“Fine weather brings foul weather and foul weather brings fouler.”
Old seafarer proverb
A sailor slapped William’s back and his laugh echoed in the cove.
“Right, you heard the captain. Keep them peepers open for a scary fish man,” the deckhand said sarcastically. He probed the water below like he was stirring a stew with a long hooked pole normally used to recover rigging in the water.
William marveled at the cove’s interior. The steep black walls and high clifftops towered over the clear water. The surface was glassy before the ship entered, sheltered by the natural breakers at its mouth.
The water was deep, nearly one hundred fathoms in places and could chill a man to the bone. The tall cove walls let little sun down to warm the surface. The cove stretched two cable lengths into the island’s interior, about two hundred fathoms, but was only one cable length at its mouth. Three long boats carefully towed the sloop in to shield it from the crashing waves while they conducted their search.
“Furl that canvas,” the first officer barked. “We don’t need a squall to push us against the rocks.”
The sailors were anxious. William could see that. Some coped with humor, others wouldn’t take their eyes off the black water below. Most seafaring men were superstitious anyway, but something about the cove set them all on edge. It was as if an ominous feeling of dread fell over the cove like a blanket and settled on the water’s surface. Or maybe that’s the cold, William thought. The frigid water radiated the chill up at them.
A stone fell from a cliff face, making a splash and drawing everyone’s eyes to it. “Just a goat,” called an officer, pointing to the animal in question, as it scampered up the rocks.
The officer turned to the captain who stood tall at the bow. “The men might like some fresh meat, sir, and the guts and other throwaways could be used as fresh chum.”
The captain thought about it for a moment, then nodded. The officer wore a wide grin as he grabbed a marine’s musket. He checked the pan and cocked it, brought the gun to his cheek, aimed carefully, then shot.
The goat tumbled into the brisk water and floated long enough for deckhands to snag it with boarding hooks. The sarcastic sailor put his pole hook to better use and hooked the goat to bring it up. He slipped his wrist through a looped rope on the end of the pole so he would not lose it and the goat.
With a wide grin on his face, he turned to William. “At least this trip wasn’t a total waste o’ t—”
The sailor was jerked into the water. He did not have time to cry out before he was silenced by the icy depths. William rushed to the railing, with several other deckhands and looked into the water with weapons in hand. They saw nothing but ripples. No bubbles. It was useless to call “man overboard.” Everyone had seen the horrific event take place. Then, several large bubbles floated up from the dark. When they broke the surface, they carried a red hue in the foam.
“Peel them peepers! Train your guns on the water!” the first officer ordered in sharp barks. The men in the tow boats stood looking around frantically, pistols in each hand. The silence was absolute. Even the slight squeak of a swivel gun turret seemed twenty times louder.
Then, a scaly creature sprung out of the water as if the cove spat it into the air. The animal landed on a screaming marine. In an instant, the beast unhinged his jaw, opening a wide mouth full of long, razor-sharp teeth. A swivel gun spun and its gunner fired as the creature darted behind some nearby sailors and dove back into the sea.
Knocked off their feet by the blast the sailors writhed on their backs, crying out in agony. The grapeshot had torn them apart. Before anyone could rush to their aid or scorn the foolish gunner, the whole ship jolted under their feet. The men lost their balance for an instant. The creature pushed the sloop toward the rocky cliff. As the rowers fumbled with the oars, the tow boats were pulled backward through the water. The ship crashed into the jagged cliff, splitting a long crack in its hull.
The captain regained his footing, pointed to William and barked, “You there, man the pumps. The rest of you, watch your fire.”
William rushed below deck with several others into knee-deep water. The intense cold would have shocked him if adrenaline had not already been pumping through his veins. The strong smell of brine filled the air as foamy water gushed up from below. The men began turning a large iron hand crank. Every inch they pumped out, two came in. William pushed harder on the crank. The Albatross would sink. There was nothing to do.
Rushing water filled his ears until the break in the hull dipped below the water level. In that new quiet, William heard gun shots above. The men stopped pumping and listened to oaths shouted, screams, popping musket fire. William breathed rapidly and it still felt as though he couldn’t get enough air. The sailors around him watched the topside ladder carefully. One uttered a desperate prayer.
