The stench of blood was overwhelming. In the midst of all the chaos, Commodore Sean O'Donovan wondered if he had brought doom on the others, or if they had been keeping it warm here in wait for him. They were all surrounded by a rotating sphere of the blood, tracing the path where the ward had been, maybe still was.
Cassandra laid her hands on the quivering table in the center of the sphere and began to murmur, nearly soundlessly.
"Gen!" Madeline shouted, "It's centered on your blood rune! Get rid of it!"
Cassandra stopped what she was doing and looked to Genvieve -- who moved to wipe the mark from the table with the water from Cass's glass. But before she could do so, the table exploded.
Time seemed to slow down around Sean. He reacted with grace, skill, and precision, knowing it must surely be too late to make any difference. He crushed an arret hanging from his belt, willing the gate that formed to face the exploding table. He didn't care where the exploding bits heading his way went, just so they were outside the circle.
There was blood everywhere...
The broken bulk of the Richard Dwyer rolled under Admiral Sean O'Donovan's feet. He could see the lights of the city over his left shoulder, and to the south, the Lighthouse at Cabra, blazing through the darkness. To have fought all this way and lose this close to home...
"Admiral! Look out!"
O'Donovan's musings were broken by the sound of Hobart's voice. He recoiled, and a short, hook-ended sword slashed where his face had been a moment before. His opponent smiled, showing a mouthful of fangs.
They always smiled. They smiled when they were winning. They smiled when they were losing. Truth be told, he found it unnerving.
It towered over him, seven feet, if it was an inch, like all its misbegotten kin. Thin and fast, but deceptively strong. Its cat-like eyes gleamed in the firelight; its skin was the color of the flames. Taloned hand tightening its grip on its sword, the devil swung again.
With a growl, O'Donovan brought up his own sword, easily parrying the attack. He knocked the creature's hook-ended sword out of the way, leaned in, and grabbed its throat with his other hand. A primal rage surged through O'Donovan; nothing would do but to feel enemy bones crunch under his fingers. With a sudden wrench he snapped its neck. Its bones made a satisfying crunch.
But there were more of the devils. There were always more.
If it hadn't been for the damned traitor witch, O'Donovan thought, perhaps they would have had a chance. A slim one, sure enough. But Amber's ships were strong, their crews brave. Look at what his men had done -- fought all the way back to Amber. In a fair fight, they could have won the day.
But the witch had overpowered High Mage Ambrose. Within minutes, more than half the fleet fell. So many men and women O'Donovan had know, fought with, friends and rivals. All dead.
The North Fleet had turned traitor, fled the fight, leaving the Southern Fleet to fight on its own. The Admiral spat. If he ever caught up with any of those bastards... Death would be too good, too simple. He would make them suffer long afterward, too.
Their betrayal had sealed his men's fate. Reduced his squadron 'til only his battered flagship still floated. And she would soon join the rest of them, he realized. No chance the ruined Dwyer would ever sail another day.
Automatically he gauged the wind, the position of the nearby enemy ships. Maybe -- if Hobart could deal with the foe on board himself -- the Dwyer could reach those two ships. Not as a proper fire ship, not so close to Amber, where gunpowder didn't work, and O'Donovan without time to prepare a proper spell to blow up the ship. But if she were burning faster, and she hit one of the ships.... yes. There was still a chance to hurt them.
The Admiral scanned the decks of the Dwyer. Ah, there was Hobart, taking on four of them at once, barely breaking a sweat. Poetry in action, that man. Perhaps he could take out most of the foe here. Sean blinked for a moment, wondering that there were not more enemy at hand, but then he realized they must think this battle over and done, for all intents and purposes. He smiled grimly, bright white teeth shining against his deep black skin. He could do this.
"Hobart!" O'Donovan yelled. "Try to keep them off me! Alexander! Gather a couple of men and unfurl the mains'l!"
Hobart saluted and dove into the nearest group of boarders. The years had taken none of Hobart's skill. If anything, all the battles had improved his skills, and his determination was as great as ever.
