penney?" said Marina, aiming her guns at Reaves.

"Go," said Penney. "Find the artifact. Destroy it, or throw it overboard, whichever's easier."

"What about you?"

"Me? I've got a date."

"You can't be serious!"

"I am. Go. Qri, make sure she doesn't get herself killed."

"Can do, captain. Come along, Miss Romero."

Marina reluctantly allowed herself to be escorted by the metal man, glancing back at Penney while she did so. Penney winked at the girl before returning her attention to Reaves. He was closer now, marching relentlessly toward her. Penney aimed her own pistol and fired at him. Reaves effortlessly dodged. The bullet found a new target in one of the gray men. Reaves returned fire, only for Penney to dodge as well. She ran to him, shooting as she did so. Reaves dodged each and every bullet, while sending his own flying at Penney. When the red tornado came closer, Reaves quickly holstered his gun and raised his saber to block the incoming attacks.

Steel met steel. Sparks bounced against the two combatants, burning clothes and exposed skin. Neither Penney nor Reaves paid them any mind. Penney leaned in, putting more weight on her blade. Reaves pushed back with force, sending Penney stumbling backward. He dashed after her, preparing for a stab. Penney regained her balance just in time and pushed his blade away.

"It's been a long time since we've been at this." said Penney, grinning as she circled Reaves.

"Too long," said Reaves, mirroring her motions.

"It seems we have our eyes on the same prize," said Penney, amber eyes shining with mirth and hate. "Did your masters demand this of you?"

"Did yours?" said Reaves.

Penney snarled and went in for the kill. Reaves blocked her swings and dodged when she sent a bullet his way. Soon, their blades were locked. Reaves graced Penney with a deathly glare.

"Today, Penney Dreadful, you will be brought to justice. You will pay for your crimes against the Regency, and for your crimes against my family!"

"Are you still going on about that?" Penney grimaced as spittle flew in her face. Disgusting, but it did give her an idea. She swirled her tongue, gathering the warm liquid in her mouth and spit it out onto Reaves' face. He swore and shut his one good eye. It wasn't much, but it was an advantage nonetheless. She kicked him in the shin and raised her cutlass in one motion. Reaves met her blade with his own. They pushed each other back and began circling again.

"You killed my wife!" Reaves screamed, wiping spittle from his face.

"At least I'm not a mass murderer!"

"Aren't you?" Reaves hissed.

The dance was interrupted by a group of gray men. Penney rolled her eyes. In unison, she and Reaves attacked. The gray men were cut down by a worn cutlass on one side, and shining Regency steel on the other. Soon, the gray things were dead and red. Penney and Reaves moved their dance to a spot less crowded with corpses, which was difficult to find.

"Well, which one is it, Willy?" said Penney. "Are you doing this for dearly departed Rosie, or are you doing this for your masters?"

"I'm doing this for me!" Reaves came at her with steel raised above his head. She met his strike, and the two circled again, trading blows.

"Really? I was under the impression that you gave up, Willy. Retired. Content to spend the rest of your days cooped up in some lofty villa, sipping wine and watching the world slip by. Were the high-class whores not good enough for you?"

Penney fired off a shot, but Reaves dodged and grabbed her gun arm. He twisted it with one hand and brought his elbow down on Penney's wrist. She cried out and dropped the gun, but blocked before Reaves could land a killing blow. She wrenched her arm away and brought down her cutlass. He deflected it and countered with a jab, which Penney barely avoided.

"Look," said Penney. "I'm flattered you came all this way for me. But the way I see it, you're actually doing me a favor."

Reaves gave her a quizzical look.

"I get to kill you!" Penney shouted with delight. She threw a punch at Reaves, taking him off balance. She took the advantage with a quick swipe to the chest. Blood oozed out of Reaves, staining his royal blue uniform. He staggered back, gripping his chest. Penney charged at him with a jab. Reaves dodged, stepping behind Penney. He made an upward sweep with his saber, striking Penney across the back. She screamed and stumbled forward. Reaves stomped on her leg from behind, bringing the pirate to her knees. He raised his saber high, ready to stab down into Penney's sun-beaten flesh. She kicked out before he could do so, and rolled to a crouching position. She leaped at him, teeth bared and shining like the steel in her hand. Reaves side-stepped, leaving her open on the side. Before he could take advantage of that, she twirled and met his blade.