“O’ Poseidon, Lord of the Seas, hear us this day and stay thy child’s hand, that we may be spared. Deliver us from thy wrath so that we may be better servants to you. Watch over thy seafaring men that we may have fortune on thy oceans. This we ask in
Thumping footsteps at the top of the ladder silenced the man. William gritted his teeth, bracing for the unknown. The first officer rushed down the steep staircase with a gash in his forehead and a cutlass in his hand. “Leave it. The captain is dead. Save yourselves.”
The men at the pump did not waste a moment thinking. The water had risen to their chests. They rushed up the ladder and onto the top deck. William’s eyes darted left and right to take in the carnage. Many lay dead with horrible bite wounds all over their bodies. Some others rowed for their lives in the longboats. Before they could escape the cove, the monster pushed them from below and dashed them against the rocks like the Albatross had been. Some still fought, firing any weapon they had at the swift animal as it sprang onto the deck to kill again or drag a poor sailor into the water.
William watched as the creature tackled the first officer onto the deck and tore at his throat. Its body looked as if a man had been stretched at the torso then given a thick armor, brown in color with wide, round scales like a carp. It had a long tail with a sharp fin running the length on top and bottom. Its hands had sharp claws protruding from the webbed fingers. Another fin crested its head and ran down the back of its neck. Two large nostrils opened and closed as it breathed but it also had pink gills behind the jaw like a salamander. Despite its reptilian appearance, its face seemed human with an expressive brow line and sad eyes.
A marine leveled one of his two pistols at the creature and fired. The creature didn’t move in time, but the small caliber projectile deflected off the thick scales on the beast’s ribs. The creature turned to the marine and long strands of bloody drool dripped from its mouth. Seeing this the marine put his last pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger.
Preferable to being devoured alive by that evil thing, William thought.
A deckhand screamed as he waved a boarding ax wildly at the reptilian. The creature swatted the weapon away and pounced on the man, both of them plunging overboard.
William scanned for another boat, but they were all smashed. Maybe there would be a weapon to use on the monster? But he could find none that would be any use. There was no time to load a swivel gun. The metallic stench of blood and excrement assaulted his nostrils. I must fight, or it will be my guts swabbing the deck, William thought. But with what? He tried to block out the sound of groaning men, those who were not lucky enough to die from their wounds yet. Nothing gets through that armor, William thought. Then, with a sigh, William scanned the deck for an unspent pistol. One shot will do.
Cool air stung Varro’s cheeks. Galloping through the misty hills and along the bottom of a muddy ravine, the four knights searched for their foe. The man they hunted was big in life, Varro thought, similar to Brutus’ build. In death, he had been described as even bigger. Perhaps exaggeration, Varro hoped.
Hooves kicking up rocks and mud, the horses snorted as they sped along the low depression. Varro rode in front, followed closely by Amir. Behind them, Brutus and Jorn kept the line formation tight. Without warning, a massive shape leaped out from behind a boulder and tackled Jorn off his horse. The horse cried out in terror as its rider was torn from the saddle. Jorn and his attacker tumbled to a stop with the massive creature on top of him.
Varro halted the column and tugged the reins with his left hand, turning the beast’s head. The horse tramped and snorted in terror, with its wide eyes locked on the mass on top of Jorn. Amir tossed a spear up into an overhand throwing position. Brutus followed his lead and prepared his weapons. An ax in one hand and hammer in the other, turned so the back spike was in the striking position.
Drake Hallock was bigger than the men expected. For once the description on such a creature was not exaggerated, and Jorn lay unconscious in the beast’s clutches. The miner picked Jorn up by his head and clasped his hands over either ear, poised to crush the senseless man’s skull.
Amir spurred his horse forward sharply. The horse threw his head left and right in protest but Amir kept the beast moving forward with his heels and a firm grasp of the reins. He hurled his spear with finesse as he passed the monster at high speed. The spear pierced under the beast’s raised arm, right through the ribcage. Amir turned his horse on the other side of the beast and watched. His spear surely pierced the beast’s heart, Varro thought. Amir would be happy to have the glory of this kill.
