The day was near its peak, and it was one of the few things that could be said for the day. In Omentus' experience, not much happened on the water.
Well, that's not completely true. The sky was mostly clear, with just a few fluffy white clouds here and there. The temperature was fine and high – high enough that he could comfortably stand out on the Hellborn's deck without his cloak on. There was a salty breeze on the air; it slowly pushed him and his vessel further into the ocean. It all felt nice, and gave Omentus plenty of time to get in some quality fishing.
The Hellborn wasn't an impressive ship, but it wasn't quite humble, either. She was a sloop, a bit longer than fifty feet, with a single mast and enough space below decks for a crew of six. Her hull was wooden, but plated in a brassy-colored metal, and it glimmered unevenly. Her sails were originally a dark red color, but they had washed out to burgundy from the long hours of the sun they'd seen.
Despite the unusual appearance of the Hellborn, she flew no flag, and Omentus was the only person aboard. By her heading, she should have been looking an easy voyage from the mainland to the islands, just a week away. She was two days into the journey already. The sight of land had long since faded away, and if he stayed his course, the old seromancer just knew he'd find someone who'd be willing to lend him a helping hand.
There had been warnings, though. Men at port and other sailors. Anyone with a spine and half a heart had tried to tell Omentus. A vessel wasn't safe without a crew. A vessel wasn't safe without armament. A vessel wasn't safe going that way. The old man just nodded with a smile, tossing them a silver for their advice, but he put the Hellborn to sea nonetheless. After all, he didn't mind a few free men and women on the waters. He didn't even think of them as pirates.
“Ahoy, Cap’n! Ship spotted!” Black Bill said from the crow’s nest. “Almost directly in front of us! She seems to be headin’ north-west!”
“ARR! Hoist the sails! Turn to port! We’ll cut ‘em off!” Cap’n Screamin’ Steven said. The ship came closer. It was only a small vessel, gleaming in the sunlight.
“Well shiver me timbers!” the Cap’n said. “I don’t see any guns on that thar ship! If it were attacked it be a sittin’ duck! I be havin’ half a mind to plunder everythin’ worth plunderin’ from it. Better we get the loot than the Kraken does. Arr!”
“Wait,” Marie said, “they be utterly defenceless? What say we offer ‘em some help with that? Sell ‘em some guns or even offer an escort? Their ship be lookin’ awful fancy, so if that be any indication, we’re dealin’ with people that can pay for our help ‘ere! Arr!”
“Good thinkin’ thar, matey!” the Cap’n said. “Ye think we’re close enough for them to hear us yet if we try to talk?”
“That be only one way to find out!” Marie replied. “AHOY THAR, MATEYS! Ye’re lookin’ mighty vulnerable thar! I think ye might be interested in our help, if ye don’t want to get eaten by the Kraken!”
Though he didn't want to believe it, but Omentus was beginning to think that there might be a reason that the free men and women of the sea in these waters were called pirates. Or pests. He wasn't quite sure of it, but he was beginning to suspect...
He wouldn't have had any reason to suspect it, but that ship had come in awfully quick. One minute he stood at the starboard side of his deck, and a minute later, he'd let go of the tangle of knots beneath his feet. When the slack came up and the weight fell, the Hellborn's sails shifted as suddenly as possible, and her rudder turned sharply. As much as the sloop could, she jigged hard to port and sat parallel to the Irritated Octopus, avast. That was the crux of the problem, right there. His reason for suspicion: the Irritated Octopus's helmsman had put her directly in the choicest spot for casting a line. Omentus' mouth pressed into a line as he reeled up his line, and clipped his hook to the first eye on his pole.
The old man looked up just enough to see the bottom of the faces of the Irritated Octopus's crew, who stood on a deck much higher than his own. He kept his eyes down enough that their unnatural shape would be a tricky thing to see. "I appreciate the offer," he called back to them, "but I'm just one, lone old man on a boat, headed for the isles and catching a few fish on the way. I can't imagine what I could possibly offer you in return for your kind services."
He looked off toward the cabin, fumbling with his fishing pole as he did. "I'm afraid," he said, still shouting loudly enough to be heard, "that I haven't even got anything of value aboard the ship that I could trade you." He trailed off then, and then suddenly exclaimed something halfway between a huff and a Well. "I guess, I mean, it's certainly not worth anything to me, but well, there are a few extra barrels of cherry, or apricot brandy in the hold. They're only eighty gallons, but I suppose I could, uh, part with just one or two..."