Once more, their blades were locked. Penney winced. Her back bled and her leg ached. That jump had been risky, but at least the pain got the adrenaline pumping. Penney worked better on pain. She knew that Reaves was the same way. He moved his bruised jaw back and forth, wincing as well.

"Today, you die." he hissed.

"You first, darling."

Once again, they pushed each other back and the dance began anew.

 

Kaja Crofford was enjoying a little rampage of her own. Every gray faced pirate she saw, she killed. She would allow none of them to live. The bastards had sunk her home, killed her friends. That was unforgivable. She fought with blade and fist, snarling like a hound. She could not believe Jason's cowardice. These men had destroyed his treasure, the only thing he truly cared about, aside from his own skin. How could he not be furious? At times like these, she wondered why she had joined him in the first place.

A pair of gray pirates ran toward her. She moved deftly to the right just as they approached. She kicked out with all her might, bringing one of the men to his knees. The other whirled on her, howling madly. He swung out with his sword in a downward strike. Kaja dodged the blow. The pirate swung again, but Kaja caught his arm in an iron grip. She lifted his arm up and stabbed the man through the armpit. She dropped him like a sack and turned to the other man, who was struggling to rise. She kicked him back down and ran him through.

With that business finished, Kaja returned to the battle at large.

 

Marina and Qri moved through the dingy corridors of the Fleet Foot, leaving a trail of bodies behind them. Marina was nearly choking on the ash. It filled the corridors. Not one patch of metal or wood was spared. It clung to every surface and floated in the stagnant air like night black clouds. Through her watering, stinging eyes, Marina could see lanterns offering dim respite against the darkness. She noted how the ash scattered at each step of her boots, leaving behind impressions that were soon consumed by ever more ash.

"You think the artifact is doing this?" she asked Qri.

"Either that, or they have a poor filtration system." said the metal man.

"You think Penney's going to be okay?"

"Certainly! Miss Dreadful can handle herself."

"I know, but...well, it just feels wrong to leave her like that."

"It was her wish, and we should respect it."

"I know, damn it! I just..."

"What?"

"How could she just throw herself at him like that?"

"Revenge is a powerful thing, or so I'm told."

"Who tells you that?"

"Penney."

Marina groaned. She was quickly becoming less worried and more furious. "We need her," she said. "And she just abandoned us to fulfill some grudge match!"

Even as she said this, Marina felt a pang of guilt. She had thought of a dozen ways to abandon ship. She loved Penney for taking her in, she truly did. But Marina was growing tired of the creaks and groans of the Ruckus. She was weary of Smither's whining and Kristen's raging insanity. Yes, a thousand times she had devised ways of taking Heydrich and setting out on her own path once more. But Penney was a captain. She was supposed to stand by her crew. Hell, Penney probably expected Marina to run away at some point. She knew Marina well enough by now.

But something made Marina stay.

"Say, miss Romero...do you hear something?"

A loud bang cut off Marina's response. The end of the hallway exploded with light. Marina closed her eyes. The thought of going blind on an enemy vessel did not appeal to her. She felt a rush of heat. Flames kissed her clothes. She opened her eyes. There was nothing but ashy darkness ahead of her. She turned to Qri.

"Oh dear," said the metal man.

Qri had a hole in his chest. The torn, blackened edges of his bronze skin were still smoking. Marina could see gears moving inside.

"Explosive bullets," said Qri, strangely calm for a man with a gaping wound. "Get behind me."

Before Marina could protest, Qri grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her behind him. Her impact stirred up more thick ash, provoking another bout of coughing.

She was nearly deafened when another explosion lit up the corridor. This one got Qri in the shoulder. Marina covered her face as bits of jagged metal rained down on her. Qri began to run toward his attacker, arms raised, fists like anchors.

One last shot, and Qri was down. The side of his head was wide open, revealing delicate circuitry. Marina struggled to her feet, thrusting her guns out in front of her.

