Tales of the Black Scorpion

by Christine Morgan

A City of Heroes fanfiction story

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

"For gold and for glory!" Jamie Tremayne called, raising the slim deadly length of his sword high overhead. It flashed in the tropical sun, winking with steel's promise.

 The full-throated roar of his crew answered him. As one, the hardy pirates surged over the rail of the Black Scorpion to board the Ella Marie. Some swung on ropes, daggers gripped in their teeth. Others leapt with pistols already spitting gouts of black-powder smoke. The Bosun, a dark-skinned giant whose body was covered with pale tribal tattoos, simply dropped boots-first from the yardarm and struck the deck of the Ella Marie with such force that it was a wonder he did not smash clear through the planking and scuttle her straight to the bottom. No sooner had he landed than did his massive fists descend, flattening three hapless sailors who'd had the ill luck to be within reach.

 Tremayne himself sprang lightly across a six-foot gap as the churning sea heaved the two ships apart. He landed agile as a cat, his blade held before him. His one good eye scanned the scene. The other, sightless beneath its black patch, had been lost to a shrapnel splinter years before.

 Two of his foes charged into the path of his first stroke. Both reeled back, blood spraying. One of them managed to raise his pistol, but before he could fire, Tremayne brought the hilt of his sword down in a solid blow to the man's brow and crumpled him like a rag.

 All around him was the thunder and chaos of battle. Guns belched a pall of choking smoke that turned the combatants into half-seen wraiths. The deck was already slick with blood and littered with groaning bodies. The air rang with the clash of steel, and with screams of pain, pleas for mercy, and victorious shouts.

 On he went, slashing through the Ella Marie's crew. He felt no remorse, and only a small measure of pity. They had been given every chance to surrender, and they had chosen to resist. Thus, the Black Scorpion would punish them harshly, and make an example of them so that all others might learn the folly of fighting back.

 At the mainmast, the Bosun had cornered a group of five merchant marines. They huddled in their red coats, their muskets held across their bodies like imperfect shields. None dared confront the hulking enormous man looming over them, not until with jeers and curses the Bosun inflamed sudden, fatal anger in them.

 "Yahhh!" one cried, and lunged as if he meant to belt the Bosun over the head with the long barrel of his gun.

 His fellows, spurred on by this suicidally brave action, rushed as a mob. They were so intent on their target that they did not see until too late that Tremayne had slipped up behind them.

 Even as the Bosun pummeled them, Tremayne cut them down. Within moments, the captain grinned up into the snarling face of his largest crewman and clapped him on the shoulder.

 "More killing," the Bosun said hungrily, his gaze happening upon a group of sailors who'd rallied to defend themselves against others of the Black Scorpion's crew.

 "Go to it, my friend," Tremayne said. He dashed sweat from his brow and scanned the cluttered, smoky deck.

 There. In the confusion, the enemy captain and some of his officers were seeking to lower a longboat and escape.

 "Why, the cowardly bilge-rats," Tremayne said, and ran for them, weaving through the maze of ropes and rigging with the ease born of long practice.

 A wounded man staggered toward him. Barely breaking stride, Tremayne dove onto his hands, flipped his body, and kicked the heels of his folded black boots squarely into the man's face. The violent crunching impact sent the man flying backward over the rail. Even before he had splashed into the sea, Tremayne was running again, closing on the group at the rear of the ship.

 He saw that they had a small, slender figure in their midst, and understood in a flash. Mere gold and silver were not the only prizes to be had this day.

 A body was sprawled in his path. Tremayne jumped over it. He realized even in mid-air the mistake he had made. The man was shamming, already bringing up a pistol.

 Tremayne spun to this threat a split-second too late. Fire spat from the gun barrel. Searing agony lanced through him. He was knocked against a cannon, already feeling hot blood coursing down his bare chest.

 At this, as if they had been waiting for just such a chance, the enemy captain ordered his officers to attack.

 The man with the pistol cast it aside and unhurriedly plucked another from his belt as he got to his feet. Tremayne gritted his teeth, reached deep into himself for renewed strength, and swung his blade. It sheared the air like a scythe, chopping halfway through the man's torso.

 But the officers had been given time to close with him. Tremayne could hear the Boson's furious bellow. Half the length of a ship separated them and there was no way the giant could reach him in time. Nor would these men be subject to his taunts, not with their captain crying out that whoever slew the notorious rogue Tremayne would have a chest of silver as his reward.

 Tremayne's blade whistled through the smoke, its razor edge splitting two brass-buttoned uniform coats and slicing into the flesh beneath. But he missed the third man, and uttered a stifled shout of pain as he was shot again.

 Then, just as all was surely lost for him, he was bathed in a cool and wondrous glow that washed away his pain and revitalized his weakening limbs. Tremayne sucked in a deep breath and plunged his sword into his attacker.

 The man stiffened on tip-toe, eyes widening as the steel tore through him and emerged, dripping, from his back. He was dead by the time Tremayne could plant one boot against his body and yank out the blade.

 As he did, he spared a quick glance over his shoulder, and his white teeth flashed in a smile.

 "Timely as ever, dear Witch," he said.

 Her dark veil and hood concealed all of her features but for a pair of exotic, wine-dark eyes. By contrast, the shapely curves of her body were well-displayed in a snug corset, her arms and shoulders so milky-pale they seemed never to have been kissed by the sun.

 "Fight on, my captain," she said in a sweetly husky voice, fanning her fingers toward him. Again, he was enveloped in her healing magic, his injuries erased.

 The deck shook as the Bosun rushed past, head lowered, charging at the last desperate men clustered around the longboat with the snorting frenzy of an angered bull. Tremayne sprang after him, seizing a rope and letting its momentum carry him out and around in an arc that deposited him directly in front of his chosen foe.

 The Ella Marie's captain was an older man, canny and not unskilled, and within the first few passes of their blades Tremayne had to acknowledge that he had met his match. Again and again they thrust and parried and slashed and dodged, scoring only the merest nicks to draw blood from each other's flesh.

 Then, behind his adversary, Tremayne saw the Bosun rise up with fists doubled, and bring them down with more force than a blacksmith's hammer. The captain was thrown forward. His blade ran into Tremayne's thigh, grating against bone. But Tremayne's, angled up, pierced his Adam's apple, transfixed his gullet, and skewered deep into his brain.

 Heaving for breath, Tremayne stepped back. His leg buckled beneath him and he nearly fell, but then the Witch was there, supporting him with her body while her magic flowed into him. She led him to a barrel and bade him sit. He protested, but the rest of his crew, led by the Bosun, had already overpowered the last few enemy sailors and prevented the longboat from being lowered over the side.

 "Sit. Rest. The ship is yours." The Witch placed her hands on his shoulders to prevent him from rising.

 "Once again and as always, my thanks," he said. "Although many's been the occasion some in my crew have cautioned me against you, I'd not trade you for all the treasures of the Barbary Coast."

 "I am pleased to know it," she said. "And pleased that you do not bow to such foolish superstitions."

 Her fingertips traced the line of his jaw, brushing through the wiry hair of his short blue-black beard. Tremayne looked up at her, into those eyes that were deeper and more compellingly mysterious than the sea itself.

 From the direction of the longboat, one of his men gave a sudden cry of terror. Tremayne bolted up, sweeping the Witch behind him and drawing his sword in a single smooth motion.

 The screaming man – Bloody Pete, he was called, and in five years of sailing together Tremayne had never before heard him scream – thrashed and blundered back from the rail.

 At the sight of him, Tremayne could only stare, momentarily stunned. Bloody Pete was wrapped in a cloud of misty light that seethed and swarmed like howling, biting devil's mouths. His arms flailed in panic. The others recoiled from him, terror-struck.

 As they parted, they revealed the slim figure Tremayne had seen before. She stood desperate and defiant, a girl-child in a long and clinging green gown, short auburn hair shining like new-minted copper around her face. It was clear to all that she was the source, the cause of the nightmare madness that had gripped one of their own. But the very pirates who had gone into life-or-death battle without a second thought, facing swords and pistols as brave as any man, looked ready to flee from this small sprite-woman.

 If not for the Bosun, they may well have done it. Though clearly as unnerved as the rest, he was never one to let fear stand in his way. A swing of one huge fist, and the girl collapsed. The Bosun slung her over his arm as if she weighed nothing.

 "Hold him," Tremayne commanded the men nearest to Bloody Pete, who was still waving his arms and screaming.

 It took four of them to wrestle him down, and they were loathe to reach into that horrible misty cloud to touch him. But by the time they'd pinned him to the deck, the strange smoke-light devil's heads had begun to dissolve.

 The Witch hurried to Bloody Pete. Most of the crew were still leery of her, this dark woman whose face they had never seen and whose powers, however beneficial, still struck dread into their superstitious hearts. Under other circumstances they might have shied from her. Now, though, they seemed almost glad to have her pass among them, her clear green aura cleansing them and healing their wounds.

 She bent over Pete, who had gone limp. Tremayne was braced for the worst, but when the Witch turned back to him, she nodded. "He will live, my captain."

 "What did she do to him?" Tremayne studied the girl, draped unconscious over the Bosun's big arm. He lifted her head and turned her face this way and that. Creamy skin, dusted with a spray of freckles. A pert little chin, a pert little nose.

 "Clearly," said the Witch in an unfamiliarly tight tone, "she is no ordinary girl, and you'd be well rid of her, Captain."

 "A talent like that could be useful to us," Tremayne said.

 "She's an enemy," argued the Witch.

 The Bosun chuffed laughter. "Captain's a fair hand at persuading the ladies."

 Several others of the crew chuckled. Tremayne gave them all a sharp look.

 "Step lively now, lads," he said. "We've just taken this ship, but if we're to keep her she must be secured. Take any surrendered survivors aboard the Black Scorpion. Mr. Trask, see to it that our new prize is fit to sail. I'll want a full report of her cargo and valuables within the hour."

 They scrambled to do his bidding. The Witch folded her arms and took a deep, angry breath, the effect of this causing her curves to swell impressively above the taut confines of her corset.

 "And what of her?" she asked, glaring from Tremayne to the girl and back again.

 The Bosun cleared his throat and shuffled his feet, looking suddenly uncomfortable. It was a disconcerting sight on a man so enormous and fierce.

 "Mr. Bosun, bind up our captive and place her in my cabin," Tremayne said. "I'll deal with her myself."

 "Aye, sir," he rumbled. Avoiding the Witch's baleful look, he tromped off through the aftermath with the girl – no bigger than a child in his grasp – over his shoulder.

 "Is there something you're wishing to say to me, Witch?" Tremayne asked once the Bosun had gone.

 "We don't need her," the Witch said.

 "You saw what she did. If she can be convinced to lend her efforts to our cause –"

 "And if she can't?"

 "We'll see."

 The Witch came to him, eyes burning like embers in the shadow of her hood. Tremayne could just see the hint of the fullness of her lips beneath the silken veil, and wondered again what it was that she hid from the world, and why.

