Jonas wiped salt water out of his eyes for the dozenth time and barely moved his sword quickly enough to block the green-nimbus blade that sliced directly at his stomach. The pirate’s skeletal grin filled his vision and the squire braced for impact only to see the phantom cutlass pass right through his sword as insubstantial as a passing mist. Jonas growled a low moan of frustration. The past several minutes since the collision of the pirate ship with the Cormorant had been a maddening clatter of rainwater, storm-tossed seas, and the assault of the ship’s crew. But all the more infuriating had been the discovery of the true nature of the vicious, leering pirates - sailcloth and leather wrapped around rotting flesh and salt-encrusted bones.
“They’re the Half-Ghost Armada!” Captain Blackberry had bellowed emerging from the portal, “Gods help us all! Londra bring up the belaying pins, Wick and Warp you stay below and keep this portal shut until I give the right knock.”
“Half-Ghosts,” Rime had demanded. “What does that even mean?”
Blackberry and his tall daughter had entered the fray, carrying large black wooden clubs capped with steel. The captain had grimly sealed the portal below decks behind him. “The great Beyond is all too similar to our own, a vasty pile of paperwork and desks. Sometimes things get filed wrong and you wind up with the unexpected, a whole crew of villainous cutthroats dead at the bottom of the sea - meant to haunt the coast as proper phantasms. But someone didn’t check the right box, or fill out the right form, and you wind up with things like this - half-ghosts. Not quite undead, not quite gone - mean and angry and cursed by bureaucratic oversight to occasionally spook and slaver the hearts of mortal men. Poor bastards, they’re just as confused as we are - but that don’t make ‘em any less dangerous!”
The captain’s words quickly proved true. The pirate’s forms were the husks of corpses, knit together by a firefly-green illumination. But from moment to moment they seemed to be only intermittently substantial. Jonas’s sword caught nothing but spectral light, but the very next moment the pirate’s bone fingers tore a deep gouge across his right breast. It meant that every attack could be real or not, so you had to try and block them all.
Jonas grabbed the pirate’s shoulder and prayed that it would remain material. The vicious revenant scowled and tried to spin from his grasp, but the squire managed to keep enough of a grip and shove the pirate over the the side into the heaving seas. Jonas caught his hip hard against the wooden rail of the ship in time to see the half-ghost fall towards the water. The tumbling sack of bone and steel suddenly halted, then floated up through the rain, green nimbus flaring with sudden phantasmal motivation. The squire groaned again with exhaustion, then pushed himself up. I’ll worry about that one later, when there is a later. Jonas blinked away more water and looked across the Cormorant’s deck to survey the situation.
Captain Blackberry was holding fast near the prow of the ship, his daughter at his side. Londra’s black hair whipped around her face like black snakes, writhing around the clear ice of her eyes. The only illumination came from the half-ghost pirates themselves and the sporadic bursts of fire and lightning that Rime spun from her hands. The wild mage hovered a few feet above Jonas’ head, acting as both lookout and turret. She had kept the area around them clear for the past several minutes, but Jonas could see the tell-tale set of her jaw that told him she was running short on time - she was pulling from her power and hanging on by pure determination, and before too long she would fall. Three pirates cackled, clattering sacks of cloth and bone. They barreled their way towards his position, green-light daggers flickering. Would the blades be solid when they landed or not?
He took a deep breath. Held it and felt it burn in his lungs.
The half-ghosts were a danger, the pitch of the deck and the constant fall of rain made for a vicious battleground. But it was the weight in his heart that made him slow, that made his blade feel like a flat board in his hands. Telling the tale of his sin had been harder than he could have imagined. It wasn’t like he had forgotten or forgiven himself, but in the day to day it was easy to not think about the Past, to bury it like a slab of granite in the dark earth of his mind. Speaking it aloud, telling the story to Rime had uncovered the stone. Now it was hard to breathe.
The first pirate carried a halberd, the haft rotten and splintered. Jonas moved his sword to knock the polearm away, but all he could really see was the dark blood pumping from his Master’s neck. The squire gritted his teeth and shook the vision free. He landed a firm kick on the pirate’s chest only to have his boot pass right through, Jonas stumbled forward carried by momentum and soon found himself standing directly in the center of the half-ghost. The pirate craned its neck and somehow the phosphorescent green skull managed to look sheepish. Jonas had only a moment to nod in agreement before the thing’s two companions pulled him free and threw him up against two crates lashed down with cord and sailcloth.
