The chest slipped into the black waters with a shloop, muffled against the clatter of steel and the thunder of powder cannons. Cannon balls tore into the already battered hull of the Jagged Blade, scars still fresh from recent close shaves and heart stoppers that left the crew a bit pale in the face. When the Island King’s navy flanked the deteriorating clipper, the Blade’s captain knew that his vessel had outrun its last ship some weeks ago. Only fortune could explain how he had survived those few precious weeks.
Ducking the arc of a cutlass as it sizzled through the air, the Fanged Harrier kicked out, catching the officer on his weaker foot and sending him stumbling backwards. The Harrier followed up a solid fist to the Islander’s nose with his elbow into the man’s teeth, and he heard the challenges of a naval lapdog fall to silence.
Standing up, the Harrier felt a shudder pass through him, his body frail from avoiding the firing line for so long. Every man in an emerald uniform hounded him, chomping at his neck and intent on severing the head of the Man who nips at the heels of the Navy…and there he was: weaponless; broken. More than a few commanders (and one Admiral Witcock) had informed him personally that they were raising his bounty, if only to pay personally for the (doubtless) privilege of mounting his head on their walls. Rumors abounded that in the small coastal Kingdom of Edos men wore their mustaches in a similarly thin and parted fashion to the Harrier, as a shout of support from across the seas. If not for the hatred between the burly, hairy men of the island kingdom of Gennessee and the groomed men from the continent, the Harrier would have no allies on solid ground. One could look to the Dark Continent for sanctuary, but more despicable demons dwelled in that shadowy, forbidden land than the sort that dressed in cotton uniforms and brass buttons.
With the water drifting higher and higher the captain was forced to recognize his ship was beyond saving and resolved that the only thing left to save was the fastened chest that currently drifted ever downwards to the ocean floor.
The captain’s eyes stared into the water, vacant depths that knew no limits. His mind had been taken by the sight of the Azure Abyss, the gulf that swallows nearly half the world. Escape along its edge seemed like a clever idea; even in its current shambles, the Blade can outrun most ships, but so desperate was he to get away, to run headlong in one direction and gamble that the Navy would fall far behind, that he ran straight into a terrible trap. Accustomed to the typical sluggish frigate that the Island King would regularly send against him, he wasn’t initially intimidated by the sudden appearance of iron-clad variations that emerged from the remnants of a passing sea-storm. The sturdiness of their bodies was obvious; the brazenness it equipped its gunmen with was the stuff of insanity, and the gutting of the Jagged Blade began.
At present, he was safe, but he knew that jumping in after the chest meant more than certain residence at the bottom of the Abyss, never to be seen or heard from again. The thought seemed farcically irrelevant; any relations by blood had either forgotten him entirely or never knew him in the first place; the possibility that some wench he had bedded on an island was longing for his return brought a wry figure across his lips. He glanced back over his shoulder, seeing only flames that raced skyward along the masts, the screams of his dying crew echoing across the waters. Nothing remained for him any longer. The Harrier kicked the deck twice, as he had every time he stepped on or off. He did not expect to do so again.
Quickly, he unclipped his canteen, a treated camel-bladder he had fashioned during an attempted assault on the Monarch’s Oasis. He clipped his nostrils and without further hesitation he leapt over the railing of the ship, propelling himself headlong into the deep. A stray bullet grazed his ribs as he vanished over the side, yet he continued undeterred. The thing that was locked in the chest…it was a treasure worth whole kingdoms to possess.
Water rushed to meet him as he slid into the water, as a dagger would into its sheath. Eyes still stinging from the terrible brightness of the flames, he was blind, but knew that regardless of orientation, down was the way to go. He held the canteen to his lips, sliding his thumb off as he began to breathe in and out. Excited and panting, he knew that he would use the supply up in minutes. He kicked downward still unaware of any way to get his bearings.
Then, he saw it.
The stark difference between the darkness around him, and the absolute black that opened before him, the true Abyss, was frightening. The iron frigates were heavy enough not to drift too wildly and unfortunately the wind was blowing favorably ever away from the edge of the Abyss. The ships were safe from the bizarre currents that wise-men say convert the waters of the Abyss from a work of art by the Gods above into the dwelling of demons themselves. Even from where he was, the Harrier could feel the subtle tug of the current, sure to drag him down and into the bowls of the world.