Squinting, the old seromancer peered up in the opposing captain's direction. Discreetly, though, his eyes were on Mad Marie. "Sorry, if I can't be more accommodating... ah, Captain...?"
“Tell ye what, matey!” Marie said. “Ye seem like a good kind o' guy! I'll accompany ye on yer trip, bring along some fireworks in case the Kraken attacks, and when we arrive at yer destination, I get a barrel or two o' that brandy. Might ask more if things get rough durin' the trip. Arr!”
Without even waiting for a response, Marie got a grappling hook, latched it onto the mast of the Hellborn, and jumped. She would've made a very graceful landing had there been no guardrail in her way.
“Merde!” she said as she got up again. “All right, Cap'n! I'd like to borrow two cannons and a rocket fun time surprise from the ship! Oh, and get me stuff! I figure we'll bump into each other soon enough, but if not, we'll meet up at Port Royal, savvy? Arr!”
As the crew of the Irritated Octopus went to work, Marie turned to the old man. “I don't think I've introduced meself yet!” she said. “Mad Marie the Detonator be the name! I can tell ye're not from around here, so tell me who ye are and where ye be from!”
There was no hiding his eyes, now that Mad Marie was standing on the same deck as he was, and wanting an introduction. He made no effort to hide them, then, and gazed at her very evenly. "Omentus Anima, an apothecary," he said genially, extending his hand to her. A few jeweled rings sat on the fingers that hand, each of their faceted jewels glinting impishly, just daring someone with the sleight of hand necessary to grab one surreptitiously.
"No, I'm not from around here," he said, nodding in agreement with his new guest. He did his part with the crew of the other ship, maneuvering the Hellborn so that the hooks of the Irritated Octopus's gang plank could lock into metal holes on his deck, which were designed for the purpose. "My home is in Kedaldown, but I doubt you've ever heard of it," he announced to her, working as though he were so very accustomed to being a crew of one on a ship meant for no less than twelve.
He went to the back of quarterdeck, and began working at the levers of a particular machine. It was primarily brass and steel, and its gears and winches indicated it had some purpose toward hauling something upward. Surely enough, Omentus worked a large lever bar as though he were doing exactly that, though his progress, and what he was hauling, was impossible to guess. "Mad Marie," he said, glancing in her direction. "I'm headed for Port Tules on the isles west of here. Once we've landed, what do you plan to do?"
Mad Marie’s eyes locked with those of Omentus, and she noticed his pupils were slitted.
She was uncomfortably reminded of stories of voodoo curses and demonic possessions which were ever-popular in the many seaside towns of the Caribbean. For a split second, she hesitated. Then, she accepted his hand and gave it a vigorous shake. She’d offered assistance to him, creepy eyes or not.
Then she noticed his hand, or rather, the jewelry on it. Must be worth a small fortune, she thought. I wonder if he realizes just how easy and invitin’ a target he be.
“Pleased to meet ye,” she said. “Port Tules, aye? Well, I could either stick around ye for a bit longer, or I could try an’ rendezvous with me cap’n an’ his crew. I’ll figure it out when I get there. By the way, ye said ye didn’t have anythin’ o’ value to offer? Because those rings on yer hand be lookin’ pretty valuable to me!”
Omentus glanced down at his hand, apparently surprised to see the jewels there. "Oh, well," he began, fumbling for some words. "I suppose I had forgotten. They're mostly..." he trailed off. There was a dreamy look in his eyes. "I suppose they're just there for sentiment. Couldn't be worth much else to me as they are, but... yes, I guess I could trade one or two, having nothing else but the brandy in the hold to barter with."
The preparations from the Irritated Octopus were nearly complete. "I can't thank you enough, you know... you're really going out of your way to help an old fisherman on the sea. I appreciate it, but is there anything I can do to help?"
As he finished working the lever of the contraption near him, there was a change in the way the Hellborn stood on the waters. Anyone with sea legs would have noticed it at once, for the ship now glided atop the ocean waves, with no bucking or swaying but the gentle rise and fall of the ship, seemingly unaffected by its keel, and yet still not drifting in any way apart from the Irritated Octopus.