"Such a stubborn machine," hissed a voice in the ash.

Marina opened fire, although she could still see nothing but ash, shadow and Qri's inert form.

"But that was to be expected." said the voice once her barrage was over.

"Show yourself, coward!" Marina screamed.

"Very well," said the voice, now in her ear.

She jumped and turned to see a pale face grinning at her. The skin was stretched thin, revealing the contours of a skull. It was gray, like all the other faces aboard this ashen ship, with teeth too long and too yellow. The eyes were pinpricks, black as a storm cloud.

Marina lit the corridor with gunfire. Her bullets hit the wall with metallic pins. The gray, grinning face was nowhere to be seen. Marina looked around carefully, straining to see in the dark.

"Does this place frighten you?"

Marina fired in the direction of the voice.

"Do I frighten you?"

Again, Marina fired. She was met with a burst of riotous laughter. Marina turned in the direction of the laugh and fired once more. Between the flashes of light produced by her blazing flintlocks, Marina could see a thin, long limbed shadow moving about with great speed. It seemed, in fact, that it was moving in between the barrage of gunfire. Every time she aimed for it and took a shot, the shadow disappeared, only to reappear on the other side of the corridor.

Marina finally had the sense to run when she saw more shadows appear. She turned to find herself staring once more at that grinning, skull like visage. She pulled the triggers, hoping to at least kill one more gray skinned bastard before going down. Her guns clicked uselessly.

"Hello, Marina Romero," said the skull. "My name is Haywood, and this is my ship."

A dozen hands grasped her. She screamed, only to be silenced by the ash. Her eyes watered. Her skin tingled as she was taken, buried under pale gray limbs. In the silent, ashy darkness, Qri's eyes blazed red like dying suns.

 

"I think this is going well." said Smither as he opened up a hole in someone's skull.

"That is unusually positive for you, Smither. I may have to check on you after we're done here." said Heydrich.

"Is this normal for you lot?" asked Rackham.

"What, our banter, or this ridiculous fight?" said Smither.

"Both, I suppose." said Rackham.

"No," Smither looked to Heydrich. The surgeon shrugged. "Okay, maybe. Depends on the day."

The three men moved in a tight formation. They were making good progress on the mortars. By now, however, the gray pirates had caught on. They were guarding the mortars, huddling around the machines as if the things were providing them with warmth. Smither tossed a grenade at one such group. The pirates scattered before the mortar erupted into flame.

"That was my last," said Smither. "Looks like we'll have to do this the old fashioned way from now on."

The men moved as one, blasting their way to the next mortar. As they approached, the gray pirates sneered and turned the mortar to face them.

"Oh shit," gasped Rackham.

"Move!" shouted Smither.

The men jumped out of the way just in time. Fiery splinters rained down, mere inches from where they had just been standing. Rackham patted down the small flames which were eating at his clothes. Smither recovered quickly and unsheathed his knife. He ran to the gray pirates, screaming like a bloody lunatic. The pirates rushed to reload the mortar, but Smither got to them first. He jammed his gleaming blade into the neck of one gray skinned bastard. The others quickly converged on him. Smither flipped his rifle around and swung hard at the three fools who had dared to approach him. The butt of the rifle struck them all hard enough to send yellowed teeth flying. Smither removed his knife from the neck of the gurgling pirate and threw it at another. The blade sunk into the man's forehead. Quick as lightning, Smither fired off a round into another bastard's belly and removed his knife before either men could fall. He twirled, slashing the throat of the third.

Two more pirates drew their pistols, aiming them at Smither. He growled at them like a hound of war. Three shots rang out and the two pirates dropped. Smither looked back to see Heydrich and Rackham standing tall, guns smoking.

"I could've taken them," he muttered.

"These bastards must be crazy if they're willing to blow up their own ship." said Rackham, gazing at the burning hole left behind by the mortar shell.

"Crazy or desperate," said Heydrich.

"Or both." said Smither.

"Yes, probably both." Heydrich conceded.

Rackham poked around the corpses until he found a grenade holster. He pried it from the dead man and slung it around his own chest.

"Alright," he said, producing a grenade. "Fire in the hole."