O'Donovan's men were few, but they rushed to obey him.
The Admiral made for the helm. One of the devils stepped in to block the Admiral's path. But individually, one was no match for O'Donovan. He dispatched it quickly, skewering it and throwing the body overboard, and reached the wheel.
Hobart called out, "I think we should put in for commissions and paid holiday leave. Assuming any of us survive this." He smiled and went on killing.
"Never fear," O'Donovan replied with a bitter roar of a laugh, "I have a plan."
"Swell," Hobart shot back. "In retrospect, giving up my career as a privateer to help you seems a poor choice on my part."
"Tell you what," the Admiral replied, "if Amber falls today, you can command our pirate ship." He paused to take out the few devils within his reach.
Hobart laughed. "You've got a deal."
The wind intensified. It should have been dawn by now, but if anything, the sky was getting darker. He couldn't see them, but O'Donovan was sure storm clouds were pouring into the skies above. Gerard had told this commanders, "If the battle is driven back to Amber itself, the weather will be brought to bear against our foes." Some of them had scoffed -- Amber's massed fleet had never been beaten in living memory. They were dead now.
It started raining, and the wind-whipped drops stung Admiral O'Donovan's face. That was the problem with the weather, he thought -- not a very discriminating ally. The gale that was shaping up would be as hard on Amber's remaining ships -- he automatically assumed there must be some others, even though it had been an hour since he had seen one -- as the enemy's. But there were so many more of the latter, it hardly mattered anymore. If Amber was to have a chance it would have to treat its navy as expendable.
The seas were choppy enough it would be damn hard to swim home. Not for the first time, O'Donovan wished he still had an arret for a gate; but he'd used the last gate just before the witching hour, and with six solid hours of battle since then, he had had no chance to make another.
First things first, he thought. He nudged the wheel slightly, and the Dwyer groaned in response. Lightning crashed almost on top of them, massive and deafening, a heavenly whip cracking the doomed ship forward.
"Are you doing what I think you're doing?" Hobart called out from the melee.
"Are you thinking that I'm going to try to take a couple of their ships out before we jump overboard and swim for it?"
"Yeah," he laughed, "that's pretty much what I was thinking." He paused to decapitate another foe. "You know, things used to go much better for me before I joined forces with you."
"But don't you find desperate last-ditch efforts against overwhelming odds invigorating?"
"Certainly. But so is a good game of cards, a refreshing shower, or sex. The 'Roland at the pass' thing is a bit low on my list actually. Call it a character flaw."
The Dwyer lurched and rolled but somehow stayed on course. There was a feeling about her, like she knew this was her last battle, and she would not go down easily, or alone.
"Wait till you've done it a few dozen times. I bet you'll discover a taste for it."
Hobart laughed. "Working with you, I expect I'll have to." He had nearly cleared the decks. O'Donovan had been impressed last night, when they had boarded that ship, but Hobart had still been learning how the devils fought then. Now he seemed unstoppable, and they just died and died.
The group of enemy ships loomed large before O'Donovan. The Dwyer heaved and shuddered, as though preparing herself for the end. The Admiral stared at the enemy ships, gauging, judging. Yes, now was the time. He lashed the wheel in place, and raced below decks.
He returned with two large casks of whiskey. Sean handed one to Hobart. "Pour this over the deck," he said, "I'll take care of the sails." For one last time, O'Donovan climbed the rigging on his ship.
[Anyway, I was going to say that I hoped you were pouring the blended stuff on the ship, but then I realized that you'd likely not have any of that crap on board in the first place! -- Michael]
"I was always suspicious of the Chantris '22 myself," Hobart quipped as he poured out the whiskey.
"Actually," O'Donovan called down, "this is Cassandra's special blend, 100 years old. I stuck it in the Chantris kegs to make its theft less likely."
"Shouldn't you have put it in Bayle kegs then?"
"S'Ric's balls, no! The men use that swill to light their lanterns."
"Ah. That explains why they always smelled like piss."