The air burst from his lungs with the impact and Jonas thought of the night he had slipped from the tower, the silver blade Hecate wrapped in a spare cloak. I’ve got to pull it together. Head in the clouds, blood in the dirt. His Master’s words. The squire pulled his good steel into a simple guarding stance and made ready for the pirates’ assault. Through the wind and rain the Past came again, faster and sharper than any pirate cutlass - his Master’s face, his words, his blood.
I am being buried alive. The thought appeared in Jonas’ mind. He could not say from whence it came, but he knew it to be true. In the wind and rain and half-ghost dark the stones of the Past were too heavy for him to bear.
But then, lightning. And laughter. Wild laughter, Rime’s laughter. She erupted, searing his eyes with light - both hands high, calling down fire from the heavens.
“Of course! I don’t know why I never considered it. It takes far less energy to --” a yellow-gold bolt of sky-fire tore through the three green phantasms in front of Jonas. “--redirect the lightning, than to create it!”
Rime laughed again, pulling lightning out of the sky like yarn from a skein, then throwing it down amongst the green-glow bones. She hovered higher and higher above the deck, her nimbus burning gold then pure white. Jonas could do nothing but stare, the weight of the Past suddenly forgotten in the face of Rime’s lightning Now. Bolts danced from her hands, shattering or liquefying each half-ghost, dependant on their current phase shift through the Material Plane. One of the pirates pulled free a large tome and began to leaf through it’s pages frantically as if looking for a specific reference. In sudden triumph it raised a bone fist and shook it at the lightning-flinging wild mage.
“Granich varr septo!” The half-ghost moaned indignantly, pointing at a pertinent passage in the leather-bound book.
“Septar do’vash. Septar do’tun malufrego!” the wild mage laughed “Lightning works on everything.”
To punctuate, Rime sent a bolt of yellow-gold spearing through the pirate’s book and glowing green chest. The half-ghost seemed to implode, its phantasmal energy eaten by the lightning’s audacity. His offended expression was the last to go, hovering in the air.
Jonas picked himself up, eyes locked on Rime. She continued to spin lightning out of the storm as if it belonged to her, sending bolt after bolt to hammer and shatter the few remaining pirates. It never ceased to amaze him, the things she could do. In her company he had seen tiny wonders and gargantuan marvels - called forth by nothing more than the short girl’s will. But of late, he had started to see a shift, something change in his companion. The laughter - the way she seemed to revel in her power, it made the squire worry. There wasn’t one thing he could really put his finger on, but it seemed that Rime’s magic was perhaps beginning to get out of control.
“I’m going to blow their ship up too!” Rime said with exultation, weaving her lightning into a large ball above her head.
Head in the clouds...back to work. “Rime! Do not blow the ship up!” Jonas yelled, waving to get the floating girl’s attention. “Just..do not do that!”
The girl looked down from her work, her eyes quizzical and annoyed. “Why not? It would be easy.”
“Because...uh...because…”Jonas grappled for the words, then his eyes went wide. He slammed his sword back into the scabbard and placed himself directly under his companion, arms wide. He made his words as calm as possible, even though he had to shout to be heard above the rain.“Because you’re crying blood, Rime. You’ve done too much already. Now just come down and let’s get out of this rain.”
The mage raised a hand to her face, then pulled it back to see the crimson truth. Jonas could see the doubt in her face, but it was soon wiped away by certainty. Rime clenched her fist and reached up into the vast ball of lightning she had gathered.
“Rime, no!” the squire shouted, moving towards the crates, thinking perhaps he could leap and grab her ankles, distract her and get her to listen. But the mage moved to quickly, calling one last bolt into her web of light, then with a great cry flung it down onto the wooden galleon that had borne the pirate crew.
The galleon exploded in a torment of screaming wood and improperly released spectral energy from a few half-ghosts sleeping below decks. The storm howled, each drop of rain outlined in light and Jonas had no choice but to cover his eyes. Somehow, amidst all the carnage he still heard the sallow thump of his companion’s body hitting the deck. When the lightning cleared he stumbled forward to Rime’s body and pulled her up, her eyes were rolled back in her head and her skin was white as the belly of a fish. For a dozen heartbeats of his own thundering heart he could find no pulse and no breath coming from the girl, only by putting his cheek directly against her nose and mout h could he feel the faint exhale of her lungs. She’s alive, now get her out of the rain. Not his Master’s words, but they could have been. Jonas stood up, with the mage’s limp body in his arms to discover the fear-stricken eyes of Captain Blackberry approaching, knuckles white on his club. His daughter, Londra, seemed less afraid, but more willing to use her own club.