He spied a small dot that softly stood out from the seafloor, dragging along slowly, burrowing into the sand as the current clawed at it. With renewed vigor he swam forward, damning the consequences and the greed that dared him to do so. His chest was beginning to burn, the air increasingly scarce in his canteen. He finally reached out and found the chest with the tips of his fingers, but they slipped back, the top of the chest flying open with them.
The canteen drifted off and up to the surface.
For a moment, the waters did not move. The air was stuck in the Harrier’s lungs and his eyes saw with brutal clarity. The chest was barren. All he could think of was some sniveling naval grunt opening the chest and getting his hands on the chest and prying it open to find something they could not properly understand. No man of strict duty and honor to any single entity could possibly wield it with any effectiveness. That is what made the treasure so dangerous.
When the Harrier had some sense of what was going on, he knew that he had been ripped from the chest, hurtling along the ocean floor. When The Fanged Harrier fell beyond the edge of the world, he lost all sense of being and simply fell.
* * *
Commander Wick stood tall and silent upon the deck of the Boreas, watching with silent satisfaction as the hull of the Jagged Blade split with a tremendous crack. The ship had been a mosquito on the back of the King’s Navy, and even though he was hoping to make good on his bounty for the Harrier his concern was what the pirate had taken. He could not offer as much coin as the Admiral or some of his other peers but he offered other incentives. Certainly a house on the Rodanian coast was enough. Living in the King’s home realm was an honor few could afford.
A smile threatened to crack his lips, but he stifled the impulse to enjoy the moment, his moment of final victory. The last time he faced off against the Harrier they stood on deck of the Commander’s former ship the Hurricane, a ship that had been rumored to be impregnable until the Harrier sank his fangs into it and left it similarly burnt to a fizzled cinder. Wick hoped his return gesture would be appreciated.
The Harrier’s crewmen had boarded the ship, taking small vessels and approaching from scattered angles. Silently they entered the lower deck by grappling the canons and climbing through the ports. The Commander had not been sleeping peacefully, and he was ready by the time a portly pirate entered his room. He drew his blade quickly across the man’s throat, letting the body fall into his room as he moved past into the hall.
The smell of smoke permeated even to his quarters. Commander Wick had advanced, gun and pistol in hand, the sounds of battle growing around him. Men spilled out into the walkways, blades in stomachs and pistols aimed between the eyes. Blood sprayed up the walls as bodies littered the floor. The spectacle was bewildering, the sacrifice savage and haunting. One man, a man of some height and a broad build, took down two officers with a quick flick of his sword, their stomachs pouring out on the floor as he kicked them aside.
“YOU!” he shouted out, pistol pointed at the Commander.
The man was the Harrier’s own Watchdog, a man whose bald head was rather small for his body. His eyes were two tiny black wells, dark and empty. He snarled at all times.
Drawing his pistol Wick fired at the dog, his shot glancing off the brute’s hairy shoulder. His nostrils flared as he returned fire, his shot grazing the Commander’s temple as Wick evaded. The commander ran the man down, hurling his pistol at the dog’s stomach. The weapon bounced off but stunted the Watchdog’s progress, the brute buckling from the hit. Wick lunged forward, planting his blade squarely in his opponent’s shoulder and driving it through. He flicked the blade up, slicing through muscle and flesh, an arc of crimson trailing behind his sword. The dog turned and fled; a deceptively intelligent thing.
Giving chase, the Commander rounded each corner sharply but at each turn he was eluded. He hadn’t gone far before he found himself on deck, the sails burning overhead, scorched cloth falling through the air around him like autumn leaves.
Out on the bow stood the Harrier, the tip of his sword nestled against the throat of the Hurricane’s first mate. Words of defiance were uttered and the blade sank into the man’s neck. The Harrier kicked him off the edge of the boat, off the end of his sword. He drew a cloth from his pocket and wiped the blood from the steel as he turned back to his work on deck. The man was no slight figure, standing a head above most of the officers but having only an average breadth to him; yet within that body rested the heart of a demon. His eyes found the Commander,
cobalt depths that seemed to be cold and longing for the warmth of a soul. He wiped back his raven hair, strands stuck to his forehead by sweat, the few that weren’t pulled back by the knot.