“Whoa, what just happened to yer ship?” Marie said. “It be floating... differently.”
After a moment, she shrugged, and got back to business. “If ye want to help,” she said, “ye can look out for anythin’ unusual on the horizon. There be monsters out there, and not even the biggest guns out there guarantee safe passage. Speakin’ o’ big guns, yer ship be no longer defenceless!”
She turned to the Irritated Octopus. “Ahoy, me hearties! Thanks for yer help! Fair winds to ye! Until we meet again! ARR!” She saluted, and the crew of the Irritated Octopus saluted back while shouting their goodbyes and encouragements.
The two ships started moving away from one another. As far as Marie was concerned, a new adventure was about to begin.
"It's called a dagger keel," said Omentus. "Not standard for a sloop, but the Hellborn is mine, and she'll be a fine ship, or I'll know why." He smiled proudly, and then went on to explain, "It works by chains lifting the ship's keel into her hold, to make her belly smooth so that she glides on the water instead of cutting and driving by it. Best for when storms come in or she's at port, so the waves cannot knock her around."
As the crew of the Irritated Octopus took up her plank, Omentus moved a lever aside on the Hellborn, freeing the chains to let her keel drop back into the water. Nearly forgetting that he had Marie to help him now, he began to set up the rigging and pulling ropes about in such a way that he put up his sails, and arranged the slack into knots fraught with pegs, which would allow him to maneuver the ship by reaching only two or three positions on the deck, and either pulling a rope tighter or loosing it from the knot. While he worked, he nearly began telling Marie what she could be doing, when a funny thought occurred to him. "So Marie," he started, while working at a bundle of ropes, "does this make you a new crewman for me, or a guest?"
Port Tules was tiny. Law enforcement consisted of exactly one sheriff and one prison cell. The local church had such a miniscule congregation it had been forced to close on Sundays and holidays. The local store sold four different items, two of which were out of stock. At the very least, Port Tules had the requisite tavern of ill repute - insofar as the place had any repute at all.
Mad Marie took her first step onto the town’s only dock - thus doubling the number of pirates on the island (the only other pirate on the island, Cap’n Landlocked Steve, was currently in a dinghy flying the Jolly Rogers located on top of a tree. No one knew how it’d ended up there, least of all himself). She walked down the dock and looked around herself. If tumbleweeds occurred in the Caribbean, one would’ve surely blown past at this point.
“This island be almost deserted,” she said to Omentus. “What possible business could ye have here?”
Omentus laughed in spite of himself as he walked out of the cabin around the ship's helm. Gone now were the rich and gaudy rings on his hands, the look of a happy, if odd, old fisherman on the seas and the bewildered sense of good nature. He looked driven and focused, and wore now his old red cloak, fastened thoroughly near his neck and at his shoulders. On the leather harness around his legs, syringes glinted in the light of the Caribbean's afternoon sun. "We've shared a boat for two days and I forgot to mention, Marie? How silly of me.
"On the other hand, if I had brought it up early, you could have changed your mind or mutinied, so I suppose it's best I didn't say. Now that we're here at dock and you can see for yourself that the Hellborn is the only boat on Tules not dry rotted from the top of a tree, there would be no sense in putting your specialties to use on my little sloop..." he paused briefly, looking up at Marie from examining the shape of his Argindur syringe. His eyes flashed golden in the sun's light. "I'm hunting you, Mad Marie."
Marie would have laughed. It was, after all, a preposterous idea - she possessed speed, agility, and most importantly, superior firepower. But the laughter died on her lips when she noticed he was holding a gun - or at the very least something resembling one.
Instincts and adrenalin kicked in. Before her conscious mind had a chance to catch up to the facts, she was already jumping away from the line of fire and drawing her two pistols.
Of course Omentus was prepared for guns. Who would have hunted Mad Marie and not expected her to go to her guns first? Omentus nearly scoffed, except that it might have ruined his spell. Ignore Me had no words, but it did require a certain frame of mind, and a gesture with one hand. He flipped Argindur around in his hand, and put his fingers up against a well-known pocket in his cloak. It was Arienna's pocket, or more specifically, the pocket that held the well of her blood. She was the nature goddess, whose blood made spells like plants and the natural world.