Drake turned to Varro showing no sign of pain or even discomfort, rather, a look of annoyance. Drake dropped Jorn to the damp earth below. He squared his shoulders with Varro and pulled the spear from his flesh without so much as a grimace. It snapped the spear in one hand.
“Sticks?” the monster growled. Saliva dripped from his lips. He bent down and picked up a rock the size of his massive fist.
“Stones,” Drake roared. The behemoth challenged the knights with two swift thumps on his chest like an enraged ape, rock tight in his gargantuan hand.
Its flesh was pale and lips purple from lack of blood flow. However, its skin did not rot. The man had been dead for almost two years and his flesh had yet to rot any further than the day of his funeral. The smell, however, told otherwise.
Amir raised his lance, accepting the challenge with a stoic expression. Then spurring his horse forward, he placed the pole under his arm, poised to impale the creature through its back. The evil thing smiled, showing its black gums and yellow teeth, still glaring at Varro.
Then it turned and hurled the rock at the charging knight. Amir could not dodge it. The stone struck him in the face, making a loud popping noise. Amir’s arm fell limp, dropping his lance into the grass. Toppling backward, the heavily armored rider pulled on the horse’s reins, turning the mount sideways and slamming it into the ground on top of its rider.
The horse screamed as it kicked to free itself from the armored rider, its eyes locked on the approaching creature. It was too late. There was no escape.
Drake set his massive bare foot on the horse’s neck, a hand under the horse’s muscular cheeks and a hand over the horse’s snout. The monster twisted slowly, and the horse let out a muffled cry until a loud crunching sound filled the ravine. Drake twisted the other way sharply and pulled the horse’s head off, showering the mud with frothy blood.
Drake howled loudly as he shook the horse head in the air and turned to Brutus and Count Varro. Taunting them, the creature threw the head with a sweeping underhand toss. The heavy head struck the earth and tumbled to a stop in front of the two knights, spackling their horses with blood. The horses tossed their heads, threatening to rear.
The monster returned his attention to Amir. The knight lay on his back under the headless horse carcass.
Varro’s brow lowered as he readied his lance. A quick nod to Brutus signaled the synchronized charge. Varro plunged his lance straight through the monster from the back and left it there. He had missed the spinal cord. The creature let out a loud, frustrated grunt.
Brutus cleaved the monster’s shoulder with his ax as he rode by, turning his horse sooner than Varro. The Count drew his saber. Brutus charged again, swinging his hammer spike in circles over his head and growling through his mask. The creature returned the grimace, clenching its fists and puffing its chest. As the horse drew nearer, the monster moved out of range of the swinging hammer and punched the animal in the snout.
The horse’s head swung wide, catapulting Brutus to the ground, but he held onto his weapons. Varro began another charge but Brutus regained his feet quickly and stopped him with an outstretched hand. The Count heeded the advice. The monster would continue to dismount the knights, injuring and killing the horses, he thought. Perhaps facing the beast on foot would be best, and who better than Brutus?
The dark Klawthurai planted his feet and towered like a great oak. Weapons at his sides and feet rooted in the black soil, he squared with his foe. He bowed deeply, showing respect for his enemy but never allowing his eyes to stray from him.
The monster pulled the lance through his chest and picked up the broken spear he had removed earlier. Holding the two points at Brutus, the beast sneered with milky lifeless eyes.
“More sticks,” Drake sneered. The combatants circled each other. Brutus slid his feet on the ground as his people’s warriors had done for generations. By doing so, he would shorten the time it took to react to any sudden attacks.
The creature lunged with the right, then the left. Brutus deflected each with ease. Retracting, Drake looked his opponent up and down. A hint of what could be called admiration shone on Drake’s wretched face. The beast’s tattered and mud-stained clothes swayed back and forth, wafting the stench of death to Varro’s nose.
Brutus hung his arms casually at his sides, the ax and hammer still firm in his grasp. The creature lunged. Brutus blocked the right and left again but the monster used the momentum of the deflection to bring the right around once more. Swinging it over his head, he slashed the spear point at Brutus’ neck in a wide arc.