 "Captain," she said, "I fear that you are making a grave error."

 "If so, 'tis mine to make," he said. He caught up her hand and kissed it. "So fear not, my lovely Witch. Do you not trust your captain?"

 "In most things," she replied. "But it has been my experience that the judgment of many a wise man may be clouded when women are involved."

 "That, I must agree, is God's own truth," Tremayne said.

 He was called away then, and saw the Witch going about her own merciful duties of healing those of their enemies who yet clung to life but had given their surrender. By nightfall, Tremayne had accepted a full dozen volunteers from the sailors of the captured ship, and divided them out among his own men to adequately crew both vessels until they could make port in Madagascar. There, he planned to sell the Ella Marie and her cargo.

 It had been a most profitable voyage and the crew was looking forward to being paid out in their shares. Tremayne knew from past experience that the wages of many months would likely be squandered in a few days of drunken whoring, gambling and debauchery. Such was the life of a pirate. Why save up good coin against a future that might stretch no further than the end of a sword … or a hangman's noose? Better to spend and enjoy while they could.

 When he returned to the Black Scorpion, he found the Bosun standing guard at the door to his cabin. The massive figure's brawny arms were crossed, and he looked as formidable as the very Rock of Gibraltar.

 "Trouble brewing, Captain," he said.

 "Oh, is our captive awake?"

 "No, sir, to my knowledge. 'Tis the Witch. Ye know, sir, that a woman aboard ship brings bad luck."

 "And you know, Mr. Bosun, that the Witch has sailed with us these many months and only been an asset to our crew. We've men who fought here today that would have died long ago if not for her healing solace. You yourself, and I, might be among them."

 "Aye, sir."

 "So spare me this nonsense of how a woman aboard ship brings bad luck."

 "But, Captain … sure as the Witch proved it wrong … still, I'm thinking that two women aboard be more than double any bad luck as one. If ye're taking my meaning, sir."

 "I'm sure the ship is big enough for the both of them," Tremayne said. "And it's no certainty that we'll be keeping the one. That hinges on her will. Or on her ransom, as the case may be."

 He let himself past the Bosun and into his cabin. It was not without risk, and as he stepped inside to the light of an oil lantern, he tried to brace his mind for whatever Bloody Pete had experienced.

 No such attack came. He saw that the girl was awake, having abandoned the bed in favor of a perch on the cabinets under the wide windows. She sat watching him with a set resolution in her eyes. She must have realized that escape was impossible, that even if she unleashed her sorcery on him, there was a shipful of men at the ready.

 Tremayne inclined his head. "Hello, lass. Have you a name?"

 She paused before speaking, evidently deciding whether it would be better to answer or stay silent. "Keara," she said.

 "Only that?"

 "Yes." Her chin came up.

 "Keara … an Irish girl, then?"

 "Born in Jamaica to Irish parents," she said. "And you? Dog of a pirate, who are you?"

 "Jamie Tremayne, called by some the Black Scorpion." He touched the large black tattoo that spread over much of his chest. "Though rightly, that be the name of my ship, not myself. And where you are now."

 "Your prisoner."

 "At the moment."

 Keara sighed and drew her knees up, wrapping her arms around her lower legs. "And do I want to ask your intentions toward me?"

 "Now, lass," Tremayne said, shaking his head ruefully at her. "What manner of scoundrel do you take me for?"

 "I know your kind," she said.

 "Perhaps then you should be telling me why it's worth my while to keep you alive. Is there some wealthy father who'd pay a goodly ransom for you? Some husband, perhaps, or husband-to-be?"

 "None," Keara said. "I have no one. My parents are dead. So is … so is my uncle, my only other kin."

 "That is a shame." He poured two large flagons of wine and offered one to her. She turned up her nose, so Tremayne shrugged and drank it down. He sat back and crossed his boots on his desk, which was covered with maps and charts held in place by weighted brass ornaments.

 "You'll kill me, then?" she asked.

 "Were you a passenger aboard the Ella Marie?"

 The corners of her mouth twitched down. "I was cargo."

 "Oh?" Tremayne raised the eyebrow not covered by the patch.

 "I know that you saw what I did to that man," she said in a rush, as if she had decided it was best to go ahead and say it all outright. "You must realize what I am, and what I can do. Because of that gift, or curse, there are powerful people who would seek to control me. To use me against their enemies."

 He nodded. "And would these powerful people pay for your return?"

 She closed her eyes and loosed a shaky breath. "Yes."

 "Well, then!" Tremayne slapped his thigh. "You have value after all. Unless …"

 "Unless what?" she asked warily.

 "Unless you'd sooner not become their property."

 "And what?" she spat. "Become yours?"

 "Your venom wounds as much as a sword cut," he remarked. "It had been in my mind to offer you a place in my crew. Not my bed."

 "A place in your crew? As … as a pirate? Although I'm a woman? Although I'm … what I am?"

 "Clearly, you did not make the acquaintance of our Witch," Tremayne said. "She, too, has remarkable gifts."

 "I would be one of the crew?"

 "Perhaps not a full-fledged pirate to begin with," he said. "Unless you already know how to sail and fight as well as drive men mad with fear. But you'd be one of us, Keara. Free and independent, as we are. Answering only to your captain."

 He could see that she wanted to believe him, and rather than try further to plead the case, simply sipped more wine and let her think it out.

 

**

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

He woke to almost absolute silence, a rare thing aboard a ship, and knew before he so much as opened his eyes that the air was calm and the sea a sheet of glass.

Tremayne emerged from his cabin, stretching the lingering ache of yesterday's battle from his limbs. He groomed by dunking his head into a barrel of water, then raking the lush blue-black hair back from his brow. Cool rivulets coursed down his body, sluicing the last of sleep from his wits.

Not so much as a breath of wind stirred the morning fog. The sun was lost in that silvery mist. It was so thick that all he could see of the Ella Marie, anchored nearby, was a bulking and indistinct shadow. The only sounds were the low creak and groan of the ships, the muffled voices from the men at the end of their night's watch, and the occasional leaping splash of a fish disturbing the placid sea.

Fortified by a cup of coffee strong enough to make even the Bosun grimace, Tremayne went to the helm. After finding that all was well in hand, and giving orders to have the crew gathered, he leaned on the stern rail looking out at the rippling blue-grey water.

He soaked a hard biscuit in the dregs of the coffee, so that he could chew it without cracking the very teeth from his head.

"My captain."

"Ah, the Witch greets the new day," Tremayne said as she came up beside him.

"How fares your prisoner?" she asked with a touch of acid.

"She sleeps."

"Does she." This was said flatly, and he saw how her graceful hands clenched on the rail.

"I offered her a place in the crew and she accepted."

"Oh, splendid."

"Her name is Keara. I hope you two will become friends."

The Witch turned toward him, an exasperated exhalation puffing out her veil. "Friends?"

"You are the only two women aboard my ship."

"That means nothing."

He raised an eyebrow. "Where is your spirit of sorority? Of sisterhood? I had four sisters of my own and it ever seemed to me that they would band together against the men. They made the lives of my father, brothers and myself a living Hell."

"I assure you, my captain, women do possess that power," the Witch said. "Some of us need no help with it, either."

"You don't like her, then?"

"What ever is not to like?" the Witch retorted. "A pretty young girl, carried off by a handsome and dashing pirate rogue to spend the night in his cabin? I ask you … what is not to like?"

"So you find me dashing, do you?" he asked with a grin.

She gave him a look that would have frozen water. "So you'll not be holding her for ransom?"

"There's none to be had. Her parents are dead, and she's no wealthy husband to claim her. Besides, with her gifts, she could profit us more as one of the crew."

"Is she to be your woman?"

"Because she slept in my cabin? What was I to do with her? Send her to sleep in the hold? Ask you to share your quarters with her?"

"I'd rather that than …" The Witch looked away, her eyes narrowed and angry above her veil.

"I know how you value your privacy," Tremayne said, reaching to touch a lock of dark hair that had tumbled into view beneath her hood. He curled it around his fingers.

"Sometimes I wonder what you do know, and what you don't, my captain," she said.

"You're not … jealous of Keara, are you?" he asked, smiling a little at the foolishness of such an idea.

"Do I have reason to be?"

"You tell me."

"It is your ship," the Witch said. "You are the captain, and you do as you see fit. It's hardly for me to criticize your decisions. If you want to take that Irish tart aboard and keep her in your cabin, it's no concern of mine."

"Yet you don't agree." He stroked her cheek with the backs of his knuckles, feeling the warmth of her skin beneath the silky fabric of the veil.

The Witch closed her eyes and tipped her head, the better to lean into his caress. "I want the captain to be happy," she said, in a softer tone.

"There's a sentiment with which I won't argue," he said.

Her dusky lashes fluttered as she looked up at him. "Would you grant me a favor, Captain?"

"Anything."

"May I call you by name, just this once as we're alone?"

"I should like that," he said.

Her gaze held his, so dark and hypnotic. It made his heart race strangely, in a way that not even the potent coffee could have done. He knew so little about her, his Witch. Only that she had fled her family when an unwanted marriage was pressed upon her. How she had learned her arcane arts, or why she had chosen to lend them to him and his crew, remained a mystery.

Slowly, her hand stole up and covered his, cupping it against the softness of her cheek. He found himself very conscious of her nearness, of her corseted curves so close to his bare chest. She was a witch indeed, bewitching him without recourse to a single spell. Bewitching him solely with those eyes … well, perhaps not solely with her eyes …

"Jamie," she breathed.

A pleasant shiver ran through him. "You've still not told me your name," he said.

"Ahem, ah, Captain?"

At the voice, the Witch quickly drew herself up and stepped back from Tremayne, letting go of his hand and tucking her errant lock up into the folds of her hood. 

The deck trembled as the Bosun approached through the pearly mist. "The crew's gathered for yer inspection, sir."

"Very good, Mr. Bosun," Tremayne said, in a voice that did not seem quite his own. He cleared his throat and strode to the helm, draining the last of his coffee as he went.

Behind him, he heard the Witch's irritated whisper, "You oaf! You couldn't have waited another half-minute?"

"Sorry," rumbled the Bosun.

Tremayne turned his attention to the men gathered on the deck. They were a properly motley bunch, his crew, dressed as they pleased in what clothes they had been able to buy, steal, or sew from whatever scraps of material came into their possession. Some were booted while others preferred bare feet for climbing the rigging. Most favored bright colors, ribbons and flash, the better to cut an impressive – if not always fearful – figure in battle.

A few bore the legacy of a sailor's dangerous life, sporting hooks and peg-legs, or eyepatches like Tremayne's own. They were so scarred and tattooed, so sun-leathered and wind-weathered, that it was sometimes hard to guess what hue their skin might naturally have had.