Ordinarily, Ignore Me would have been completely useless in this situation, but Arienna's blood did a vast and strange thing with it. One moment, the air was clear, and the next moment, thousands -- no. Tens of thousands of bright and garishly colored leaves and flower petals blossomed into the air, fluttering and flying about, but never landing nor settling, and obscuring absolutely everything and limiting sight to a handful of feet under the very best conditions. And they went for thousands of feet in every direction.
The red-cloaked man ducked behind the cabin, waited a moment, and then put a few more good tricks into action. Over his right hand, he slid a dark grey glove stitched from the tanned skin of so many criminals, and over his left middle finger, a ring made from interlaced bands of platinum and smoky quartz. Though nothing direct happened when he wore the glove, his eyesight changed immediately once the ring rested on his left hand. Wisps of green fire outlined everything to Omentus, clearly defining all that was hidden by the magical foliage.
Now for the hat trick, mused Omentus, retrieving an iron and crystal vial of tarasps from his hip pouch. It was four inches long, one inch wide, and smooth on all sides. Inside it were more than two dozen creatures of the seromancer's own design, monstrous hybrids of tarantulas and paper wasps, packed inside by some insidious magic which released, generally, only when the vial was broken.
They had appearance of large, hairy spiders, six inches wide, bright yellow in color with blacks bands on their bodies, and bright red eyes, with broad, chitinous wings on their backs and large black stingers. The poison of their bite was mildly paralytic, but several bites could render even an adult almost helpless with delirium. They moved as both a pack and a swarm and would chase down and set upon anything that came too close to them with frightening speed. When a packswarm caught its prey, some of the creatures would bite their victim, while others would wrap it in a cocoon of tough webbing. The body of a tarasp was resistant to physical harm and suffered in no way from lightning or electricity, but for all the smallest blessings of the world, at least, the creatures instinctively feared fire.
Omentus peered out from behind the cabin and spotted the outlined shape of Mad Marie. He tossed the vial toward her, letting it slide across the deck near her feet.
Marie’s world suddenly became very, very colourful. There weren’t a whole lot of pirates who feared flower petals, and Marie wasn’t one of them (indeed, only four were known. Edward the Unimpressive, Caroline Sharkbait and Grey Jack the Swordless were generally regarded as jokes, though James the Slightly Unhinged had built up a fearsome reputation amongst the florists of the Caribbean for his habit of burning any flowers he came across).
“Ye yellow-bellied landlubber!” she said. “Quit hidin’ an’ fight!” Omentus did not come out and fight. A swarm of hideous bugs did, however. She moved out of their way, hoping they would ignore her. They didn’t.
Not wanting to find out just what the bugs could do to her, she fired a shot at them. She barely avoided falling backwards from the recoil, but at least a few bugs dropped dead in front of her, while the rest seemed momentarily intimidated. She ran, hopefully into the town. After a few moments, she looked back, praying the bugs hadn’t followed her.
Marie moved rather quickly for a woman trapped in a sea of flower petals. It must have been those sea legs. Omentus could see both her and the tarasps he'd dispatched in her direction. As she fled from the boat onto the island, they chased her, and kept on chasing her. At no point during her flight would the petals and leaves abate; when focused through Arienna's blood, Ignore Me had a massive range, going as far out as half a mile in any direction.
On the other hand, that kind of magic was bound to attract some attention from any ships near the island. Anything that could see a 2,600 foot-tall dome of brightly colored leaves and flowers would be able to spot the island, now, and those occurrences were unusual on open waters, where visibility at only a hundred feet above sea level could extend as far as five miles. Twenty six hundred would be an impressive thing to miss at fifty miles out. Omentus had no doubt that the Irritated Octopus knew which way the Hellborn was headed, and they would likely change course to come for their crewman on the chance that this unique sight were trouble.
This information meant that Omentus had about one day to catch and subdue Mad Marie the Detonator. The Ignore Me spell would wear off in a few hours, and the tarasps would either give up the chase or be killed within just one. He sighed and drew the chain of autumn leaves, put Beli in his right hand, and wrapped the chain around his left arm. Autumn leaves skittered across the Hellborn's deck, rising up from the waters and from out of nowhere, collecting around his body and packing themselves together until they formed a great, wide pair of bat-like wings, fourteen feet across. His left arm was pinned inside the mass of leaves that wrapped around his chest and shoulders, but his right, which wore the glove of dark hands and wielded the joy syringe, was still free. He looked in the direction of the green wisps of flame that outlined Mad Marie's body, and tilted himself off the rail of the Hellborn, taking flight toward her.