Jonas sighed. I’m terrible at explaining things.
Rime’s Dream #2
Fire sat down next to her. The doublet that Fire wore was immaculate and black.
Fire leaned down and kissed her on the cheek.
Fire’s lips were ash and her cheek was cold. She felt Fire’s hands make their way up her spine and run through her hair.
“White,” Fire whispered in her ear. “White as sundown, white as tomorrow. White as the rib-bone that beggars borrow.”
Fire held her close and reached for the front of her tunic.
Jonas sat next to Rime in their tiny cabin on the Cormorant. ‘Cabin’ was a generous term, as it was merely a storage space that the captain had pushed a few barrels of lard back, room enough for them to spread their bedrolls and stow their meager gear. He watched his companion’s chest rise and fall, slow but sure, by the light of the glow-globe lashed into the corner.
His feeble words on the deck had been cut short by Captain Blackberry. “I don’t know. I don’t want to know. You get off the ship in Shiloh, just as we agreed. You stay in your cabin with...her until we make landfall tomorrow, understood?” the wide man had stomped away to give the all-clear knock on the portal below decks.
His tall daughter had looked at the unconscious Rime with cold curiosity. “She’s a wild mage, right?”
Jonas had managed not to nod, but offered a noncommittal shrug.
“Do yourself a favor, then. Put a knife in her and toss her overboard.” Londra followed her father without looking back.
Now he sat in the cramped space, his back against a barrel of lard and looked down at Rime. Asleep, she wasn’t much to look at, only the snow-white swath of her hair marking her as anything unusual. She was short for her age, too sharp-featured to be pretty. Or is it sharp-tongued? Jonas grinned.
But awake...The squire’s smile faded. Awake she was a wild mage, a power that Jonas knew he would never understand. He was guardian to a girl who walked the world as a small god. He looked down at his hands, at the sword he was automatically sharpening, even now. What am I to protect her? I’m just a boy with a bit of sharp metal. And more and more it looks like I need to protect her from herself.
Rime opened her eyes. Jonas sat his good steel down and moved closer. “Are you feeling okay?” he leaned over her.
The girl did not answer, only slowly pulled a hand out from under her cover and held it out to him. With a vague feeling of shock, Jonas took Rime’s hand.
“Tell me…”she started, then coughed.
Jonas felt the weight of the Past gather again, breaking through his concern for her. “I told you before the pirates, Rime - I don’t think we need to go over it all again.”
She shook her head. “Not that. Tell me about Gilead.”
The squire opened his mouth and then shut it. A thousand memories pressed forward all at once, becoming a tangle in his head, a dull ache in his heart. Gilead is home. Those were the only words he found, but he could not speak them. What did she mean?
Rime rolled her eyes, then shut them. She did not let go of the squire’s hand. “Your story, there’s a piece missing. Something about the place, about the land itself - about what it means. Some stupid horse-nonsense about glory and heroes. You told me about what you did wrong. Now tell me about what you left behind.”
Jonas opened his mouth again. I don’t have the words. I’ll never have the words. Then he remembered. A song his Master used to sing, at the end of the day. The squire could not carry the melody, but he could recite the words well enough. He prayed that the great Bard, Radd Plateglass, would not take offense.
“Last light of the sun against gravestone sky, dream of the shadows all come to die. White sand, gray stone, green field all bear the scar, of heroes’ blood and silver star. They walk in steel, they die in stone, Children of Gilead sing alone. Black sea, white sand, the lives they fall, from broken horns still sound the call. Where Night and Beast dare wear the crown, Knights of Gilead will throw them down. Last light of the sun shine across the waves, bones of valor down in their graves. Songs of blood and journey’s end, the price of heroes for shadow’s end. Sundown comes and Gilead stands, sundown comes and Darkness plans.”Jonas did not stumble over a single word, he could hear every word sung by Sir Pocket, perfect in his memory.
Rime was asleep, a gentler calm than the black unconsciousness she had come back from. She still held tight to her guardian’s hand. Jonas nodded and made himself comfortable, taking great care to keep her hand in his.