The pirates bristled with weapons. Swords and cutlasses and knives, pistols stuck through sashes or into boot-tops. As the sun began to shred the wispy fog, it glinted on gold teeth and earrings, on silver belt buckles and shoe buckles, on rings and medallions.

The newest men had not been allowed weapons yet, and most of them still wore their uniforms, though already efforts had been made to remove the insignia. The volunteers had been made to sign the Articles, thereby sealing their fates and making it impossible for them to ever return to a normal seafaring life. Once a pirate, always a pirate.

He congratulated them again on the previous day's victory against the Ella Marie, and reminded them that once they made port in Madagascar, each man would be paid in full what he was owed. This elicited a lusty cheer, and in their eyes he could see the fevered anticipation of taverns and brothels already beckoning.

As he addressed them, Tremayne saw Keara sidle into view. Her look of uncertainty grew into apprehension as she surveyed the pirates. She had made use of the brush he'd left sitting by the washstand, her coppery hair brushed sleek. The long green gown hugged her slender shape, though by now it was wrinkled and dispirited from the moisture in the air.

"And we've one other to welcome to the crew," Tremayne said, gesturing. "This fair lass be Keara."

The men jostled each other, elbowing and leering. A few made speculations as to what Keara's shipboard duties might be. Out of the corner of his eye, Tremayne saw the Witch sweep them all with a scornful glare.

Through this, Keara held her head high and gave little outward sign of the nervousness that had to be consuming her. She was an admirably brave creature, Tremayne had to credit her with that.

"In what capacity does she join us, Cap'n?" asked Mr. Trask.

"As my cabin girl, for now," Tremayne said, ignoring the second round of elbowing and snickering that passed among the crew as he said it. "Until she learns our ways."

"But Captain!" protested Bloody Pete. "She be a devil-woman, that one! Ye saw what she did t'me!"

Keara flushed.

"And she'll not do it again, now she's one of us," Tremayne said. "You have my word on that."

Pete did not look wholly convinced, but neither did he seem to wish to press the matter. A swift fate befell any man who presumed to question the word of Jamie Tremayne, and his crew knew it.

An hour later, with the sun high and already blazing-hot, the morning's fog was a distant memory. Sadly, a good strong wind was an even more distant one, as the sails of the Black Scorpion and the Ella Marie hung lifeless and slack.

The new additions to the crew were finding that life aboard a pirate vessel differed greatly from the strict regiment of life aboard a merchant ship. There was discipline – with such men, there had to be – but punishment was often meted out with harsh words or quick fists rather than the public humility of being taken before the mast and flogged.

By the following day, the majority of the sailors had taken well to their new routine. It still remained to be seen how well they would perform once the ships were underway, for there was not so much as a breath of a breeze.

Tremayne had hung a blanket partitioning off a corner of his cabin, where he'd had a hammock hung for Keara. The crew seemed to find these arrangements an object of high hilarity. As for Keara herself, she adapted to her new situation and by noontime on her third day on the Black Scorpion, had coaxed the Bosun into giving her amidships lessons in hand-to-hand combat.

When there was no wind, boredom became a sailor's worst enemy. Every garment that could be patched or mended had been, every blade had been honed and pistol cleaned, and the crews of both ships turned out in full numbers, glad for the diversion.

Even had they been busy with a hundred tasks, Tremayne thought they'd have taken time to watch this.

The huge brute with his dark, tattoo-covered skin and arms that could snap a mast hulked over the tiny girl with the elfin features and cutely freckled nose. Watching her drive her little fists into the meaty palms of his hand, making a series of somehow ladylike smacks, sent the crews into gales of laughter.

"No, lass, no, this be no good at all," Tremayne remarked after a while. "You'll swelter yourself to death, even if that skirt doesn't trip you up. Hold still. Move not a muscle."

With a series of judicious swipes of his sword, he sliced away the long skirt of her gown. It puddled around her feet, showing trim legs to mid-thigh. The crew hooted and whistled.

Keara sputtered indignantly. But Tremayne wasn't through. As she stood, motionless as much from astonishment as from following his order, he deftly cut the sleeves and upper blouse. His skill with the blade was such that he did not scratch her skin, and moments later Keara stood with both hands pressed to her pert bosom, now only barely covered by her bodice.

"That be better," Tremayne announced. "We'll have some boots for you, high ones I think, and 'tis a proper pirate lass you'll be."

He glanced around, thinking that he might ask the Witch to help in this endeavor – he had seen from his four sisters that nothing formed a friendship between women so fast as shopping, and thought that this might thaw the Witch's still-chilly demeanor toward Keara. The Witch, however, was nowhere to be seen.

The Bosun bared his teeth at Keara. "Come on, then, Cabin-Girl," he said, beckoning. "Come on then and let's see what ye can do unhampered by that dress."

He held up his big mitts again. Keara screwed up her face in furious determination and threw herself at him, striking a quick little punch into his palm.

"That wouldn't swat ye a fly," the Bosun said.

"Ooh!" she cried, and then flung out her arm.

At once, demonic forms of smoke-light whirled into being around the Bosun, cloaking him in their eerie glow. His countenance underwent a drastic transfiguration, stark with a horror that no man present had ever witnessed before. Backpedaling, the Bosun let out a thick and glottal scream. He sat down hard, shaking the deck.

Tremayne jumped between them and put a steadying hand on Keara. "That be enough, lass," he said.

She dropped her arm at once and looked contrite. "I'm so sorry!" she gasped. "He just … he just made me so mad … I couldn't help myself."

The others, Bloody Pete chief among them, were now eyeing her and muttering to their neighbors. The Bosun, freed of the spectral menace, got to his feet like a sleepwalker and dusted off the seat of his rough homespun pants. No one dared laugh, for fear of being bodily hurled overboard.

"No harm done, eh, Mr. Bosun?" Tremayne asked heartily.

"No, sir," growled the Bosun. "Yon lass might not pack much of a punch, but she packs a hell of a punch, sir, if ye take my meaning."

"Aye, that I do," Tremayne said.

He looked up as a freshening breeze blew welcome against his face. Above, the limp pennants began to flap, and the sails belled out in a white curve as comely as the line of a woman's hip. At once the men were reinvigorated, rushing to their posts aboard the Black Scorpion or hastening to return to the Ella Marie.

They were underway in a quarter of an hour, a good strong wind bearing them briskly toward Madagascar. The sea was indigo-green with frothy whitecapped crests, and as if all life was inspired by the turn in the weather, flying fish and dolphins skimmed and cavorted off the bow.

They made good time, the two ships racing in tandem toward the distant hazy bulk of the island nation. Tremayne's colors flew proudly from both topmasts, and the rough but merry voices of the crews were raised in competing shouts and singing.

Then, above them, rose Keara's high, clear voice. "Look! Look there! Something in the water! A barrel, I think."

Tremayne turned the helm over to Mr. Trask and joined her at the rail. She was leaning far out, unconcerned how her posture made what was left of her skirt ride up high on the backs of her thighs. Her hair blew around her head and she shook it out of her face.

"There, Captain, do you see?" She pointed.

A barrel might be nothing to get excited over, as ships sometimes jettisoned their empties. Then again, it might be flotsam from a wreck, containing edibles or valuable trade goods. And this one, Tremayne saw, was floating low with the waves halfway up its rounded sides, rather than bobbing atop them like a cork.

He shouted orders, and grapnels on drag lines were hurled out as the Black Scorpion closed on the barrel. Soon it was snared, and netted, and hauled aboard. It was heavy, water-tight, and a solid weight shifted with a fleshy thump within it as they lowered it onto the deck.

All the crew not occupied with their duties gathered curiously around, exclaiming over the unfamiliar markings. The lid was nailed down, and not a neat job had been made of it.

"What does it say?" Keara asked Tremayne. "What's in it?"

"One way to find out. Mr. Bosun, if you please?"

The Bosun pried at the lid. Nails squealed against wood, making them all wince. Finally, the lid simply split down the middle with a crack like a gunshot. The barrel rocked over and fell onto its side. Tremayne planted a boot against it before it could roll.

Something flopped out onto the deck and lay there, inert. It was a man-sized creature covered with coarse brown fur, sprawled face-down.

"Is it dead?" Keara bent to prod it with her fingertip.

"Send for the Witch," ordered Tremayne. He lifted the barrel away, letting the rest of the creature slide out onto the planking.

It had a tail, but was like no monkey he had ever seen or heard of. It was too big by far, and the shape of it resembled nothing so much as a man … an extremely hairy man with a long tail protruding from the seat of a pair of ragged red pants.

"That there be a Wild Man of Madagascar," Mr. Trask said. "Half man, and half ape. Fearsome quick and strong, they are, bloodthirsty little devils."

The Witch appeared in the wake of the sailor who'd gone to fetch her. "You called, my captain?"

"This … man, if man he be," Tremayne said. "Does he live? Can you aid him?"

By the lines that furrowed between her eyes, he thought she might be wrinkling her nose, but she came closer and spread her hands over the seemingly lifeless creature. A dazzling emerald radiance issued from those hands. It formed a shimmering cocoon around the man-thing. Then, as the crew fell back gasping in amazement, the body was lifted from the deck. It revolved, arms and legs and tail dangling, head drooping.

And then, as if life force surged into it, the creature straightened up and whipped its head this way and that. Its eyes bulged. Its lips skinned back from strong teeth. It had such a maniacal look that the Witch started, and drew against Tremayne for comfort.

He put his left arm around her while holding his sword in his right hand. He leveled the blade at the creature.

"Who are you?" he demanded. "Do you speak?"

The green healing-light faded, and the man-monkey landed in a limber crouch on the deck. He did not seem at all concerned by the fact that he was surrounded on all sides by men armed with pistols and cutlasses.

"I am the Sea-Monkey!" he cackled.

With a sudden bound, he cleared the entirety of the wide gap they had left around him, and swept a pirate's legs from under him in a roundhouse kick. He snatched a piece of fruit from another man's hand, then scrambled into the rigging and swung upside-down from his tail.

"Hold your fire!" Tremayne saw that several of his crew were waving their pistols around, trying to follow the creature's wild path.

"I'll be getting him down from there," said the Bosun, cocking one boulder-sized fist as if he meant to bring down the entire mast with one punch.

"Wait," Tremayne said. He craned his neck to look up. "You, there –"

With a wet splat, the peel of the fruit slapped into his face. He cursed and wiped it away, and went up the rigging himself like a shot. The man-monkey saw him coming and immediately led him a lunatic chase. He hurtled himself heedlessly into space, leaping from one yardarm to the next, weaving in and out through the ropes. Tremayne pursued, but as agile as he was, even he was outmatched.

Below, the crew shouted encouragement and voiced their opinions of what Tremayne should do to the furry imp when at last he caught up with him. No one fired, for which he was grateful, but the Bosun did hurl the empty barrel that had until recently held the Sea-Monkey – who had, Tremayne didn't doubt, been deliberately nailed into that barrel and cast overboard to get rid of him.