Heydrich and Smither retreated as Rackham pulled the grenade and dropped it down the muzzle of the mortar. He ran after the other two, as fast as his feet could carry him. The mortar exploded, making a mess of the corpses around it.

"On to the next one," said Heydrich.

"Looks like we're almost done," said Rackham, forming back into formation with his friends. "This is easier than I thought it would be."

"Shut up." said Smither.

"What? Why?"

"If you were smart, you'd never say that. As soon as some idiot says 'Oh this is easy!', the goddamn situation immediately goes south for the winter"

Before they could get to the next mortar, a ball of fire consumed the machine and the gray men surrounding it. The trio froze in place. Out from the smoke walked a young woman dressed in Regency blue. Her dark hair was short, and her eyes were hidden behind goggles.

"Hey boys, looks like we've got some live ones." she said, her voice slightly muffled by the scarf tied around her mouth.

Two figures emerged from the smoke, also wearing goggles and scarves. As the smoke cleared, it became clear that they were both men, one large and broad shouldered, the other young and fair headed.

"Good catch, Janet." said the big man.

"Thanks. Nice throw back there, by the way."

"Why, thank you, madam."

Smither glared at Rackham. "See," he said. "What'd I tell you?"

"What do you say, Ware?" said the woman. "Shall we put some holes in these no-good bastards."

"Let's," said Ware.

"They don't look like they're with the Fleet Foot," said the young man.

"No, they don't. Must be Penney's men. Be on your guard." said Ware.

The pirates and the bluecoats stared each other down.

"You wanna shoot first," Smither drawled. "Or shall I?"

The bluecoats prepared to answer in a hail of bullets, but the pirates beat them to it. They scattered and returned fire. Stray bullets struck the deck, causing small, splintery explosions. The bluecoats took cover behind some packing crates while the pirates danced between their bullets.

"Hey Rackham," said Smither. "I think now would be a good time for some fireworks!"

Rackham nodded. He unhooked a grenade from his belt, primed it, and lobbed it toward the bluecoats.

"Incoming!" Ware screamed.

The bluecoats broke cover. The crates and the deck around them were consumed by fire. Ware recovered quickly and continued firing.

"I'm out!" Rackham cried, indicating his now empty rifle.

Wordlessly, Smither threw his own rifle at the younger pirate. Rackham flinched, but managed to catch it.

"What are you-?"

Before Rackham could finish the question, Smither was off, running toward Ware with his knife clenched in one white knuckled fist. He dodged Ware's incoming fire. The old Regency man swore with each missed shot. Smither was on top of him now, but Ware blocked the blow with his rifle. He pushed the pirate back and took another shot. Smither dodged it easily and came running once again.

"Fine," said Ware, stowing his rifle away. "We'll do this your way."

Ware unsheathed his saber just as Smither's knife came down.

"Not bad, old man." Smither sneered.

In response, Ware kneed Smither in the gut. The pirate wheezed and stumbled back. Ware thrust his saber forward, but Smither recovered in time to dodge. The blade grazed his jacket.

"Respect your elders, son." said Ware, advancing on the pirate.

Squinting, Janet took aim at Smither. Before she could take the shot, a bullet soared past her, striking the deck. Janet looked to see Heydrich aiming right at her. And this time, it did not appear that he was going to miss. Another shot rang out, right next to Janet's ear, and the pistol flew out of Heydrich's hand.

"Are you okay?" Everett asked, laying a hand on Janet's shoulder.

"What?" said Janet, pointing at her ear.

Heydrich grimaced, messaging his hand. Rackham sidled up to the surgeon, training his rifle on Everett.

"You alright?" Rackham asked.

"I'll be fine." said Heydrich, producing a dagger from his coat.

While Rackham and Heydrich squared off with Janet and Everett, Ware and Smither locked blades. Ware was doing quite well for himself. He handled his saber with grace. Smither, meanwhile, fought savagely, slashing his knife this way and that. It took Ware some time to accommodate for his opponents erratic style, but once he did so, Ware managed to counteract nearly every move the pirate threw at him.