"Yeah." O'Donovan looked up, took one last gauge of the wind and the distance to the enemy vessels. He swung down to the deck. "Okay, that's enough. Grab a torch. And grab that lifering, too, while you're at it."
Hobart silently did as he was bid.
The Dwyer shook. The storm raged around her, wind and rain and waves and lightning. It struck only the enemy ships, O'Donovan noticed, and he said a grim, silent thank-you directly at whomever was in charge of this aspect of Amber's defense.
"Start at the bow," he yelled to Hobart, "and work your way over to larboard side beneath the mainmast to meet me. Light everything in your path."
Hobart nodded, and solemnly set out on his grim task. O'Donovan worked his way to the stern, to follow suit.
But he had another trick up his sleeve. He crooned an ancient summoning, and sprinkled sugar with his left hand as he held the torch with his right. "Whiskey and sugar, men," he sang, "it's all I can offer you now."
The air grew suddenly chill. A fog rose that even the driving rain and wind could not dissipate. Frost began to form on the deck. The smell of burning metal overwhelmed the smells of sea and blood and ozone. The _Dwyer's_ lost crew had returned.
They appeared in smoke and fog and spray, assuming the posts they held in life. Silently, they fanned the flames, nurturing the fires, spreading them.
"I hate magick," Hobart sighed.
As he walked toward the mainmast, the Admiral roared, "One last push, men! One final blow to strike! Drink your whisky, burn the ship!" He laughed maniacally.
The dead men and women of the Dwyer silently did O'Donovan's bidding. Spectral figures moved through fog and smoke, leaving flames in their wake.
"I really hate magick," Hobart clarified unnecessarily.
"Deal with it!" O'Donovan roared. "And hurry up!"
Hobart laughed. "Are you telling me to hurry up, you lumbering giant? I've been waiting for you."
O'Donovan did a double take. "True enough," he chuckled, checking to see that Hobart still had the lifering.
Sean grabbed a loose coil of rope, quickly tying it around the lifering. "Okay. On the count of three, dive into the water, and whatever you do, do not let go of the lifering. Understood?"
"Do I look like a lubber to you?" Hobart grinned.
"Right then." O'Donovan grinned back, tying the other end of the forty feet of rope around his waist, and checking his "Walk on Water" arret to make sure it was safe on his belt, in case swimming proved impractical.
"Two." O'Donovan threw his torch into the mains'l.
"Three." Sean dove off the side of the ship, doing his best to maximize the distance between himself and the doomed vessel.
In all his career, O'Donovan had never seen waves like these. The Admiral found himself treading water in a hurricane force storm. He checked to make sure the rope was secure, and kicked away from the ship.
The Dwyer struck one of the enemy ships with a startling impact. Her mast shattered and fell on its neighbor. As if with a will and direction behind them, flames leapt from the Dwyer onto the enemy ships. The screams of men and other things could be heard above the wind.
"Godspeed, old friends," O'Donovan said quietly amidst the spray, and then resumed his strong crawl.
Lightning struck. Flames danced. In the eerie lighting, it appeared as though the sea has turned to blood. Its sickly smell bit at O'Donovan.
He had a sudden urge to say, "I hate magic, too," but he owed too much to it, and anyway, he had a sudden strong urge not to risk drinking any of the "water". There was so much red spray and rain in the air it was becoming hard to distinguish the sea from the sky.
The Admiral suddenly realized he had no sense of Hobart's presence. He wished the rope would go taunt. All he could hear, all he could sense, was the raging of the storm. There was a rhythm to it, oddly like a heartbeat. The smell of blood was all around him. The ocean itself felt wrong -- sticky.
With difficulty, O'Donovan flipped over, a tricky maneuver in the cloying liquid. He kicked hard, and reeled in the rope, praying it would go tight. But it never did -- he reached the end, and there was nothing attached to it.