The desert warrior leaned back, narrowly missing the blade. The abomination prepared for a thrust with his left as Brutus staggered.
“Low,” Varro called to the giant.
Brutus crossed his weapons and forced the lance to the ground. He stomped on the pole, snapping the tip into the mud. The beast swung the remaining pole hard. It splintered as it struck the hard metal mask. The giant staggered again and Varro was sure Brutus felt the impact underneath. Varro dismounted and prepared to intervene. Again, Brutus stopped him with an outstretched hand. Blood dripped from inside his mask and onto his uniform.
Both hands on the spear, the beast used a series of slip thrusts and parries like a pikeman trained of some elite military. Brutus struggled to keep up with the wide, powerful slashes but managed to send a few counterattacks.
Varro watched eagerly, wanting to aid his comrade but feared only hindering his method of combat. So, trusting his friend and fellow soldier, the Count moved to the aid of his fallen knights.
Brutus stepped back to invoke some of the longer jabs that would be easier to counter. The monster fell for the ploy. The jab at Brutus’ chest was blocked with crossed weapons and forced up. Brutus closed the gap keeping the spear vertical between them, trapped on the hook of his hammer and the crook of his ax.
Flexing his back, Brutus snapped the spear by pulling his weapons to either side. The steel point fell to the ground harmlessly. The beast slammed his forehead into Brutus’ mask, opening a deep gash on his own forehead. Swinging the remains of his weapon, the monster panicked and flailed like a great wounded animal.
Dodging the splintering pole, Brutus hooked the monster behind the leg with his ax then slammed his shoulder into its chest. The beast was lifted from his feet by the force of the blow. Slamming to the earth on his back, he looked up at Brutus, who towered over him. The monster laughed.
Varro paused from attempting to roll the dead horse off of Amir. The sound was so alien.
“His body is mine,” the creature said in an unearthly tone, “in life or death. It makes no difference. I breathed life back into this powerful lifeless man. I will retain him as my own. This will not change, Knight of Apollo, so strike. Take my life. His soul goes with me.”
Brutus looked to Varro, who nodded hesitantly. Brutus’ mighty ax fell and the abomination’s head rolled with a grin still stretched across its cheeks.
Treetops, high overhead, filtered rays of sunshine into the underbrush. The forest was dark and lush. It reminded Jake of the forest surrounding his family home in Brenar. He could hear a gurgling brook nearby but could not see it through the thick patch of ferns. He and his companions crouched in a thicket nearby. They watched as Dogwa scouted ahead. He moved silently like a predatory cat. He had left his rifle with Jake in order to do so. Clambering up a mossy embankment on all fours, the knight left no footprints or mud smears and certainly no broken branches behind due to his soft moccasins.
Dogwa slowly peeked over the summit and surveyed the landscape on the other side. Jake’s eye caught movement to their right. A doe and her fawn drank from the brook. This was a good sign. It meant the knights were downwind and had moved quietly enough for the deer’s sensitive ears to fail to detect them. Dogwa put his back to the tree and waved the rest forward.
Standing up slowly, one by one, the marines crept forward. The deer and her fawn immediately bounced deeper into the forest. Dogwa grimaced. Jake imagined his trained ears could hear the forest shudder as the marines moved. In their wake, they left deep boot prints in puddles and mud smears on exposed roots. Jake was slightly better at not leaving a trail but not nearly to Dogwa’s level of stealth. Brom was, perhaps, the worst at being furtive.
As the marines approached the small hill, Brom glanced to their right flank. The knight knelt, aimed his rifle and cocked the action faster than Jake had ever seen.
Jake followed Brom’s gaze and prepared to fire just as he had. A gray figure stood from behind a patch of ferns. It must be Fogwater, Jake thought, but he was still young, resembling the decade-old description Anna and her brother had given them. He was nearly naked, wearing a loin cloth and a headband made from blades of brown grass. Light gray clay streaked his skin, breaking up his human shape. A ghostly appearance. A long thin bone, tapered at both ends, stuck laterally through his septum and a shorter one pierced through the top of his nose at its bridge. His teeth were filed sharp and he bared them like a rabid dog.