That is, until Smither decided to play dirty. When Ware thrust his weapon forward, Smither sidestepped and grabbed a hold of Ware's arm. The pirate twisted until Ware's arm began to bend backward. Ware grimaced and dropped his saber. Smither smiled viciously. Ware, using his free hand, punched that smile right off Smither's face. The pirate staggered, clutching his nose. Ware delivered two blows to Smither's stomach. Smither doubled over, moaning.

"Let's see how you like it." said Ware, grabbing Smither's arm. With no apparent effort, Ware snapped Smither's forearm like a twig. Smither screamed as his knife clattered to the deck.

The scream, and the sickening crack of bone, caught Rackham's attention. He turned, wide-eyed to see what the bluecoat had done to his crewmate. Janet took advantage of the moment and blew a hole in Rackham's shoulder. The pirate screamed and fell back. Heydrich swore and threw his dagger straight at Janet. Everett pushed her out of the object's deadly path. He screamed as it cut his lower calf. Janet held her bleeding comrade and he held her back, tightly. Protectively.

Ware dropped Smither like a sack of potatoes and ran to his friends, collecting his fallen saber as he ran. He held out the blade, pointing the tip at Heydrich. The surgeon swore yet again.

Suddenly, Ware's eyes went wide. He wasn't looking at Heydrich anymore. The surgeon turned his head. Behind him, Caixia walked among the dead. Her blades were coated in blood. Miraculously, there was none to be found on her black dress or her pale skin, aside from a vivid red cut along her cheek. She stared straight ahead at Ware, but Heydrich knew that she was seeing much more than that. She had already scanned and evaluated the scene a hundred times over. Of this, there was no doubt. Caixia was an apex predator, and today the bluecoats were her prey. Heydrich smiled.

"Sic 'em." he hissed.

Caixia hardly stepped an inch before a deafening bang filled the sky. Bluecoats and pirates alike turned their heads toward the center of the ship. There, standing amidst the carnage, was a congregation of the gray skinned bastards. The tallest of the men, dressed in black, held a pistol above his head. Heydrich recognized the model. A heavy pistol, modified for explosive rounds. Judging from his stature and demeanor, Heydrich judged the tall man to be the captain of the Fleet Foot. But it was the man next to him who caught Heydrich's eye. The bastard held Marina in his arms, who was struggling helplessly against him. Heydrich felt anger boil his insides.

"Good people of the Rose and the Ruckus," began the tall man, "I come to you bearing gifts. A prisoner from each ship."

"What the hell is he talking about?" said Ware.

Looking closer, he saw that Blake was held by another of the gray men. Reaves' second-in-command looked mildly annoyed at best, although he seemed to avoid looking his men in the eye.

"Oh," whispered Ware.

"I will return these wretches intact only under one condition," continued the gray captain. "An unconditional surrender, from each of you."

A long silence followed. Rackham, still clutching his bleeding shoulder, glanced at Heydrich. The surgeon shrugged. The bluecoats exchanged worried looks. The gray captain looked around, giggling to himself.

Finally, two shapes appeared from the ash. Penney and Reaves, both bloody and ragged walked forward, weapons still drawn and stained with each other's blood. They walked side by side in unison. Together they limped to the gray captain. Marina stared at Penney.

"I'm sorry," she choked.

Penney waved her words away. She and Reaves locked eyes with the tall, giggling captain.

"How can we trust you to keep your promise?" said Reaves.

"You can't," said the tall man. "But it's better than watching your friends being gutted, isn't it?"

"Do you expect us to leave you alone if we accept?" said Penney.

"Oh no," said the captain. "I'd rather you stay here with me. Just the two of you."

Penney and Reaves exchanged puzzled glances.

"What?" they asked in unison.

"Yes, the two of you shall stay here. You're crews will be free to go, you have my word on that. But you two must stay."

"Why?" asked Reaves. "What do you want with us?"

"I have a friend who would very much like a word with you. But I'm getting ahead of myself. That's all I can say."

Penney swore. Reaves looked at her, frowning.

"Don't you see?" she hissed at him. "They knew we were coming. This whole thing was planned!"

Reaves glared at the gray captain.

"Just what the hell is going on?" he demanded.

"No more questions! I need your answer, now!"