The sky brightened a bit; perhaps it was dawn at last? But there was no sign of the sun, and everything was the same blood red. O'Donovan could no longer tell up from down and was not sure there was any real difference between the two. It was if he were floating in a cold, sticky liquid. Blood. He didn't think that much had been shed.
The sounds of the storm were lost to the sound of the heartbeat. O'Donovan felt gravely chilled. He didn't know how -- or what -- he was breathing. He stopped swimming, but treaded -- water, blood, whatever -- out of habit. Perhaps it would help keep him warm.
O'Donovan pulled out a knife and slashed his palm. "Baron S'Ric!" he called. "I need your aid. And I offer blood. Mine, and all this around me!" The more powerful of his two loas might still be able to reach him; might still care what became of him. Perhaps the massive quantities of blood could make up for the lack of the proper ritual. And indeed, the Admiral felt a distant sense of presence now.
"S'Ric! I need you! I am lost! I offer you blood!"
Something ancient and unspeakably powerful turned its attention toward him. He shuddered. Whatever it was, it was not Baron S'Ric. He had never felt anything so powerful.
It seemed to have barely noticed him. He tried to sense its direction, but it was coming from everywhere, or maybe nowhere. It was completely encompassing, but ephemeral as well.
Afraid of losing its attention, O'Donovan started booming out, in his loudest voice, a bawdy drinking song.
As I went walkin' one morning in May I met a pretty fair maid and unto her did say My love I am inclined, I'm telling you my mind My inclination lies in your cuckoo's nest
He sang loudly and lewdly, with a casual disregard for intonation and a deadly accurate rhythm. As he sang, he spun around, shaking his cut hand, weaving a pattern of blood drops around himself.
My darling, said she, I'm innocent and young I scarcely can believe your false deluding tongue Yet I see it in your eyes and it fills me with surprise That your inclination lies in my cuckoo's nest Some like a girl who is pretty in the face And some like a girl who is slender in the waist But give me a girl that will wriggle and will twist At the bottom of the belly lies the cuckoo's nest
The presence drew closer, or perhaps he was drawn closer to it. A pinpoint of blinding white light appeared in the distance. O'Donovan focused on it, willing it to come closer, while continuing his attention-getting routine.
My darling, said he, if you see it in me eyes Just think of it as fondness and do not be surprised For I love you my dear, I'll marry you, I swear If you'll let me put my hand upon your cuckoo's nest
Still he could not say whether he was being pulled toward the light or if it was approaching him. Its brilliance burnt his eyes.
My darling, said she, you can do no such thing My mother always told me it was committing sin My maidenhead to lose and my sense to be abused So have no more to do with my cuckoo's nest
His vision swam; the shape coalesced, and O'Donovan's jaw abruptly snapped shut. He floated before the Unicorn; it stopped (or he stopped) mere feet away, close enough to touch.
As best as a very cold and tired guy floating in a near zero-gee blood-like environment could, O'Donovan bowed respectfully, careful not to touch it. He found it hard to look at, its brilliance still burning his eyes. It seemed to flicker between something tiny and delicate and something large and intimidating.
It turned its head and O'Donovan felt its regard. He knew that it was aware of his every thought and memory. That it knew him completely.
"Forgive me." Confronted with the most powerful loa he had ever seen -- really, something more powerful than any loa -- O'Donovan felt a need to confess.
For a seeming eternity, it regarded O'Donovan. Its eyes were ancient and deeper than the oceans and the sky. It knew O'Donovan, of that he was certain. It knew his every secret hope and dream and fear; every success and failure; every love and hate. Its expression was unreadable.
The environment around O'Donovan became less distinct. It was difficult for him to sense anything other than the Unicorn.
He did his best to kneel in the nothingness.
The Unicorn lowered its horn and touched O'Donovan on the left shoulder. O'Donovan burned. He froze. There was pain beyond anything he had ever known, exquisite pleasure beyond imagining.
The Admiral went into a fetal position, still watching the Unicorn.
The brilliance of the Unicorn increased, became the only thing O'Donovan could sense.
Then, suddenly, it was gone.
All was darkness.