Skull and Shackles

Interlude: Domination

The Thumbscrew screamed like a tortured man as it sank. Massive grapnels clutched at her hull and tore the ship to pieces. It was an operation Captain Pegsworthy had never seen before, but it was frightfully effective against the smaller vessels of the Shackles fleet. Beside him aboard the Bonaventure, Labella Loor was scanning the battle, trying to figure out which ship was spearheading the attack.

“It’s the Dominator,” she said, lowering the spyglass. “She’s going after the Kitsune next, Captain. You want I should signal the Crisis?”

“Chopper needs to deal with the Chelish flagship. We’ll handle this ourselves.”

“You don’t think we’re a little outmatched in this case?”

“And we’ve never been outmatched before?” Pegsworthy admonished.

“Aye, aye, Captain.” Labella shouted orders to the helm and riggers. Below them, at the rail, Renvel picked up a grappling hook as he and his assault crew readied themselves.

The method behind the Dominator’s attack became obvious as the Bonaventure drew nearer. The grapnels—massive metal spears with retracting arms and lengths of heavy cable attached to them—were fired from a ballista. The spear point would hit a ship below the waterline and penetrate the hull. The drag of the cable would cause the arms to extend, anchoring the spear in the hull. At the other end of the cable was a simple stone, probably in the neighborhood of a hundred pounds. The stones must have some magical preparation, though—when they were thrown overboard they sank at a truly alarming rate, one stone acting as a powerful anchor, two ripping massive holes in the ship or even tearing it to pieces like the unfortunate Thumbscrew. The cables were underwater and very difficult to reach. Kitsune was already heeled over as one grapnel dragged at her.

Bolts of the more ordinary variety peppered the Bonaventure as she came into range, tearing the rigging and doing some damage to the forecastle. Renvel’s men launched their hooks, a few finding purchase on the Dominator. Then the Bonaventure was suddenly awash with Chelish marines. Apparently, they weren’t interested in waiting to be boarded. Renvel’s men fell back from the surprise assault. In seconds, they were struggling to protect their own ship.

“You should have had the wit to stay away, Merrill!” someone bellowed. Pegsworthy glanced away from the two marines attacking him and almost got an axe to the face for his trouble. “Back off!” the interloper growled. “He’s mine!”

The marines obeyed and Pegsworthy found himself staring at a familiar face. “Carson? What—and I use the term advisedly—what in the HELLS are you doing here?!”

“A man has to eat, doesn’t he?” Carson said, waving a hand in an insouciant gesture. “Besides, House Thrune is taking over this place. Lots of opportunities for a man to get in on the ground floor, so to speak.”

“They’re devil-worshippers. Slavers.”

“Oh, they’re not so bad once you get to know them. Besides, you’re hardly one to talk.”

“I have NEVER run slaves.”

“Enough, old man. Fight or I’ll cut you down where you stand.”

Behind and above Carson, the massive windlass on the Dominator’s grapnel ballista had finished winding. The crew officer snapped the trigger-hook into place and disengaged the winding mechanism. “I don’t have time for you,” Pegsworthy said and ducked under Carson’s too-wild swing. Pegsworthy grabbed an unattended rope and swung over the narrow gap between the ships, landing awkwardly on the Dominator’s poop deck. The grapnel crew swore at him and drew their weapons, but they were too late to stop him from hurling himself at the swivel lock. It came loose just as the crew officer hauled on the trigger lever. The ballista heaved, almost taking Pegsworthy’s arm off, and the bolt crashed against the guide, firing uselessly almost straight up and splashing into the water less than thirty feet from the deck of the Dominator.

“Tatsume, you owe me,” Pegsworthy grunted, getting a grip on his greatsword adn turning to fend off the ballista crew. He was completely isolated. His own crew were still busy clearing the deck of the Bonaventure. By the sound of the shouting, more Chelish marines were on their way. If he ran, the ballista crew would skewer him. The only option was to dispatch these five and make a stand for it here, hoping his own crew would arrive before a lucky arrow or bullet took him down.

The Chelish crew officer had other ideas. “Surrender!” she demanded.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Pegsworthy said, somewhat absently as he weighed up the odds.

“You’re surrounded, fool. Surrender!”

“So you can sacrifice me to your patrons? No, thank you. I’m not THAT stupid.”

“Fine then. Kill him.”