“It’s nothing personal, Commander,” he said with a grin, blade extended as he lunged forth.
Commander Wick parried the strike, spinning around and bringing his blade in from overhead. The Harrier’s head snapped up, his own blade barely making it in time to block the Commander. “You are burning my ship. I find that personal,” Wick quipped as he pressed his blade down, straining against the resilience of the Harrier.
The Harrier eventually slipped sideways, sending the Commander stumbling forward while he found his own footing. He made a quick slice, cutting the Commander’s calf and ensuring his opponent was grounded.
“I am burning your ship, but only as a means to an end. I find it fair.” Just below the Commander’s chin hovered the curved scimitar blade of the Harrier, his fang extended and expectant. “Now, I know that your King has trusted you with a very special cargo. What kind of ‘pirate’ would I be if I didn’t try to take it from you?”
The pirate twitched; the Commander did not flinch.
“You’re a braver sort than your Islander brethren, eh?” The edge of the blade pressed into the Commander’s neck. “If I had my way, I would slaughter every one of you amber eyed, brown-headed shits. I hope to do so one day.” A thin pain drew itself across the Commander’s neck, but it was nothing compared to the pains of past campaigns and plunders. “You were one of the more persistent ones, Commander. Farewell.”
A shout rang out across the deck. The chest was hoisted into the air. The expectancy was visible on the Harrier’s face, his eyes expanding with eagerness, tongue wagging. The Commander shot up on his good leg, catching the Harrier under the chin with his head and sending him hurtling to the ground. With only a slim chance of escape, the Commander sprung to his feet and smacked the Harrier across the face with his pistol. The streak remained between the Harrier’s eyes the rest of his days, it would seem. The officers began to rally, but only because the Harrier and his crewmen had begun withdrawing, their prize in hand.
The bastard didn’t even look back before leaving Commander Wick and his men to die, sailing into the night on his clipper. If not for the survival of a long boat or two, they would have died, indeed.
Now, standing on the deck of his new war machine, the Commander did not so much lament the loss of the Hurricane. The King saw fit to properly equip him for the job of taking down the Harrier. Lieutenant Skarp approached the Commander solemnly, saluting until given the ‘at ease’. Commander Wick gave him a weary look, waving his hand for the Lieutenant to speak.
“Sir, we’ve searched every inch of the vessel that we could before it became…” he motioned to the wreck that was now dipping below the surface. “We did not find the chest. The captain was not on board either.”
“No. I saw him go overboard. He’s in the Abyss now.”
“Ha!” The Lieutenant perked up at the news. “We are rid of him, then.”
“Yes, but so is the chest.” The Commander turned and began walking away. The Abyss stretched out before the bow of his ship, infinite and empty. “The King only wanted that chest…everything else was pleasure.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, massaging it gently. “Let’s pull the ships back before we’re caught in Devils currents.”
“Sir!” The Lieutenant saluted and then scurried off to relay the orders. The Commander climbed the small steps to the ship’s wheel where Mr. Marble stood steering the ship, a man of no pretense who wore his uniform as cleanly as he could, though his face was perpetually obscured by a beard as brown as mahogany.
“He’s gone, Marble.” The Commander’s voice seemed distant, even to himself.
“Who would that be, Commander?”
“The greatest opponent I have ever faced. Captain Scarim fought with Calvin Culvert; the chase between Admiral Hackart and the Red Dragon was the stuff of legends that inspired my very service…”
“Indeed, sir! As I am sure the exploits of Commander Wick and the Fanged Harrier will inspire countless future officers of the King’s navy.”
“Yet, it is a short lived victory.” His shoulders fell. “I will be below deck getting my affairs in order. I am sure the King will want my head.” He nodded and began descending the steps to the deck.
“Sir! Surely the King will spare you for having removed the blight that was the Fanged Harrier from the face of this world?” The hopefulness in Marble’s voice was pitiful.
“Not compared to the horror of losing that chest, Marble. That’s all that mattered…the contents of that damn chest.”