As the ground raced beneath his feet, Omentus felt tired. He sighed, and lamented quietly to himself. He had been looking for a challenge.
Mad Marie had made her way into an alley, and had started reloading when the swarm descended upon her again. She fired her other gun at the beasts and ran for it once again. She reached the town’s church and ran inside, closing the door firmly behind her. She figured that ought to hold the creatures back long enough for her to come up with a plan to deal with them - or at least for her to reload her guns.
As she’d expected, the bugs were trying and failing to get into the building. She considered simply staying inside until they’d give up, but she didn’t want to take the risk of one of the creatures smashing its way in. She grabbed one of her bombs, and headed up the stairs of the belfry. The bugs, predictably, intercepted her at the very top.
She lit the bomb’s fuse, and ran down the stairs again, chased by the strange insects. Just before reaching the ground floor, she dropped the bomb. Then, she entered the church proper again and rammed the door shut behind her. She took cover behind the pulpits. An explosion rocked the building, obliterating the door to the belfry and blanketing the entire building in smoke.
Once the smoke cleared, Marie ventured out of her hiding place, her guns drawn just in case. The stairs up the belfry were covered in bits of masonry, mixed with bits of bug. She figured the creatures had all been killed in the explosion, though she wasn’t sure. Nevertheless, she breathed a sigh of relief.
In all the excitement, she had quite forgotten about the man who had released the swarm in the first place.
That was most certainly the end of the swarm. Omentus could see the ethereal fires surrounding the creatures vanish behind the impregnable cloud of leaves. Marie was hiding inside a church, and if he could guess what had happened from the outlines he could see of her, and the sound of a blast, she'd made clever use of enclosed spaces and explosives. Omentus landed on the roof of the church, hiding himself from the belfry by standing behind a pillar.
It was unlikely that Marie would immediately see him through the leaves, even at such a short distance, but the seromancer didn't want to take any chances. He glanced around the area.
People were leaving their homes and venturing out of a tavern nearby. Even if the surreal cloud of leaves and petals had scared them inside, the sound of the blast had drawn them out. It was time to bring the chase to an end.
He would use misdirection. Basic, but effective. With the glove on his right and just an iota of his focus, Omentus created a flying, disembodied hand of cold, black energy and transferred the joy syringe to it. With an act of will, he silently hid the weapon behind another pillar, and drew Helir with his right hand.
The teal-eyed man watched the outline of Mad Marie venture forth into the stair of the belfry and begin a slow ascent. Her pistols were drawn, and Omentus smiled. The plan was simple: when Mad Marie reached the top, he would dismiss Arienna's Ignore Me spell and step out into the open, advancing on Marie as if he planned to inject her with the syringe. When she raised her pistols to threaten him or fire, he would direct the black hand behind her, and dose her with beli. He might have to take a bullet, but it was a sacrifice he was willing to make.
Marie was carefully making her way up the ruined belfry, guns drawn. When she reached what was left of the top, suddenly the flower petals that had plagued her for seemingly forever dissipated, giving her a clear view.
She did not like what she saw.
Her mysterious adversary was facing her. And he was closing in.
“Not a single movement, or I’ll blow yer brains to the next island, ye cur!”
Omentus did not listen. Marie fired her two guns. The bullet from her right gun missed completely. Her left gun managed to hurt her opponent, but not by much. The recoil sent her lying back. She barely avoided falling off the tower, instead ending up lying on her back, precariously teetering on the edge of the ruined belfry.
A moment later, a dark disembodied hand flew right over her.
"Those guns are very potent weapons," Omentus commented to Marie. She couldn't really hear him, but he needed something to focus on, now that his work was nearly complete. Ordinarily, he crafted additional means of supplementation to help his subjects with whatever great conflict they would become a part of came about. He wasn't sure of what to do for Marie, though. Any weapon he could give her might meet a tragic end in an explosion, or she would find a way to hurt herself with it. He couldn't have that. It was just as unlikely that she'd find armor to be appealing, and she seemed to like the subtlety or the common sense to use more subtle items. "If a bit inaccurate..."