Exhaling, Brom squeezed the trigger sending his speeding lead at the island native. The bullet appeared to have struck Fogwater but Jake wasn’t sure. The others, who were unaware Brom was shooting, were shaken by the loud report.
“I think I hit him,” Brom called as he unsheathed his dagger and made his way cautiously to where the native went down. Dogwa bounded down the embankment and retrieved his rifle from Jake, who had already begun a jog in that direction. The marines followed, spread out along the forest floor.
Brom found the spot empty where the savage should have been bleeding. There were no prints and no blood on the ground. Not even snapped twigs. Brom spun around, facing the forest ahead and began his reload process.
“He’s not here,” Brom said as he poured powder down the barrel of his rifle. “Must have missed him.”
“You don’t miss a shot like that,” Jake said in a low tone, scanning the surrounding woods.
“Maybe I’m having an off day,” Brom shrugged. Jake’s hands shook as he rammed a new ball down the barrel.
“Now isn’t the time for an off day, Brom.”
Dogwa grasped his tomahawk in one hand and his rifle in the other. “He would not show himself so easily.”
A marine cried out in pain. He threw his musket down and fell to the ground holding his left leg.
“It burns! It burns!”
Dogwa and Jake rushed to him. Three darts made of long, straight thorns with a feather lashed to the back of each stuck in the man’s thigh. Dogwa plucked one out sending the man into a thrashing, screaming rampage.
“Just as I feared,” he said in a low tone to Jake, examining the tip closely. “Ya’m Poshto, a local bush, produces these thorns. Their sting can inflict excruciating pain and when dipped in puffer fish blood, paralysis. Highly toxic.”
Jake scanned the area as Dogwa offered the afflicted man his canteen before plucking the other two out. One of the marines was missing. He did not run, or we would have heard him, Jake thought. He called to Brom and the other marine to close ranks around the wounded man. With sharp eyes, the three faced outward around Dogwa and the screaming marine. Dogwa placed a hand over the hysterical man’s mouth but it did little to muffle the ruckus.
Something wet sprayed on the back of Jake’s neck. He put a hand on it and when he brought it back to his front, deep red smudged his fingers. Blood. Jake turned. The young marine who had been guarding their flank had an arrow struck through his windpipe. Apollo have mercy, Jake thought. The marine gargled and stumbled toward Brom. He hadn’t noticed the marine had been hit. The bleeding man laid a hand on Brom’s shoulder in panic.
Brom’s eyes lit up with horror. The wounded marine seemed to beg for help. Jake was not sure what to do. A wound severing both carotid arteries and punching through both sides of the larynx could not be helped. The poor marine was a walking dead man.
Brom attempted to comfort the man. Dogwa told Jake to stay with the immobile marine and to keep his eyes moving. Dogwa darted over to the men and pulled Brom away from him so he could get a better look.
“He’s gone,” Dogwa said solemnly.
Brom looked to the top of the embankment and Fogwater stood there in the open. He raised his rifle to fire but Dogwa lowered it and handed his own long-gun over to him. Dogwa placed his razor-sharp knife in a downward position in his left hand and his tomahawk in his right. He motioned for Brom to stand back. Squaring himself with the savage he beat his chest once followed by a loud, sharp whoop.
The challenge was accepted when Fogwater whooped twice and pumped his war club in the air. Dogwa powered up the embankment and eyed down his foe. They plunged into a deadly dance of slashes, hacks and stabs. The style of combat was a perfect example of native savagery. All their movements were on the attack. Though hailing from different parts of the new world, the natives synced their attacks and dodges making the battle look almost choreographed. A lethal dance.
Neither combatant landed even a glancing blow for a long while. Then Fogwater sunk his war club into the soft flesh in Dogwa’s side. Jake knelt quickly, pushing his rifle forward in an explosive motion, bringing the stock to seat firmly in his shoulder. Fogwater let out a triumphant whoop as he took shelter behind the stunned Dogwa, grasping a chunk of his mohawk and pulling his head back. A razor-sharp, stone blade hovered over his captive’s throat.