"Don't do it, Reaves!" Blake shouted, struggling against his captor. Marina cast her eyes downward.

Penney stared at Reaves, and he stared back at her. Both were curious to see what the other would choose.  Finally, they both looked back at the gray captain and loosened the grip on their weapons.

Without warning, the Fleet Foot buckled. There was a loud bang, followed by an intense vibration that rocked the whole ship. The gray captain and his men staggered. Blake, never one to pass up on an opportunity, escaped from his captor. He stole the man's sword in the process. He drove it through ashen flesh, grimacing. Penney took aim and fired at the man who held Marina hostage. Marina winced as blood gushed where the man's right eye had been.

Another explosion. One of the engines blew out, spewing fire into the sky. Marina ran to her captain.

"Someone get down there and fix this bloody ship!" cried the gray captain.

"That is taken care of, Mr...Haywood, was it?" said a booming, metallic voice.

Qri walked up the stairs, covered in engine oil. Penney could see the gears inside of him moving about thanks to the three holes marring his bronze body. She had no idea what possessed Kristen to build a voice amplifier into Qri, seeing as he was loud enough, and only abused that gift, but now Penney certainly appreciated it.

"You!" cried Haywood. "How-?"

"It'll take more than a few fancy bullets to take me down!" said Qri, twirling his long coat around dramatically. Penney rolled her eyes.

"What have you done with my ship?" Haywood demanded.

"I've redecorated it, of course! This old thing really needed some color." Qri's attention turned to Penney as he said, "I know you did not instruct me to disable any engines today, but I thought it would be beneficial to our cause."

Another explosion rocked the deck. "Fair enough," Penney muttered.

"Ah," said the metal man, "but I did get this!"

He raised a small object above his head. Penney squinted. The object was spherical, with gray spikes and wires jutting out from a pock-marked dull gold surface. A faint yellowish light surrounded the object. It looked old. Somehow, Penney felt exhausted just looking at it.

"Is that-?" Marina started.

"No!" Haywood screamed. He raised his pistol and aimed it at the tin man.

An explosion from another engine knocked him off-balance. Penney quickly regained her footing and ran to Qri, dragging Marina behind her. Penney turned as she ran, shooting at Haywood and Reaves. The Regency captain dodged and fired back, but Penney proved to be as quick as he was. Haywood was not so lucky. Penney landed a shot to his chest and arm. The ashen pirate screamed, dropping his weapon.

The ship tilted, sending crates and barrels tumbling across the deck. Those who did not run or retreat below deck were crushed. Penney clutched Qri's arm to brace herself.

"Qri, why didn't you destroy that thing?"

"This?" he asked, indicating the artifact.

"Yes, that."

"I thought you wanted it."

"I wanted it to be destroyed, Qri!"

"Oh," said Qri. "Sorry, I must have misread the situation."

"Yes, Qri. You surely have."

On the other side of the ship, Reaves and his men struggled to stay balanced. Blake clasped Reaves by the shoulders and shouted, "Sir, we can't stay here!"

Reaves looked past Blake, right at Penney. His fingers gripped his saber until the metal bit into his flesh.

"Reaves, the ship is losing altitude. We have to go!"

"We can't leave," said Reaves, pushing Blake aside. "Not until she's dead."

"Sir, we're all going to die if we don't go!"

"You go," Reaves hissed.

"Sir, this is insane!"

"No, Blake. This is my duty."

Reaves began to march toward Penney. Another explosion nearly dropped him to his feet. Blake caught his arm and heaved him up.

"Reaves, come on!"

Reaves struggled against Blake's hold to no avail. Blake had always been stronger. Out of the corner of his eye, Reaves noticed Everett, Janet and Ware making their way to the Rose. Everett was limping. Blood seeped out of his leg. The young man was being propped up and guided by his two friends. The sight made Reaves pause in his struggles. He looked around, and saw chaos. His crew were desperately headed for the Rose. They all ran. Those who couldn't run, crawled. Several men, too many men, lay dead on the deck. While most of the gray pirates were attempting to abandon ship, some stayed behind, going after what remained of Reaves' attack force.

