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The Diamond Isle
The Sun was rising. Icy winds gusted, and a thick mist clinging to the ocean began to disperse. Spectral seagulls wheeled above an island shoreline, its contours emerging from the haze.
The prow of a ship cut through the fog. It was triple-masted and armour-clad, and bore no insignia. Two companion vessels ploughed in its wake, smaller but equally well armed. The decks of all three were crammed with men, pressed to the rails.
A paltry flotilla moved out from the island to engage them; a couple of two-masters accompanied by a handful of smaller craft, flying green ensigns that showed a scorpion. They looked a poor match for the trio of pirate galleons bearing down.
Stealth dissolved with the mist. The three men o' war and the ramshackle convoy put on knots, breasting white foam, heading for each other.
At hailing distance the two groups slowed and came about. Clusters of arrows winged between the ships, hammering timber, canvas, shields, and the flesh of the unlucky or sluggish. The exchange went on until the arrows were spent and every craft was peppered. Hundreds of wooden bolts floated in the choppy sea.
So it came to magical munitions.
Rows of hatchways were thrown open along the sides of the raiders' ships, revealing stout iron cylinders. Spell-driven, the tubes belched glamoured volleys. Fusillades of shrieker-needles and concussion beams. Salvos of dazzler bombshells and ruse-igniters. Befanged and clawed phantasmal beasts, short-lived but deadly, appeared amongst the defenders and laid about them. Masses of venomous snakes materialised. Thunderbolts shattered flagstaffs.Jets of vitriol blistered the rigging.
The islanders attacked the glamours with nullifying wands and charmed blades. Using deck-mounted catapults, they flung back their own ordnance. Sky-bursting hex packets birthed flocks of carnivorous birds that strafed the enemy ships. Stun cubes went off with ear-piercing reports. Leathery-winged gargoyles spat down sheets of flame on enemy heads.
Sorcerers on both sides feverishly conjured protective energy fields; shimmering, near transparent bubbles shot through with rippling colours. Enchantments glanced off them. Incoming spells were dampened.
Shortly, the numinous barrage died down, which came as no surprise. Everybody knew matters would only be settled at close-quarters.
Drums pounded. The ships manoeuvred and closed the space separating them, their scowling crews tensed. Then hulls collided sidelong, timbers grinding. Seamen roared. Forests of boarding ladders rose. Scores of tethered grappling hooks were circled like lassos, and tossed. Waves of fighters, brandishing pikes, cutlasses, swords and axes, clashed at the guardrails and the slaughter began in earnest.
Nowhere was the conflict more furious than on the largest of the raiders' ships. Braver than their opponents, or simply more desperate, a pack of islanders had fought their way aboard. They were paying for it. The bloody, frantic, trampling melee rapidly thinned their ranks. Outnumbered, forced back, the islanders compressed to a knot. A many-limbed, quilled beast, bristling steel, they stood fast for the final onslaught. Hard-eyed buccaneers started to close in on them.
Men shouted. Not war cries or screams of pain but incredulous yells. Some pointed upwards.
A figure fell from the sky.
He was dressed in black, a billowing cloak giving him the look of a gigantic bat. His hair, long and free, was a raven nimbus. His eyes could have been coals.
As he landed on the deck, sure-footed as a cat, many thought he must be a glamour, or a demon. They were wrong. Only a man could fight with such maniacal fury.
He bore two swords, and employed them instantly. The nearest pair of freebooters went down, gizzards slit, chests ribboned. He was engaging a third before the mob gathered their wits and turned on him. Their quarry didn't flinch. He roared into them. But he seemed careless in telling friend from foe. Only nimble footwork kept allies clear of his lethal blades.
His savagery gave the surrounded group of islanders renewed heart, though many who didn't recognise him weren't entirely convinced he was on their side. Or any side, barring his own. He had the look of someone possessed by furies.
The pirates took to lobbing hatchets at him. He moved lithely, dodging them with an almost contemptuous ease. Twice he deflected hatchets in flight, using the flat of his blades. One embedded itself in the deck, the other ricocheted and struck a pirate's thigh, cleaving bone.
Wrath increased, the black-clad warrior renewed his attack. Bellowing, swinging wildly, he charged into the fray, scattering raiders. But a bolder trio stood their ground. He met them headlong. The first to die wore a grubby white bandanna, now stained with crimson. A thrust to the heart stopped the next. The third succumbed to a slashed windpipe.
As the fiend looked about for fresh prey the encircled islanders seized their chance to break out. Accompanied by the spiky natter of swords, the fight turned more brutal still.
Across a stretch of reddening ocean, another pirate craft was having a visitation of its own. This, too, came from above. But its nature, though equally startling, was quite different.
The crew was embroiled in a chaotic two-fold struggle. Half were trying to board an adjacent island vessel. The rest were battling to stop the islanders doing the same to them. Where the sides met, there was carnage.
A thunderous explosion rang out and a plume of indigo flame erupted against the opposite side of the ship. Splinters flew. Ropes snapped and whip-lashed, poleaxing crewmen. A fine shower of briny water pattered the deck. Aloft, where the fire had licked it, a sail smouldered.
An object soared overhead, describing a tight curve beneath the pallid clouds. It was disc-shaped, and it glinted in the rays of frail morning sunlight. Blades quietened, the fighters below watched as the saucer headed back their way. And they could see, as they scrambled for cover, that someone sat astride it.
The dish levelled sharply just above mast height, traversing the length of the ship. It moved at the speed of a javelin, bow to stern. As it passed over the stern, where the wheel stood on a raised deck, with the Captain's cabin behind it, the disc-rider dropped something. There was another deafening report and an intense flash of light. Debris shot in all directions. When the dust cleared, the bridge was in ruins.The Diamond Isle. Copyright © by Stan Nicholls. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.