The barrel missed the Sea-Monkey by six feet and Tremayne by six inches. He paused, clinging to ropes, to throw a what-did-you-think-you-were-doing look back down, and the Bosun raised his big hands palms-up and shrugged.

The Sea-Monkey laughed and bit his thumb at the Bosun in a rude, taunting gesture of his own. Tremayne executed a tricky maneuver, a handspring that became a kick. As the Sea-Monkey stuck out his tongue and waggled it at the Bosun, Tremayne's boots met its rear end. The wiry brown creature sailed through the air, squawking in surprise.

The Bosun caught him by the neck and held him there at arm's length, throttling him into submission. "Bite yer thumb at me, will ye?" He shook the Sea-Monkey.

"Glaaarrcccch!" gagged the Sea-Monkey.

Tremayne jumped down from the rigging, landing between the Witch and Keara. "Ease up, Mr. Bosun. I'd like to speak with this Sea-Monkey before you choke the life out of him."

The Bosun relaxed his grip to a degree that would merely have cracked coconut shells rather than split cannonballs in half. The Sea-Monkey's eyes, which had been bulging worse than ever, resumed their former dimensions.

"So you can speak," Tremayne said, as if their earlier conversation had not been interrupted by the chase.

"I can," said the Sea-Monkey.

"You're quick and you're strong and you're hardy," Tremayne said. "You'd make a fine addition to my crew, if you can follow orders."

The Witch was not the only one to groan in disbelief, but Tremayne paid no attention. He kept his gaze steady, and his hand braced in a meaningful pose on the hilt of his sword.

The Sea-Monkey, still locked in the Bosun's strangling fist, considered this. "And if I can't?"

"We can always nail you into another barrel and throw you back into the sea. Next time, you might not be so lucky to have a ship come by and save you."

"Hmm," the Sea-Monkey said. "You drive a hard bargain, Captain. But it seems I don't have much choice."

 

**

 


Chapter Three

 

 

A fair wind blew Tremayne's two ships into the sheltered harbor. Their arrival caused much excitement in the town, and before the Black Scorpion and the Ella Marie had even tied off, the docks were lined with merchants and whores.

Tremayne doled out shares of silver and gold coins into the eager hands of his crew and waved them ashore. They went with a riotous good will, leaving him to tend to the business of selling the Ella Marie and her cargo.

His next few hours were busy indeed. Not only did he get a good price for his prize, but he shared a bottle of port with Edmund Talbot, captain of the King's Falcon, a fat-bottomed English merchant ship. Talbot offered to hire some of his crew away, as the King's Falcon had lost several due to illness, but Tremayne declined. He knew that his men would never care to exchange the independent life of a pirate.

Dusk found him a weary man, but wealthier than he had been, and content.

Throughout the negotiations, his cabin girl had stayed nearby. Although she was at ease among the crew after several days in their company, Keara was perhaps not quite sure enough of her status to venture into town.

"You should see something of it at least," Tremayne said, taking her by the arm and leading her down the gangplank. "And we'll have those boots for you."

The largest and loudest tavern in town was the Three Sheets, where Tremayne saw several of his men drinking, gambling, and singing boorish songs. The Sea-Monkey capered among and above them, sometimes doing acrobatic leaps and flips in the rafters to the cheering amusement of the crowd. He proved able to snake that tail of his around mugs and flagons, lifting them out of the hands of startled sailors while he hung by his hands and feet from ship's wheel chandeliers.

The Three Sheets had an upstairs balcony where round tables and chairs sat overlooking the street. The unmistakable silhouette of the Bosun was up there, and beside him, wrapped in mystery, was the Witch.

Tremayne and Keara pushed their way through the masses of drunken sailors. In her short dress and new high boots, Keara drew ogles from the men and jealous glowers from many of the women as they passed through the smoky room to the long bar.

Carrying two flagons and a sizeable bottle of rum, Tremayne led her up the stairs and out onto the balcony.

The Bosun had a feast spread out on the table: roast fowl, roast pig, green turtle soup, bread and cheese, and a boiled pudding. His jaws worked like some unstoppable machine and he only mumbled through mouthfuls and nodded at whatever it was that the Witch was saying.

"Ahoy," Tremayne said.

The Witch turned swiftly, and the look in her eyes was such that he knew she had been talking about him. Or Keara. And not, perhaps, favorably.

"My captain," she said.

"Might we join you?"

"Oot mrslf," the Bosun said. He chewed, swallowed a wad of masticated pork that would have choked a wolfhound, belched like a cannonshot, and swabbed grease from his face with a tablecloth-sized red kerchief.

"Thank you, Mr. Bosun," Tremayne said, setting his burdens on the table and fetching chairs for himself and Keara.

"Nice boots," the Witch observed in a clipped manner.

Keara turned pink and tugged at the hem of her skirt, which lacked a good six inches from touching the tops of the boots. And what a six inches it was, Tremayne thought. She smoothed the cloth around her hips and bottom as she sat down.

"The captain bought them for me," she said, meeting the Witch's eyes boldly though her cheeks continued to flame.

With grunts and gestures, the Bosun made it clear that they were welcome to share in his meal. Tremayne tore a leg from the fowl and bit into it.

"I'm sure you must be worth it," said the Witch.

"Well, we can't have her going about in those silly slippers," Tremayne said.

"Whrr oo ex, cappn?" asked the Bosun, quickly and with his mouth full, as if eager to change the subject.

"Mozambique, I thought." Tremayne ripped a chunk of bread and folding it around a slab of cheese. "Or we might try our luck back 'round the Cape of Good Hope, and bear for the Caribbean."

"I have heard that there is strange weather in Mozambique Channel." The Witch folded her fingers around a glass of wine, though did not lift her veil to drink. "And lights in the sky, like St. Elmo's Fire."

"Be that so?"

"Aye, Captain."

The Bosun frowned. "Look there … d'ye see that great lot of men? The ones be creeping this way in the shadows?"

Tremayne looked, already feeling a prickle of alertness at the nape of his neck. Sure enough … while most on the streets of town reeled about openly, if unsteadily from their rum, the dark band of men advancing toward the Three Sheets moved with a cautious purpose.

"How many do you make of them?" he asked, as the Bosun's chair was nearest the rail and afforded the big man the best view of the street below.

"Twenty if there be a one, Captain."

The Witch fixed her dark gaze upon them. "And armed with clubs and coshes, by the look."

"Bloody buggering hell," Tremayne said, downing the rest of his rum at a gulp and rising.

"What does that mean?" Keara asked.

He did not need to reply, for in the next instant the group of men broke into a run and burst upon the cluster of people outside of the Three Sheets' door. Clubs and coshes swung, the lengths of wood or heavy sacks filled with shot slamming into skulls and dropping men where they stood.

"Press gang!" someone shouted, and the general, panicked cry went up. "Press gang! Press gang!"

A rumble of running feet and overturned furniture sounded below as the men inside made for the back door. Tremayne heard some of them cry out in surprise, and realized that a second group must have been waiting there.

"Protect the ladies," he said to the Bosun, and vaulted over the balcony rail.

He landed behind the rearmost of the pressers, who was a thickset man in a dark blue coat. The hilt of his sword made a hollow thunk as it met the back of the man's skull and measured his length on the dirty cobblestones.

And then, to his shock, he recognized the man. It was Edmund Talbot, the very one with whom he had drunk port earlier that day. The wily Englishman sought to replenish his crew by this means, did he?

All around him was chaos, the drunken sailors scrambling to evade while the press gang tried to belt them into senselessness. Any man who fell ran a good risk of waking, with a head doubly sore from the blow and the hangover, well out to sea aboard the King's Falcon the next day. Impressed into service on a ship-of-the-line, with no way back to shore bar swimming … a skill that few seagoing men bothered to learn … they would have little choice but to serve.

The next man saw Talbot topple, and whirled in time for Tremayne's blade to slice open his cheek. He swung his club, which Tremayne dodged, and fumbled at a pistol stuck through his sash. Two of his fellows joined the fray. A cosh glanced off Tremayne's head and hit his shoulder a numbing, bruising blow. Another club cracked across his ribs. He was driven to one knee and sensed more than saw a strike being readied that would lay him out.

From above, the Witch called, "Captain!" and he felt her healing suffuse him. He dove sideways, the descending club whistling through empty air, and flipped himself upright. His blade flashed. Two of the men staggered back.

But the last, the one who had now drawn his pistol, pointed it into Tremayne's face. Blood ran freely from his split cheek and his eyes were ablaze with hatred. His finger tightened on the trigger.

Then a long brown tail whipped in, coiled around the barrel, and yanked. The gun angled up as it went off, the shot going wild over Tremayne's head and ricocheting off the wrought-iron signpost of the Three Sheets.

Whooping madly, the Sea-Monkey dropped onto the man in a tangle of wiry limbs and began punching and biting everything he could reach. The man shrieked like a schoolgirl. His arms waved in a futile effort to ward off his vicious attacker.

Yet another of the press gang ran up and tried to wrestle the Sea-Monkey off. Writhing around, the Sea-Monkey grabbed him by the ears and head-butted him. Dazed, the man meandered back, directly into the path of Tremayne's sword.

Crouched on his first victim, whom he had now rendered unconscious, the Sea-Monkey looked up at Tremayne. "Good, yes?"

"Well done," Tremayne said.

The attempted press had become a rout. He saw some of the press gang running back down the dock, while others had been surrounded and were being smashed over the head with bottles and chairs, spat on, cursed at, and kicked.

Pistol shots peppered the night. Tremayne heard one right above him, followed by a scream of pain in a woman's voice. Without pausing for thought, he leaped high, caught the railing, and pulled himself back onto the balcony.

The Bosun stood between ten armed men and the women. The floor around him was heaped with bodies. His skin was streaked with blood, his own and his enemies', and the haft of a dagger protruded from his abdomen.

The Witch was behind him, shining like an emerald with pulse after pulse of healing magic, but she was pale and flagging, pushed to her limits.

Keara was on her knees, hands clapped over her face. An eerie blue-green bubble of watery light encircled her. Tremayne, too far away to do anything but watch, yelled in rage as another pistol fired at her. But the shot struck the bubble, which rippled, and the deadly iron ball was deflected or absorbed.

"Sea-Monkey!" he shouted, jumping over a table. "Up here, more of them!"

One of the ten men was running in circles, flapping his own hands in front of his face and yelping, "Blind! I'm blind! Help me!" Another looked to be asleep on his feet. But the rest were fit and able, and some had cast their clubs and coshes aside in favor of hot iron and cold steel.

"Come on then ye nancy-boys!" roared the Bosun. "Come on if ye dare!"

Half of them went for him, including one huge slab-muscled ruffian nearly as large as the Bosun himself. The others rushed Tremayne, who did a handspring into their midst, kicked one into the wall with the heels of his boots, and flipped onto his feet again in time to plunge his blade hilt-deep in another man's belly.