Blake released his grip when he felt Reaves relax. His captain turned to him, wearing a mask of shame and grief.

"It's okay," Blake assured him softly. "Let's just get them home."

Reaves nodded.

"All hands, retreat!" Reaves shouted.

Across the ship, Penney said the same thing. Blake and Reaves scrambled to get their forces back onto the Rose. At Reaves' command, a rope ladder was lowered along the side of the Rose. Any and all able bodied hands aided in the evacuation, hauling up wounded men and fighting off any pirate who dared venture near. Reaves paused as Everett passed him. He laid a hand on the young man's shoulder and nodded firmly. Everett smiled weakly before he was hauled up to the Rose. Blake glanced at Haywood, or rather, the empty space Haywood had been. The ash skinned captain was nowhere to be seen. A trail of blood led below decks. Blake frowned while he aided his men.

Meanwhile, Caixia, Smither, Rackham, Kaja  and Heydrich were already aboard the Ruckus. Only Penney, Marina and Qri remained on the Fleet Foot.

"Shall I destroy it now?" asked Qri, lifting the artifact.

"What do you think?" said Penney.

"Maybe?"

"Hurry up, ya idiots!" Smither hollered from the Ruckus. Penney waved him off.

"Alright, Qri, throw the fucking thing overboard." said Marina. "We've been over this. It's simple."

"This thing?" said Qri, looking at the artifact as if he had just picked it up for the first time.

"Oh, just give me that!" Penney snapped.

She grabbed the artifact out of Qri's hand. To her mild surprise, it burned. Eyes shut in a grimace, Penney chucked into the air.

"Oh my god," she heard Marina say.

Penney opened her eyes to see the Rose glowing. This time, she was surprised.

When the shimmering, weather beaten artifact landed right next to Reaves' feet, all he could say was, "Damn it all."

The impact must have triggered something, for the artifact began to glow. The spikes along its surface elongated. The whole thing vibrated. Soon, the Rose and every soul on it was covered in a yellowish haze.

Reaves stole one last look at Penney. She looked just as surprised as he did. Then, in a burst of light and sound, the Rose was gone.

"Well," Marina whispered, "that's one way to get rid of it."

Penney did not have time to contemplate her luck. The Fleet Foot was falling fast. She, Marina and Qri fled to the Ruckus. They climbed up the ladder Kristen had lowered even as the grappling cable unhooked itself from the black ship. A moment later, and the Fleet Foot was gone, carrying with it the dying screams of her crew.

"Good work, Qri." Penney panted as she watched it fall.

"Thank you, captain."

"Hey," said Smither. "What are we, chopped liver?"

"Yes," said Penney. "Well, you are."

She turned to Heydrich. "Take care of our new recruit, will ya?"

"Already on it," said Heydrich, leading Rackham to the infirmary. He paused, looked at Marina. "Do you require assistance as well?" he asked her.

"No," she said. "I'm okay. Thanks, Heydrich.

The surgeon nodded and walked away with his patient.

"Penney," said Marina, turning to her captain. "Look, I'm sorry. I was captured back there, and it was stupid of me. I was just being reckless...and, well-"

Penney put her hands on Marina's shoulders.

"It's okay, kid. If you weren't reckless once and a while, you wouldn't be here. That's what being a scoundrel is all about."

"But, I-"

"Look, you fucked up. Happens to the best of us."

"Even to you?" Smither said in a mocking sing song voice. Penney ignored him.

"Marina," said Penney. "If you're looking for forgiveness, then I forgive you. Just keep the fuck ups to a minimum, alright?"

"Yes, captain." Marina said, standing a little straighter.

"Well, that was exciting." said Parker, his voice rising up from below deck. "Although, I don't think we're going to get any ships for this one."

"No, but we'll get something out of this."

"What's that, then?" asked Kristen.

Penney looked out across the sky, her amber eyes burning. Her hair, red as blood, billowed in a dying breeze.

"A confession," she said, still training her burning eyes on the sky. "Set a course for Separate Winds. I'm going to have a nice little chat with Sage. And this time, I'm going to get the truth."

 


© Copyright 2019 Daniel Borin. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

More Science Fiction Short Stories