His yellow eyes peered out from behind Dogwa. Jake could see the native’s grin in them. He had won. Fogwater held Dogwa’s life in his hands. He could end it with the edge of his blade in seconds. Jake didn’t blink even once. His eyes were fixed down his sights at the evil man keeping his friend hostage. Make a mistake, Jake thought. Just one.
Fogwater leaned in and hissed in Dogwa’s ear. The words were inaudible to Jake, but he watched the expression change on Dogwa’s face from anger to fear. Jake had never seen this expression on Dogwa. Fogwater glared down at Jake and Brom with a wide grin exposing a full row of sharpened teeth.
The knife disappeared behind Dogwa. Then a powerful tremor seized his body as Fogwater violently stabbed him in the back. Dogwa’s body went limp as his knees buckled under him. He collapse into the fallen leaves.
The evil native melted into the woods and the knights took their shots at the retreating figure. The body paint made Fogwater glimmer as he ran through patches of sunlight, disrupting the shooters’ aim. Brom rushed to Dogwa, and Jake checked the poisoned man beside him. His face was frozen in agony. His glossy eyes gazed upward and tears rolled down his cheeks. His hands tightened and contorted as his muscles cramped. He panted rapidly, locked in his perpetual state of pain.
The pain of Margaret’s own wounds had faded. She focussed her effort on her patient. Groaning through bloody gauze, Amir lay spread out on a straw mattress in the blockhouse great-room. Salvo and Margaret had wrapped the severe facial wound he had sustained from the flying stone.
“The swelling is causing him pain,” Margaret said in a somber tone.
“We need to drain some of the fluid,” Salvo said, nodding his head as he examined his tools of surgery, spread out on a small table. “Will you be able to assist in the operation? It would be much appreciated.” Salvo waved his hook with a smirk at the girl.
Margaret nodded nervously and stood at his side, prepared for instruction of what was needed of her.
“The vial of white liquid from my satchel,” Salvo said. “Fetch it for me.”
Springing across the room, Margaret dug through the monk’s things. Her fingers brushed a glass vial and she pulled it up into the light. No label, but the liquid inside was an opaque, milky white. She remembered Jake talking about a white liquid Count Varro used on his musket shot. The surgeons thought saving him from amputation would be impossible. Count Varro was able to save his arm.
“Quickly, girl,” Salvo called impatiently.
Salvo had barely picked up his scalpel when the doors flew open again. Jake and Brom, smeared with Dogwa’s blood, carried the wounded man between them. Brutus followed with the paralyzed marine on his back. Jorn and Count Varro swept two unsteady tables clear with their arms for the wounded to lay on.
“What has happened?” Salvo desperately asked the arriving party.
“We heard shots as we entered the woods,” Jorn explained. “As we rushed deeper, we heard more. We found them like this. One marine dead, another missing and this one, paralyzed from toxic darts. Dogwa has been stabbed in the back. He has lost a lot of blood.”
Salvo turned the wounded native and inspected the wound quickly before binding a wad of clean cloth tightly to it to slow the bleeding. He then inspected Dogwa’s side that had sustained the blow from the war club.
Margaret stood next to Dogwa and watched him closely as he twisted and squirmed in excruciating pain as she applied pressure to the knife wound. Suddenly Dogwa’s eyes flew open as if he had remembered something extremely important. He gripped Margaret’s collar and pulled her closer.
“He spoke to me,” Dogwa spoke hoarsely. He coughed. “In the woods. He spoke to me before his blade tasted my flesh. If I die now, someone should hear his words of warning.”
Margaret shook her head. “You will be all right, friend. You have had worse.” Dogwa interrupted her with the loudest urgency he could muster.
“Listen to me!” Dogwa demanded. “He said he will become unstoppable. He told me he will be reborn in the blood of our brothers. He told me to bring my brothers of the Order so he may feed on our flesh.”
Count Varro crouched next to Dogwa. “Did he say how?”
Dogwa shook his head. “He only promised that the Knights of Apollo shall be torn from the light to feed the dark.”