The Sea-Monkey came up and over the rail, cackling shrill laughter, and catapulted himself into the melee. Guns popped and spat. Clubs whacked down on flesh and bone. Steel clanged. The Bosun's rock-hard fists pounded men flat, while the Sea-Monkey kicked and clawed. Tremayne waded into the last few, and both he and the Bosun hit the final man in a simultaneous blow that sent him sliding boneless to the floor.

Breathing hard, Tremayne threw a quick look around. The Witch, still pale, was helping Keara to her feet …

"Cabin-Girl's hurt," the Bosun said. "Shot in the face."

"Let me see," Tremayne said.

Keara still had a hand over the side of her face, and thin tendrils of blood seeping through her fingers. She tried to twist away but he pulled her arm down, and hissed through clenched teeth at the red gouge that ran from the outer corner of her eye up at an angle toward her temple.

"Seized her, he did," the Bosun said. "She did something to him – he be the one squealing how he be blind – and he hit her up the head with his pistol. It went off."

Just then the man stopped squealing, and lowered his hands to look around in blinking, thankful amazement. He barely had time to register the fact that an incensed Tremayne was bearing down on him. Two strikes with the sword, and the Sea-Monkey finished him off with a leaping kick that pitched him headfirst over the rail. He hit the street below with an audible crunch.

Tremayne returned to Keara. "Can you heal her?" he asked the Witch.

"I can, but I must rest," the Witch said. She looked about to pass out from exhaustion.

"'Tis all right, lass," Tremayne said, putting his arms around the girl. "We'll soon have you mended good as new."

The deafening blast of a cannon volley shattered the night. Tremayne threw Keara and the Witch to the floor and covered them with his body, his head down.

Cannonballs punched into the upper floors of the Three Sheets and the neighboring buildings. Debris rained down onto the balcony, wooden splinters and broken glass.

After a hasty check that the women had sustained no further harm, Tremayne jumped up and looked out into the harbor.

Another ship had come in under cover of darkness. He swore at the sight of her.

"That be the Santiago," the Bosun growled.

"Damnation," Tremayne said. "I thought we'd seen the last of Vincente."

"Is he an enemy of yours, my captain?" asked the Witch.

"An enemy of Talbot's, more like, and our ill luck to be caught in the middle of them."

As he spoke, the Santiago fired another volley, this one at close range into the side of the King's Falcon. The Spaniard had forty-eight guns and was not sparing a single one, and Tremayne knew that Rafael Vincente spent almost as much on the best gunpowder money could buy as he did on the maintenance of his seven mistresses.

"Shall we fight them?" The Sea-Monkey bounced up and down. "Shall we, Captain?"

"Rally the crew," Tremayne told the Bosun. "This be not our battle, and I'd as soon have none of it, for there'll be little profit to be had. We'll back to the Black Scorpion, and cast off in the confusion."

"Aye, sir." The Bosun thundered down the stairs, his voice booming as he called for the crew.

Tremayne scooped Keara into his arms and grinned at the Witch. "Shall we, ladies?" Without waiting for a reply, he leaped over the rail carrying his cabin girl. The Witch and the Sea-Monkey followed.

"I … I can run," Keara said. The side of her face was swollen, the eye a bare slit in puffed flesh. Her hair on that side had been singed. But she smiled gamely at him.

"As you will, lass." He set her down. "Seems you've more tricks than you've let on, so be ready to use them."

The four of them ran down the dock, veering off between buildings when the Santiago lowered her gangplank and Spanish pirates poured over her sides. Some swarmed aboard the King's Falcon, but others – no doubt with Vincente's permission and blessing – had decided that so long as they were here, they may as well sack the town.

Three of them happened around a corner and into Tremayne's path. They never knew what hit them as the captain, the Sea-Monkey, and the women took them down in a flurry of sword strikes, kicks, and strange powers.

If the press gang had caused a panic, the Santiago caused purest bedlam. Screams, gunshots and explosions rang through the streets. People ran every which way, fleeing for their lives or fighting the pirates.

Soon Tremayne and the others were on the deck of the Black Scorpion, more of his crew streaming aboard every second, and making ready for a quick departure. He had seen to resupplying the ship earlier in the day, the casks full of fresh water, the galley stocked with salt pork, salt beef, soft and hard tack, dried peas, coffee, rum, sugar and other staples.

"Let's fire on them!" cried the Sea-Monkey, running to the long-nines on the quarterdeck.

Tremayne cuffed him above the ear. "Not on your life, hear me? The last we need is to draw fire from the Santiago. She's got us outgunned, lad, and if you damage my ship, I'll have you keel-hauled by that tail of yours."

"Aye, Captain," the Sea-Monkey said, disgruntled.

A cannonball streaked overhead and sheared through the mainmast of the neighboring Ella Marie. The mast's upper half tilted and fell, taking sails with it and snapping ropes.

"That was either careless of them or malicious," the Witch said.

"Could be either." Tremayne glanced around. "Mr. Bosun! What's our status?"

"All but two men aboard, sir."

"Tremayne! Don't tell me you're leaving the party so soon!" called a mocking voice with a Spanish accent. It was followed by a cannonball, plunking into the water mere feet from the Black Scorpion's hull and sending up a white plume.

"Vincente!" hissed Tremayne. "Full sails, men. We'll have to leave them."

No one argued, and as all hands went to work, the Black Scorpion drew away from the dock. Tremayne ordered the gun crews to their stations, to return fire if the Santiago lobbed another cannonball their way or made to pursue. But Vincente must have felt he had enough on his plate, for he let the smaller ship speed away uncontested.

An hour later, when they had safely cleared the harbor, he left the Bosun in charge and went to his cabin. There, he found the Witch just emerging, shaking her hooded head.

"What be the news?" he asked.

"The gunpowder blinded her eye, my captain. I healed her as best I could, but she may never regain the use of it."

Tremayne groaned. "The poor lass."

"And you?" The Witch set her palm on his chest, on the scorpion tattoo. "Are you hurt?"

"Nothing to fret over. I should go to her. I know what it is she must be going through." He ran his thumb over his eyepatch, remembering vividly the hail of splinters, the piercing pain, the darkness.

"Captain?"

"Aye, Witch?"

"I'm sorry I was unkind to her."

"'Tis good of you to say."

"You do like her, then?" she asked.

"Of course I like her. She's got spirit."

Without another word, the Witch started to turn away. Tremayne stopped her by clasping both her hands in his. She gave a slight tug, as if to test the strength of his grip, and then looked up with those breathtaking dark eyes.

"But so do you," Tremayne said in a low voice. He put her palms on the scorpion tattoo again, over his heart. "My lovely Witch. You never did tell me your name."

"We were … interrupted," she said.

"Sail ho!" came the cry from the crow's nest.

"And it seems we are again," he said wryly. Letting go of her, he called, "Report, Mr. Bosun!"

"It be the Santiago after all, Captain. Seems Vincente wants to play chase."

"Then let's give him a good one, shall we? Make for the Mozambique Channel, full sail."

"Aye, sir!"

Tremayne bowed to the Witch. "Until later?"

"Aye." She slipped away like a phantom into the night.

He let himself into his cabin, which was lit by a hanging oil lantern. Keara was in her hammock, holding a poultice over her eye. Tears sparkled in the other one, and she attempted to hide this from him as he came in.

"She told you?" the girl asked.

"That she did, lass. How do you feel?"

"It does not hurt, if that's what you're asking."

"In part. Here. Show me."

Reluctantly, she removed the poultice. The Witch's healing arts were such that no other trace of her injury remained on her skin, though her hair was still singed away in places. It was the eye that told the worst tale. Though whole, it was murky and filmed, and stared vacantly off into space.

She read his features closely, and Tremayne knew that had he showed any disgust, she would have been crushed with despair. Her chin quivered.

"Well?" she asked at last. "Am I horribly ugly?"

"Nay, Keara. Not ugly at all."

"But my eye –"

"Here." He opened a drawer and gave her a black patch on a length of cord. "Do as I do and wear this."

Keara tied it around her head. "Like this?"

"Perfect." Tremayne held up a silver-handled mirror he'd gotten from a Frenchwoman.

"It isn't so bad, I suppose." She studied her reflection, frowning, and turned her head this way and that. "My hair is a fright."

"It'll grow back," he said, smiling.

"You don't think I'm hideous, then?"

He set two fingers under her quivering chin and tipped her face up to his. "Here be your answer to that, lass," he murmured, and kissed her.

 

**

 


Chapter Four

 

 

The wind was good, but the plain fact of the matter was that the Santiago carried more sail than did the Black Scorpion. The Spaniard gradually closed the distance between them.

Tremayne's crew had come aboard in disorganized haste, most of them well on their way to being saturated with rum. The sudden flight from town had interrupted their fun. It was the first time some of them had left a port with silver still in their pockets. Though they were glad to be alive, rescued from the press gang, they did lament their loss.

"Why is Vincente after us, my captain?" the Witch asked mid-morning, while the Black Scorpion scudded over the waves. "What has he against you?"

The Bosun snorted mirth as Tremayne scratched fitfully at his beard. "We were friends of a sort once," he admitted. "Back in Tortuga, this was, when I was barely more than a lad. Rafael Vincente took me under his wing, taught me to fight. But then …"

"There be a matter concerning Vincente's sister," the Bosun said.

"Oh, I see," said the Witch.

"Thank you, Mr. Bosun," Tremayne said. "That will be all."

"Paloma, her name was. The dove."

"I said that'll be all, Mr. Bosun!"

The big man guffawed. Those nearby hid grins in their hands. The Witch looked frosty. Tremayne scuffed his boot on the deck.

"Very well, aye," he said. "There was a matter with Vincente's sister. But that be long ago, and what's more likely is that he heard tell of our capture of the Ella Marie, and knew us to have seen a profitable voyage, and thought to fill his coffers at our expense."

"Will he catch us?" asked Keara. She had refused to linger in the cabin, and stood with them now in her eyepatch, the singed part of her hair trimmed into a short copper bob.

The Witch uttered a ladylike, haughty huff. "You show precious little faith in my captain."

"I have every faith in our captain," Keara retorted.

Though Tremayne did not see anyone step back, he found himself at the center of a circle that had suddenly cleared around the two women. Only the Bosun, whose hands were on the helm, could not retreat … though he looked as though he dearly wished to.

"If you did, you would not ask such questions," the Witch said.

"Now, ladies, I pray you," Tremayne said, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. "'Tis a fair question for one who's not been with us long, fairer even when Vincente's ship bears down on us under more sail."

Not placated, the Witch crossed her arms and showed him her back. It was a remarkable back, waist tapering to a diameter he believed he could span with his hands – at any rate, he wouldn't have minded trying – before flaring out into full hips that the drape of her baggy trousers could not conceal. The proud set of her spine and shoulders was tantalizing indeed.