It hadn't stopped him from thinking outside the proverbial box, however. Much like with Endymion, he only needed to provide her with something she wasn't likely to lose, and something that did not require much, or any, conscious effort. Rather than with Endymion, who seemed entirely capable of simply running away from conflict, Marie didn't have the same kind of survival instinct. She had run, of course, as the others had, but Endymion was simply better at it than most. Of course, there were still more jewels in his studies, but it seemed reasonable than the difference in the level of preparedness would make that continue to be the case.
* * *
When Marie should finally awake, it would be sunset. Omentus had left her reclined on the cushioned operating bed in a small shack, which stood in an uninhabited portion of the small island, amidst some trees and sand. The windows were all boarded up, but a lantern candle illuminated the room, and it had burned down not even halfway.
The candle was placed on a wooden table across the room from Marie, where a small, red-stained, worn wooden box with brass hinges, and a plush red leather bag, cinched closed, sat waiting for her. The box was stamped with the faded image of a firebird, and inside it was enough ammunition and firearm minutiae for two dozen shots with either of the Detonator's pistols. The bullets were curious affairs, crafted out of a yellow-tinted metal otherwise reminiscent of some alloy of copper and lead, and had jagged designs engraved very slightly into them. In the bag, on the other hand, were a pair of complicated bracelets. Each was crafted from several metal rings, which were attached to one another by means of small straps of leather and fine metal chains. Other than their unusual construction, they did not look unusually fancy, but did leave plenty of places for an accessorizing young woman to attach charms and other bits.
The table also made a likely temporary home for a meal of cheese, fresh bread, jerked elk and some citrus fruits, which was arranged onto a wooden plate. There was also a tall wooden cup full of water, and a pitcher of the same in the middle of the table. A note fastened to the pitcher read, "For the headache."
Mad Marie opened her eyes. A split second later, she closed them again, wondering just what had made her think opening her eyes would be a good idea. The room she was in was far too bright as far as she was concerned.
“Arr… Me head”
It was a familiar feeling to her; she’d been to every major tavern of ill repute in the Caribbean, and true to form, with every visit she made a point of either getting completely and utterly inebriated, getting into a proper bar brawl, or ideally both. She’d spent many a morning (and many, many an afternoon) wondering if her head was hurting due to a hangover or a barstool to the skull. Sometimes, one of her maties could tell her, but more often than not they were suffering similar fates.
She tried to recall the events that had led up to this point. There was the kindly if eccentric old man she had offered to help. Their journey had been easy and uneventful. They had arrived at Port Tules, which had turned out to be a nigh-deserted dump. And then he had tried to murder her.
So that was a thing which had happened. She realized, with a growing sense of dread, that she couldn’t remember how the fight had ended. She didn’t feel particularly dead, thankfully. Indeed, she had felt deader on more than one occasion after a night of heavy drinking. Still, she wasn’t fully convinced she was still alive. Her eyes snapped open. To her relief, her surroundings looked like neither Hell nor Purgatory. She touched a wall, and found that she couldn’t pass through. She looked at her skin, and concluded that she was very likely not a zombie. She didn’t feel much like drinking blood either, ruling out the possibility that she was a vampire. All in all, it seemed that she was still very much alive.
Which was a relief, but she still rather liked to know where she was and how she got there. Ignoring her headache, she sat upright and looked around. The first thing she noticed was a table full of goodies. The second thing she noticed was that she appeared to be in an abandoned shack. As tempting as the things on the table looked, she didn’t trust it.
She got up, and kicked open the door. She found herself on an uninhabited part of the island. On one side of the shack, there were woods; on the other was a vast beach. The shack was the only sign of human activity to be seen.
Marie considered her options. She could wait until someone would show up to tell her where she was and how to get back to civilization - assuming that whomever might show up could actually be trusted. She could also take her destiny into her own hands, and find her way back to civilization on her own. She decided that whoever brought her to the shack could suck it and set out for herself.
Before she left, though, she decided to raid the shack. On the table, she found food for her journey back to the inhabited world, strange ammo for her weapons that she couldn’t resist despite her mistrust, and a strange piece of jewelry that she nicked purely out of principle. Having taken everything worth taking, she left, praying that she might find a town before long.