The first crewman shifted, uncertain, and Pegsworthy darted forward, ripping a long gash in the man’s thigh with the tip of his greatsword. The second crewman attempted to stab Pegsworthy in the back and got a face full of pommel for his trouble. Spitting blood and broken teeth, he collapsed. People always thought that big swords were slow and clumsy. They didn’t realize the reach and leverage it gave. No need to make awkward, sweeping attacks like you were trying to chop down a tree. Two down, three more to go. He deflected a blade, ducked under a second, and grimaced as a sharp pain bit into his arm. A short bolt, almost a dart, had neatly penetrated the chainmail and sunk into the muscle. Almost immediately his arm began to go numb.

“Gods damn all Chelish poisoners!” he swore as the crew officer smirked and lowered her hand crossbow. “I am so”—he took of the third man’s head—“bloody sick of your wretched”—a quick exchange and he disarmed the fourth and laid the man’s gut open—“CHEATING!” Pegsworthy panted, struggling to ignore the alternating sensations of freezing and burning that were beginning to creep across his chest. “Even one-legged and alone I’m still worth four of you.”

“Too bad there’s five of us,” the crew officer sneered, raising her blade.

“He’s MINE!” Carson bellowed, charging up.

“Oh, hello again,” Pegsworthy said. “A bit slow, aren’t you?”

“Well look at you, barely able to stand. I’m going to enjoy this.”

“Better hurry, then,” Pegsworthy told him. His good leg buckled and he fell to one knee. The crew officer sheathed her sword and turned to her ballista. Carson grabbed a handful of Pegsworthy’s chainmail and hauled him down to the main deck.

“I think I’ll cut off your other leg. For balance. Then your hands.”

“I don’t think my wife will like that very much.”

“Maybe I’ll look her up when this is all over. I bet she and her sister would make great concubines. Maybe I’ll even leave you alive, so you can watch. How about that?”

“You know,” Pegsworthy gasped, “you really are a complete and utter scumbag. In a way, it’s kind of liberating.”


“Because now I don’t have to waste time wondering, what would Carson think? I always thought of you like some kind of martyr. It’s amazing how wrong you can be about someone.”

Carson bared his teeth. “I think I’ll cut off your balls, too . . .”

“Trouble, Captain?”

Carson jumped and glanced over his shoulder. Pegsworthy essayed a wave, but his arm just flopped uselessly.

“Hello, Markuss.

“Is this your rescue, Merrill? It’s not even armed. I really didn’t expect it to be THIS easy.”

“Captain?” Pinch persisted, still pressing toward them.

“Just go, Markuss. I know you don’t fight. It’s not worth you dying.”

“Who said anything about dying?” the quartermaster asked. He removed his smoked spectacles, revealing alien slit-pupiled eyes that seemed to glow. Carson swung and, almost idly, Pinch caught his wrist in one frail-looking, long-fingered hand. Carson’s eyes widened in shock as Pinch casually disarmed him, wrenching the sword from Carson’s grip.

“I’ll not suffer the likes of you to abuse my Captain,” Pinch said. Carson let go of Pegsworthy and drew a knife with his other hand. Pinch frowned, a terrible sight. “Did you not hear me?” The dagger struck Pinch’s side, bent, and broke. “They made me what I am . . . stronger than you. Don’t make me tell you again.” Seeming oblivious to Pinch’s words, Carson scrabbled for another weapon. Pinch sighed. “So be it.” A dark, purplish emanation seemed to leak from the tiefling’s skin. Carson screamed as the flesh seemed to shrink on his bones. In moments, all that remained was a brittle, desiccated skeleton. Pegsworthy winced.

“Are you all right, Captain?” Pinch asked, brushing himself off fastidiously.

“Ahh . . . yess, I think so. This drug or whatever seems to be passing off.”

“Good. Shall we see to the ship?”

Pegsworthy eyed the pile of grapnels and anchors. “I have a better idea.” With Pinch’s help, he bound two of the grapnels together and hauled them across the Dominator’s deck, which was now filled with struggling men. Ignoring the battle, Pegsworthy rolled one stone off the starboard rail while Pinch threw the other off the port side. The cable went taught, then the deck began to creak ominously, audible even over the noise of the fighting.

“Everyone off the ship!” Pegsworthy bellowed, waving at Renvel. By the time they were back aboard the Bonaventure, the Dominator was beginning to break apart.

“Well done, Captain,” Labella remarked.

“Yes, I rather thought so.”



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