"Don't ye worry, Cabin-Girl," the Bosun said. "Wind'll shift more in our favor once we round the isle of Mandisa."

"Aye," Tremayne said. "We'll cross the Channel to the Mozambique coast. I know many a cove and inlet along there, where we can lie up until the Santiago be long gone."

"My captain," the Witch said, still facing away from him toward the bow of the ship. "That might not be the best course."

"Who shows little faith in him now?" Keara said.

Her barb struck home. The Witch whirled, and if the Sea-Monkey had not chosen that moment to come capering on deck, Tremayne did not know what might have happened next. But the scruffy little man somersaulted between the women, bounded straight up in the air, landed, and spun in a circle with his arms spread wide.

"Hah! The Sea-Monkey is just like Captain and the Cabin-Girl!"

He was wearing an eyepatch. Its string cut a flattened line through his wild, bushy hair. The other eye twinkled with fiendish humor.

"Oh!" Keara cried, and her dainty palm lashed out. She slapped the Sea-Monkey. "You make fun of me, you wretch?"

"Mandisa coming up, Captain," the Bosun said.

"And the Santiago continuing to close," Mr. Trask added.

Tremayne grasped Keara and the Sea-Monkey by the upper arms. "If you two wish to call each other out, do it later. Monkey, that patch will hamper you in battle."

The Sea-Monkey puffed out his chest. "I can fight better than any Spaniard with one eye covered and one hand tied behind my back!"

"Let him prove it," Keara said, stretching out a length of rope.

"Another time," Tremayne said. "Mr. Bosun, I'll take the helm."

"But, my captain," interrupted the Witch. "As I was trying to say before she had to open that smart mouth of hers … look there. Look ahead."

Tremayne squinted past the bow of the Black Scorpion. The lush green island of Mandisa was starboard, and dead ahead should have been the open waters of the Mozambique Channel. But the view of the sea was obscured by darkness, a roiling darkness shot with blue-white flashes.

"Storm front," the Bosun said. "That be a bad one, sir."

"I see it," Tremayne said. "Witch, last night you mentioned strange weather. What else did you hear?"

"Of lights in the sky, like St. Elmo's fire," she replied.

"See how green be the sky above that cloud mass," Mr. Trask said. He shook his head. "That'll be waterspout weather for sure, Cap'n."

The ship was passing close to Mandisa, and Tremayne saw an unsettling thing – the trees were crowded with birds. They sat huddled together, silent, with none of the squabbling for position he might have expected.

"There!" called the Witch, pointing.

More birds, a flock of them, wheeled in disturbed formation. The flock broke apart. Some made for the island. Others made straight for the Black Scorpion, settling onto the yards and rigging.

"Prepare for hard-a-starboard, Mr. Bosun!" Tremayne took the helm. "We'll find a shallow cove and drop anchor. I like the looks of those clouds not at all."

The crew ran to their duties, which were hampered by the birds that refused to leave their perches. Not even when the Sea-Monkey snatched out a double handful of tail feathers would they budge. When Bloody Pete, unnerved, drew his pistol and shot one, it should have sent the entire flock into a flapping, panicked exodus. But the one unlucky bird exploded in a hail of blood and feathers and only the ones nearest it took frantic wing.

"What should I do?" Keara asked.

"Scale the rigging, lass, and give a shout if the Santiago keeps closing on us. Witch, you keep me apprised of the storm. Sing out if either of you see anything unusual."

"Aye, my captain." The Witch moved to the rail and leaned far out, holding onto a line.

"They're still following," Keara announced.

"Within cannon shot?" asked Tremayne.

"I don't think so, captain."

"Warn me when you do think so."

The ship rounded Mandisa. Then, as the Bosun had predicted, the wind shifted. It did more than shift … a gale whipping around the promontory made choppy whitecaps out of the waves. A few birds, still struggling to reach the island, were caught by that gale and sent soaring backwards, their wings beating uselessly against the wind.

"Make fast!" Tremayne shouted.

The sails creaked as the fast-moving air violently changed direction. The Black Scorpion heeled over to port, the deck tilting. Men groped for handholds to keep themselves from being thrown over the side. The helm wrenched at Tremayne's efforts to keep it under control.

"We'll not make the island in this!" yelled the Bosun.

"Aye, you're right," said Tremayne. "The cross-winds will tear us apart."

"They're gaining!" Keara warned. "I think they're – yes, they've fired! It fell short, two hundred yards, I saw it splash into the sea."

"Vincente, you fool!" Tremayne bellowed as if the Spaniard could hear him. If the Santiago crippled the Black Scorpion now, the wind and waves would scuttle her.

"The topsail!" The Sea-Monkey jabbed an arm up. "The topsail's tearing loose!"

"Secure that sail!" Tremayne shouted.

Men rushed up the rigging, but the ship was tossing so that even the most seasoned of them was making poor progress. The topsail snapped back and forth, then tore free and flew away into the wind like a large and clumsy gull. A man plunged, screaming, from the high mast. He did not go into the turbulent sea but landed on one of the cannons, bounced off, and was motionless.

There were terrible wooden splintering sounds, and Tremayne knew that if he kept trying for Mandisa, his ship would disintegrate under him.

"We've got to turn into the storm and ride it out!" He shouted his orders. The crew ran to obey, and the bow of the Black Scorpion swung back toward the Channel.

"He's firing again!" Keara called. "That one was closer."

Muttering dark oaths against Vincente, Vincente's ancestors, Vincente's children, and all Spaniards in general, Tremayne spun the wheel. He saw the masses of clouds ahead, charcoal and black beneath a sickly greenish sky. Lightning flickered, and dead ahead now was a hazy curtain of rain.

He risked a glance back and saw the Santiago cutting across the sea at an angle, seeking to intercept while staying out of the dangerous cross-wind. But as the full force of the gale filled the Black Scorpion's sails, sending the smaller ship skidding over the waves like a skipped stone, he knew that Vincente would have at most one shot while they were within range.

"Mr. Trask, ready the port cannons! I want a broadside volley on my say!"

"Aye, Cap'n!"

"You should go below, lass," Tremayne said to Keara, who had clambered down and now stood at his side.

"I'll not hide like a child. If she stays, so do I."

She meant, of course, the Witch, who was kneeling beside the man who had fallen from the topmast. Tremayne had no doubts that the Witch could save his life with her healing powers, but wondered if the injured man would thank her for it. The way he had landed on the cannon, his backbone must have broken.

"Coming up on the Santiago!" the Bosun announced.

"We'll have one shot at her, lads," Tremayne said. "Make it a good one."

The curtain of rain was closer now, the clouds towering over them as the Black Scorpion raced headlong toward the storm. Now Tremayne could feel the wind pushing them in a huge spiral, and with grim understanding knew that they were on the verge of sailing into a hurricane. But it was all he could do just to hold the ship steady.

"Fire!" he shouted as they drew even with the Santiago.

The port guns went off almost in unison, shaking the deck. Gouts of smoke were whisked apart by the wind, but the cannonballs arced high and true. As they were in mid-air, the Santiago's cannons fired. Vincente had timed it well. Tremayne winced in anticipation of the damage.

Beside him, Keara flung her arms straight out to her sides. At once, an enormous revolving bubble of blue-green force encompassed the two of them, the helm, and the Bosun, who stood nearby.

With the Black Scorpion pitching and wallowing so severely, it was a wonder that any of the Santiago's shots found their mark. Only three did. One went high, splintering the foremast yardarm. Another went low, punching into the hull just at the waterline. The third, aimed very true indeed, would have blown Tremayne to bits if not for Keara. The shot struck the blue-green bubble, which gave a little as if made of some stretchy fabric, and then was deflected away, harmless, its killing power spent.

Then they were well past the Santiago, sweeping wide in a curve that followed the path of the storm.

"Good lass," Tremayne said. "I don't suppose you can shield the entire ship from the storm?"

She shook her head. "And it'll be a while before I can do that again. It's … it's tiring."

A whispering, hissing noise drowned out any further conversation as the gale carried them into the downpour. At one instant, they were wetted only by the wind-borne spray, and the next they were in the torrent. Tremayne could no longer see the bow of the ship. The mainmast was a silvery ghost, and everything forward of that was lost in the sheeting rain.

The reckless Sea-Monkey whooped with excitement as the Black Scorpion plunged into the storm. The rest of the crew were too well aware of the danger they were in. The waves swelled high, sometimes towering over the ship in glassy monoliths. Another sail gave way with a ripping sound audible even over the relentless hammering of the rain. One of the cannons broke its moorings, trundling across the deck. A man shrieked as his foot was crushed beneath its wheels. The Bosun lunged from Tremayne's side and single-handedly caught the loose cannon.

The ship struggled up a crest, then sped into the trough between waves at a terrifying speed. The next wave smashed over the starboard bow. Tremayne saw three men swept over the side, flailing for purchase. One of them grabbed a line, but the other two vanished into the sea.

Lightning struck the topmast and exploded it into smoking shards of wood. Flames sizzled along the ropes before being doused by the rain. Smoldering splinters pierced the unprotected flesh of several sailors like grapeshot.

The rest of the rigging tangled, toppled and fell. Tremayne shoved Keara aside and was caught across the shoulderblades by a smoking chunk of wood. It knocked the breath from his lungs and sent him sprawling on the deck.

"Ahead!" he heard someone yell from the bow. "Rocks ahead port!"

"My captain, you're hurt!" cried the Witch, running to him. The hurricane winds had thrown back her hood, freeing long hair that streamed around her face like a dark flag.

"No time." He dragged himself to the helm again, wrenched at the wheel. He could see nothing forward of the mast, and could only hope that it was enough.

The rocks appeared out of the rain, great towering jagged black shapes less than ten yards from the side of the ship. Just as Tremayne thought they were in the clear, the hull shuddered with a brutal scraping sound. The deck pitched sharply to starboard. The Bosun lost his hold on the cannon and it swept two men with it as it rolled over the side. The wheel yanked itself free of Tremayne's hands and spun. He was thrown sideways into the women, the three of them falling in a heap.

From above came a sharp crack like a gunshot, and the Sea-Monkey landed on the planking, flat on his back and still clinging to the yardarm that had broken beneath him.

"Oof," he said, his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

The Bosun fought his way to them. "We be taking on water badly, sir."

"Aye, Mr. Bosun, I thought we might." Tremayne got up and helped the Witch and Keara to their feet, then offered a hand to the Sea-Monkey.

"Clear sky!" came a jubilant shout. "Clear sky ahead!"

The wheel was still spinning at a furious pace. Tremayne didn't dare try to catch hold of it; at that rate it would break both his wrists. The Bosun stepped up and in an unconventional but effective move punched the center of the wheel, stopping it cold. Before it could start again, Tremayne seized it and nodded his approval.

The clouds ahead were thinning. Tremayne hauled on the wheel and turned the Black Scorpion toward the patch of lighter sky. The rain slowed to a trickle, then stopped but for the drips from the sodden sails and rigging. He saw that they had lost their escort of birds, which had either abandoned them without his notice or been snatched away by the hurricane.

"Aren't we going awfully fast?" Keara asked. "Faster than the wind should allow?"

"Aye, lass, we are," Tremayne said, realizing that it was true. A feeling of dread dropped like a lead sinker through his midsection.

The Black Scorpion was being carried along now not by the wind in her sails, but by the sea itself, which was no longer rising and falling in waves but sliding along in a vast, smooth current. It brought them out of the clouds and a terrible scene opened up before them.

They were caught on the outer edge of a whirlpool at the eye of the storm. The sky overhead was a swampy green eye in a wall of seething black. Unnatural purple-orange streaks of lightning danced around the edges.

The whirlpool sloped down as it spun, the water moving faster and faster toward the central vortex. There, rising in a wavering funnel, was a waterspout stretching toward the heavens.

Everyone was dumbstruck. Tremayne knew that they were witnessing a sight no living man had seen … and it did not matter because they would never live to tell of it.

The Black Scorpion was entirely at the mercy of the hurricane now. Nothing he could do would steer her away from certain disaster. The ship was being swept around and around on a tightening inward spiral toward the waterspout, at an incredible speed.

The air was suddenly still, and had a flat, metallic taste. A whistling, rushing roar filled the world.

No one called a warning as more rocks loomed in their path. There was no need. Everyone saw them … not rocks, but cliffs … sheer cliffs. The Black Scorpion was heading straight for them.

It was useless trying the wheel but Tremayne tried anyway. He might as well have tried to blow out the sun like a candle.

"Brace yourselves!" His words went unheard even by his own ears, but his crew didn't need to be told.

He saw the Bosun gather up the Witch and Keara, one in each arm, and curl them protectively against his massive chest. Then the ship smashed directly into the cliffs and shattered as if made of crystal.

Tremayne was thrown into the air, his body cartwheeling through a blizzard of debris. The sea and sky swapped places with dizzying rapidity. Pain lanced his arms, legs, torso. Then he struck the water with bone-jarring force.

Somehow, he stayed conscious, and thrashed his way to the surface. He coughed out salt water and blood. The wreckage of his ship flowed past him, inexorably onward toward the vortex.

Unlike many sailors, Tremayne was a strong swimmer. But not even the strongest swimmer stood a chance against such a current. He stroked toward a section of deck planking, caught hold of it, and hauled himself onto the splintered boards.

A body, face-down, was within reach. He grabbed a handful of shirt and pulled. Mr. Trask flopped onto the planks. Tremayne rolled him over, and recoiled. Trask's face was gone, a gored and mangled crater from hairline to chin.

Arming blood from his brow – his scalp was cut, and bleeding badly – Tremayne desperately searched the surrounding water.

His gaze found something shimmering blue-green, and his heart leaped with hope. It was Keara's bubble, half-submerged. He thought he could make out crumpled shapes within, one of them very large. But it was in the quickening spiral of the whirlpool.

A broken crate shot past. Tremayne had a momentary glimpse of a hairy brown arm clinging to it, and of a wild-eyed face. The Sea-Monkey saw Tremayne in the same instant. He scrambled up onto the crate, nearly capsizing it, and then sprang toward Tremayne's section of planking.

It was a brave leap, but if Tremayne hadn't managed to catch his tail as he flew by, the Sea-Monkey would have overshot completely. He bleated as he was jerked to a halt by the tail.

"Did you see anyone else?" Tremayne yelled above the rushing thunder of the whirlpool.

The Sea-Monkey pointed toward the bubble. Through its rippling blue-green, Tremayne saw the Witch, staring urgently back at him.

"Jamie!"

Had he heard that, or imagined it? Either way, it didn't matter.

The bubble went into a tight final spin around the vortex and waterspout. He glimpsed their faces one last time … the Bosun, Keara, the Witch … and then they were sucked under … gone.

"No!" Tremayne dove into the water, swimming hard as he could.

As he felt the vortex pull him down, he saw the Sea-Monkey paddling frantically after him. Then the whirlpool closed over his head.

 

**

 


Chapter Five

 

 

The surging waters dragged him under. His eyes stung from the salt as he tried to search the swirling darkness below him for any sign of Keara's protective bubble, any sign of the rest of his crew.

Tremayne held his breath as long as he was able, despite the crushing pressure that felt as though a fist of iron was clamped around his chest, squeezing until it seemed that his lungs would burst, his ribs snap like twigs. All too soon, even the precious air turned against him. It burned and ached. His blood pounded in his veins. His temples throbbed. His heart slammed like a padded mallet.

At last he could bear it no longer and exhaled. He tried to seal his lips against the sea water that sought to rush in and fill the void left by that expelled breath. But his agonized lungs demanded to be filled.

The briny taste flooded his mouth and nose. It rushed down his windpipe. He had heard others, near-drowning victims plucked from the bony grasp of death, tell of how resistance recognized futility, and the feeling of despair turned to one of lassitude and acceptance. Tremayne waited to feel it overwhelm him, waited for his cares and his struggles to cease.

They did no such thing. He could not surrender. Even as he was drowning, even as he was dying, his will to survive was too strong to let him give in to the false comfort.

Darkness surrounded him. He was alone in the void, tossed by the maelstrom. In the small part of his mind that was not so consumed with sheer determination, he wondered whether or not he might already be dead … whether or not this was the Hell to which a lifetime of piracy had surely damned him. A Hell that was, rather than an endless inferno, cold and dark and wet.

He felt his consciousness dwindle like the rapidly receding light of a lantern, speeding away from him. Shadows closed in.

This, then, was dying.

A tumult of memories and regrets flickered past, too fleeting to hold. All he had done that he wished he hadn't. All he had never done that he wished he had.

And then only nothingness …

Nothingness.

An eternity of nothingness.

Followed by a painful, gradual return to sensation.

A coarse, gritty surface beneath his body. The chill of the air on his skin.

He heard gulls crying, and the familiar sound of the sea.

His body was motionless, rocked by no waves. Pebbles pressed into him, or perhaps shells, each one feeling like a nailhead.

Tremayne sucked in a hoarse breath. His throat was raw. He might have been drawing tiny shards of glass into his lungs. His chest heaved involuntarily in a cough that wracked him with such pain that he lost consciousness again.

When it returned, creeping gingerly back to him with the wariness of a kitten that had been put to a cruel scare, he sipped a shallower breath. It was still shards of glass, but he was able to keep from coughing.

His good eye was raw and red, its lid caked shut. He pried it open anyway and closed it at once against the glare of daylight.

Uttering a low groan, he decided to lay where he was for a while and see if matters improved. He had always been hardy, a quick healer, resilient. Now was the time to put that to the test and see if his body's resources had gone soft, if he had become too dependent on the Witch.

He opened his eye again in sudden horrified remembrance. Once more, the harsh daylight speared into it, making it squint and water.

The Witch … the Bosun … Keara … the Sea-Monkey … the rest of his crew …

Where were they? Had any of them survived? It seemed that he had, somehow, and surely the fates could not be so cruel as to let him live but take his friends.

At first, all he could see was a stretch of sand and gravel. He had washed ashore somehow, thrown by the storm up onto a beach. It occurred to him that low waves were lapping at his boots, that the occasional higher one rushed up to soak through his already sodden trousers.

Tremayne tried to raise his head and found that it was heavier than a cannonball, heavier than an anchor. The bones in his neck gave an alarming creak. He looked around.

The sun was fiercely bright but diffuse, filtered through a high layer of smoky mist. Though he could smell the sea, it was not the crisp, bracing scent he was used to but something tinged with unidentifiable foulness.

The beach was, aside from himself and a few strutting gulls, empty. At his movement, the nearest of the gulls all squawked and fluttered. Disappointed at these signs of life, he supposed. Had he not stirred, they might have decided he was carrion and gone to work on him, first pecking the eye from his head with their dirty beaks and then nibbling at the softer parts of him.

There was no sign of anyone else. No sign of the others.

A prolonged deep and honking howl had him scrabbling on hands and knees up the beach before he knew what he was doing. He reached a place where the gravel gave way to a strange black expanse, hard as stone.

No sea monster – for such he was sure that howl must have been – snatched him up in vicious toothy jaws. Tremayne cast a wild glance back toward the sea, expecting there to be a long-necked sinuous shape gliding through the waves.

Instead, he saw the white outline of a ship.

Relief robbed his limbs of strength and he collapsed again, onto the hard, flat surface that was like thousands of tiny rocks mixed with solidified black tar. The brief spate of adrenaline was gone, leaving him trembling with weakness. He was able to roll onto his back, but that was the last of his energy. He lay with arms splayed out to his sides, panting, grimacing at the tainted air.

Had he truly seen a ship? Or a sea serpent? Or neither? Had the howl and the glimpse of a white hull both been the products of an overstrained, exhausted mind?

He mustered his will and lifted his head, looking down the length of his body. He saw in passing that his sword remained belted to his waist. The toes of his boots framed the ship, closer now.

But it was unlike any ship he had ever seen in his entire life. There were no masts, no sails. And it was somehow coming toward him against the wind.

The effort of holding his head up was too much. Tremayne let it fall back, staring blankly at the sky.

Was he dead, then? Was the white ship some vessel from the next world? A ship of angels, to convey him to Heaven? He could not fathom how such a thing could be … if there had been a ship to come for him, he would have expected it to be a wormwood derelict with tattered sails, crewed by grinning corpses and captained by a demon.

His eye closed. Whatever came, he had little choice but to accept it. Although he still had his sword, not even Jamie Tremayne could fight against the hosts of either Heaven or Hell.

He heard a boat putting ashore. The noises were at once so familiar, and so wrong, that he was not sure what to make of them.

Voices. Voices that sounded like neither angels nor demons. Human voices? Yet speaking so strangely … as they neared, he thought that the language was English, but some broken and guttural dialect he had never heard before.

Something was very wrong, and yet Tremayne could only lie where he was and await the worst. He had not felt the lassitude that those who had nearly drowned told him of when he was drowning. Here on dry land, he was as helpless and docile as a newborn babe.

"Yep, there he is," one of the voices said. It was a woman's voice, but neither youthful nor melodious. An older woman with a tobacco-harshened rasp. "Looks like he hauled himself out."

"Is he dead?" The second voice belonged to a young man, excited and nervous. "He looks dead."

"They always do. At least this one's not flat on his face. Those ones really look dead."

Tremayne discovered that he could understand them … at least, he could understand the words, if not their greater meaning.

"You mean this happens a lot?" the young man asked.

"Kiddo, all the time. You haven't been in town long, have you?"

"Six weeks," he replied, defensive.

"Six weeks?" repeated the woman, with an incredulous laugh. "And this is your first one? You must not get out much."

"I've seen them! Just not … not like this." Footsteps gritted closer, coming up the gravel beach. A shadow fell over Tremayne and then moved aside. "Are you sure he is one? He doesn't look like one."

"You're not going to tell me he's a normal. Not dressed like that." There was an evaluating pause. "Hmm," the woman said. "Or undressed like that. Nice chest. Hell of a tattoo."

"But he looks … well … like a pirate," the young man said. "The eyepatch, the boots …"

Tremayne opened his eye. They were standing over him, and despite the strangeness of their speech and manner, they looked human enough. No horns and barbed tails, no feathered wings and halos. The young man had a fresh, open face with a mop of yellow curls. The woman was tall and rangy, with greying brown hair tied back in a horsetail. Both wore orange uniforms with white belts and bandoleers and caps. Letters were sewn onto the fronts of the caps. English letters. PCCG?

"Told you he's alive," the woman said. "Hey, buddy? Got a name?"

He tried to answer but only coughed again.

"Take it easy," she said. "We'll get you fixed right up." She turned and waved back in the direction of the ship.

"What do you think happened to him?" the young man asked. "How'd he get way out here?"

"Could be anything. TP gone wrong, or he was flying and ran out of steam and fell into the water, or he lost a fight up there somewhere. I'm telling you, Danny, it happens all the time. You better get used to fishing these guys out of the drink."

"So how come he's alive?" Danny asked.

"Hey, they're not like us. Have you got any idea what it takes to kill one of these suckers?"

"What about –"

"Yeah, yeah, okay, good to see you're not totally ignorant. They can die, but it's really rare. Most of the time, boom, down on their faces they go and there they stay, either until another one comes along and helps them, or they get carted off to the hospital. Well, okay … I've heard that sometimes they'll drop, but then they'll get up again and wander around for a while like a sleepwalker. Kind of creepy if you ask me."

"What, and then they're just fine again?"

"Good as new," the woman said. She raised her voice. "Hurry it up, would you? We haven't got all day."

"Isn't there anything we can do for him? He looks like crap."

"You got something in mind?"

"First aid?"

She scoffed. "Yeah. Right."

"Well, it feels weird to just stand here looking at him with our thumbs up our butts."

"Danny-boy, kiddo, I know that when you signed on with the Paragon City Coast Guard, they made you get your CPR cert and all that good stuff. But let me tell you, the docs who work on these guys get years of training. I mean, hey, they've got to. Never know what's going to roll through the ambulance bay next. Mutants, cyborgs, aliens, people who've been doused with radiation or chemicals, hell, you name it. We've got no idea how to even start treating this shirtless hunk of beefcake here."

The young man looked down at Tremayne with a perplexed, pitying frown. "So we just haul him out of the water –"

"Off the beach."

"—off the beach, and dump him at the nearest hospital?"

"That's about the size of it, yeah." She gave him a punch on the arm. "Fun, huh?"

More people, men in similar uniforms, appeared with a peculiar stretcher made from shining silvery metal and blinding white padding. They unfolded it onto jointed legs and small wheels, and set it up next to Tremayne, who still couldn't get off the ground.

He had followed some of the conversation between Danny and the older woman, but so much of it was baffling to him that he was no longer sure that it was English they were speaking. Many of their words were foreign – ambulance, mutants, radiation. Others almost made sense, but still eluded him.

Even so, he was fairly sure he had gleaned that they intended to take him to a hospital. That was a word he knew, though not one he greeted with particular optimism. He envisioned long filthy wards with beds full of the sick, the mad and the dying.

Still, given that they had evidently recognized him as a pirate, it could be worse. They could be taking him straight to prison or the gallows.

He did not fight them as they surrounded him and prepared to lift him onto the strange stretcher. He doubted that he could have drawn his sword, let alone swing it. The woman crouched by his head, Danny at his feet, and another man on either side of him.

"On three," she said. "One … two … three!"

The four of them lifted Tremayne, while a fifth slid the stretcher underneath him. His resignation became alarm as they strapped him down, but by then it was too late to do anything even had he been able.

"Hey, Doris, does this really happen all the time?" asked Danny as they began to roll the stretcher over the bumpy gravel. "Or were you joking with me?"

"No joke," she said, and another of the men nodded. "This is my sixth."

"I've done three before him," the man who'd nodded said.

"My brother-in-law is a paramedic assigned to Cherry Hills," another man said. "He must get thirty calls a day to haul some cape out of the Hollows."

"Only thirty?" scoffed the third, who had slid the stretcher under Tremayne. "My dad was a doctor in Perez Park."

They rolled him down the beach, and Tremayne saw their ship again. His vision was clearer now, but he still blinked in amazement. There were still no sails, no masts. The hull was seamless white, not made of wood at all. It rumbled from somewhere deep inside.

"W-wait," he said.

The woman glanced down at him. "He speaks! How 'bout that. What's your name, pal?"

"Tremayne. Captain … Black Scorpion."

Her gaze shifted to his tattoo. "No kidding. Well, don't you worry. We'll get you to the hospital and they'll fix you right up. Got a team we need to notify?"

"My … crew," he gasped as they folded up the wheeled legs of the stretcher to load it onto their longboat. "Where … where are they?"

She patted him on the shoulder. "We'll get in touch with them for you."

"Maybe he means they were out here with him," Danny said. "His team."

Tremayne looked gratefully at the young man. "Find them. Help them."

"Oh, damn," the woman said. "Radio it in, Carl. We might have more of these guys floating around out here. Meanwhile, we better get him to the hospital."

"My crew first."

"Hey," she said, with a not unkindly grin. "You may lead your own team, your own supergroup, whatever, but out here, Doris Biederman calls the shots."

He had no further chance to argue as they got him onto the white ship. Not that he would presume to contradict Captain Biederman aboard her own vessel, no matter how bizarre he might find it. For a woman to become a captain meant she must be strong, and was no doubt used to overcoming the objections of men.

And once they were underway, Tremayne was too filled with wonder to do anything but stare. The ship … the ship moved under its own power, in any direction no matter the wind or tide. Instead of having a bell, it was the source of the long honking cry he had mistaken for the howl of a sea serpent.

His stretcher was secured on deck, beneath a forward canopy shelter with clear windows all around. Doris ran a handheld device that beeped and flashed over him, shook her head, and muttered something about microchips, whatever those were.

The young man, Danny, solicitously provided a pillow to prop up Tremayne's head, and the view as the ship coursed steadily through the harbor was so incredible that he could barely credit what he was seeing.

He had, he concluded, lost his mind. A hospital with wards full of raving lunatics was the best place for him after all.

The city …

It was impossible. It was enormous. Structures … buildings … each bigger than the last … towered toward the sky in glittering edifices of glass and stone and steel. Everywhere he looked were roads and bridges that would have put the ancient Romans to shame. Rolling along them were enclosed carts and wagons that moved without benefit of horses. He saw ships a hundred times bigger than even the largest Spanish galleon or man-of-war.

Then, most impossible of all, a man flew past, supported unaided in the air. In the brief moment he was in sight, Tremayne saw a lithe body clad in tight shiny green, with gold boots and gloves, and a cape rippling in his wake. Next was a woman in scarlet, bounding along a bridge with gigantic leaps, as if she wore a pair of seven-league boots from a child's fairy story.

"What … what is this place?" he asked in a whisper.

Danny, who had stayed nearby, looked over at him. "Haven't you been here before?"

"Never in this world."

"You mean you're a new one?" His face lit up with excitement. "Hey, Doris! Guess what? He's a new one! That's why he's not microchipped!"

"A new what?"

"Hero," Danny said. "You are, aren't you? I mean, you've got to be, surviving that. And the way you're dressed, carrying a sword and everything."

"A … a hero?"

More of the city came into view, and Tremayne was dumbstruck again. He saw walls of shimmering greenish light, not unlike Keara's shielding bubble but stretching up until they were lost in the clouds. He saw sculptures that would have dwarfed the legendary Colossus of Rhodes, all of men and women in fantastic outfits and heroic poses.

And more people … flying, leaping, running so fast that their bright costumes formed a streaky blur, vanishing from one place in a flash of light only to reappear in another a split second later. The variety of clothing shocked him repeatedly, particularly that of the women. He thought with a terrible pang of the Witch and Keara. The Witch, in her hood and veil and loose trousers, might almost have been considered modestly clad compared to some. And Keara, with her short, tight dress and high boots, would have drawn no shrieks of scandal and outrage.

The men, too … Tremayne supposed that it was no wonder his rescuers found nothing that untoward about his garb. He saw men in ornate armor, men with horns and spines sprouting from their skin. Some carried guns that spat bullets faster than he ever would have believed possible. Some hulked as large and muscular as the Bosun, or were as small and wiry as the Sea-Monkey.

It hurt him to realize that, as outlandish as this place was, he and his crew would have fit in among them and could have walked the streets like any other of these folk. But his crew was not with him.

As the ship cruised slowly along a canal, he saw battles taking place right and left. There were people wreathed in glowing energy, or shooting lightning from their hands, or wielding flaming swords.

By the time they docked, the unreality had consumed him to the point that he wished he was dead or dreaming. He knew that he could not be dreaming … no dream of his, no matter how much rum he'd been drinking, had ever approached anything even remotely like this.

Neither was he dead. His vitality was already coming back to him, though Doris Biederman insisted on having him delivered to the hospital anyway. He was forced to come to terms with the fact that he was alive, and that this place was real.

It was not an easy coming-to-terms, as unreality piled upon unreality. The hospital … had he wakened there instead of on that deserted beach, he would have thought himself dead and in a cold, shining-white Heaven for certain. When he left, on his own two feet, he realized that he had never felt better, nor fitter, in his entire life.

But there was just too much. Too much to see. Too much to be asked to believe. He felt something in his mind simply close like a door. Nothing could surprise him as he followed the directions he had been given and talked to a succession of stranger and stranger people. They persisted in calling him a 'hero,' and expected him to go out into the city like some sort of knight-of-old.

They wanted him to fight people. They rewarded him for it. Bemused, Tremayne did as he was instructed. At last, he was given further directions and sent to the very heart of the city.

There stood the most majestic statue yet, so huge that it staggered the imagination. It was of a man bearing a globe on his shoulders. Tremayne knew something of the legends of the Greeks, and put a name to him. Atlas.

In the shadow of this titan, surrounded by outlandish people who unquestioningly accepted him as being of their own kind, he met a lovely blonde woman in a short blue dress. Something about her, the purposeful solemnity of her, broke through his abstracted daze.

This was real. This blonde woman, and the people who charged him with various tasks, expected him to be not a pirate, but a hero.

He had no ship. He had no crew. He was alone, lost in this world and this time that were not his own. Fate had brought him to this strange shore.

While he still had hope of finding other survivors from the Black Scorpion, of being reunited with his friends, he understood that it was time to put his pirating days behind him. His sword would flash for the cause of good as well as for gold and for glory.

And so, Jamie Tremayne entered Paragon City.

 

**