I was lying on the deck, the side of face screaming in pain and my arm twisted awkwardly beneath me. My other hand still had its fingers curled tightly around the hilt of my sword. Someone was looking at me across a wall of flame and a shattered, twisted section of the deck. I saw white-grey fur. Laissa, the other charr. Baen’s mouth moving, shouting something, my name perhaps, but it was lost between the bells in my head and the deafening crack as the mast came tumbling down between us. I saw it, somehow managed to gather enough of myself to roll across the smoking deck as quickly as I could to avoid the worst of it. I tucked myself into a ball as cinders and scraps of burning tackle flew into the air.
“Go!” I shouted, not knowing if anyone could hear me, my tongue thick and my mouth coppery with blood. I flailed wildly with my sword arm. “Go! I’ll get out on my own!” I could barely hear my own voice, but as I staggered to my feet I knew it had been a stupid thing to say anyway. There were a few eyes nearby, but no-one was looking at me I had no way of orienting myself. Everyone was looking around at the mangled bodies of dead pirates, staring at their own horrific injuries, or frantically diving into the water to escape the doomed ship. The creature was nowhere to be seen.
Heat radiated from in front of me. It must have been the fire from whatever had exploded – a powder store below deck, I imagined. Behind me was marginally cooler, and as I turned I felt the side of my sword bump into something. I reached out with my free hand, felt carved wood, still relatively cool to the touch. I ran my fingers slowly up it, felt metal – a hinge, hanging loose at an odd angle. A door frame.
I tried to remember where I had been standing, where the explosion had come from and realised that I had likely been launched across the deck towards the front of the ship, which would place me near the captain’s cabin. I let out a long breath, relieved that I could make at least an educated guess as to where I was. The layout of the cabin where Levaunt had offered us his deal was still clear in my mind, and with that image as my guide I pushed forward, stepping through the shattered doorway.
I had barely taken five steps inside when eyes turned towards me. A gun came up.
I had a second to map out the debris littered hallway, memorizing everything as the hammer on the gun came back and a finger tightened on the trigger. I took a step back, threw myself sideways, and landed in some kind of tiny storage room for papers, charts perhaps, and covered my head as bullets tore through the walls.
Cursing, wishing my own gun wasn’t gone, I tried to stay calm and study the gunman’s weapon as he fired. Some kind of custom build, fancy, expensive – a revolver, not unlike my own, and that meant six shots, eight on the outside. He had fired three at me so far, a decent shot, but he was unfocused, his vision slightly blurred and further obscured by the dancing firelight and smoke. Assuming he had been fully loaded when he had started shooting, it meant three more bullets to avoid.
“You should have known!” He shouted, and I recognised Levaunt’s accented voice. “Kaede, you bitch, you should have known!” There was a manic edge to his words, something had clearly snapped inside the man. “You should have told me! I could have made you great!”
“Levaunt, your ship’s coming apart!” I shouted, pressing my back against the wall as I crouched, just out of his sight. “We don’t have time for this. Put the gun down and I’ll make sure you’re safe.”
“Safe!?” He shouted back, almost laughing as if he found the concept absurd. “There’s no safe! There’s no such thing! Not here on the ocean, not in the city! Not in the Underworld itself!”
“You are not getting past me, Levaunt, you know that. not unless you put the gun down.” I replied. “Tell me where Tatianna is, put the gun down, and I’ll help you off this ship.”
“I cared, did you know that?” He was ranting, but the gun remained level in his hand, steady, trained on the hallway. “I cared for her, truly, from the moment I saw her! From the moment I took that treasonous viper in!”
“Levaunt, we don’t have time for this!”
“She’s a snake! A serpent, a curse!” He was almost screaming now. “I saved her life and now-” The ship listed, and though Levaunt’s aim stayed steady, I took it as my moment.
A perfect replica of myself spun into view and leapt at the mad captain. He fired instinctively, the bullet taking the clone in the chest and shattering it like glass. It erupted into violet splinters of light, and then I was on him, sword leading.
He was quick, weaving aside at the last moment so what should have been a clean slash to the wrist of his gun hand turned into a messy, shallow gash along his upper arm. He shouted, but I pushed myself into him, the momentum taking me into his guard. My free hand grappled for the gun, forcing him to fire his remaining two shots as another clone grabbed at his free hand, making sure he couldn’t bring a knife or some other unseen weapon to bear. He tripped on something as he stumbled back, and we both went crashing through the fancy glass and wood door of his captain’s cabin.
I rolled off of him as my clone faded away, my concentration broken as his own sword came out in a blur and slashed for me. He rushed after me, but I kicked hard at his knee and forced him back again before rolling to my feet, ducking under a wild slash and flicking my rapier out at his face. He leant back, avoiding the attack, but backed away as my return stroke almost took out his eye.
“This doesn’t have to end this way, captain.” I said as I mapped out what he saw. Fortunately, thanks to whatever mania gripped him, the man’s eyes were darting everywhere around me, giving me a comprehensive look at chaos of massive cabin. This was the same room where he had made his offer to us, but now it was littered with torn bodies and debris. Clearly ours was not the first fight that had taken place here today.
“End?” He laughed. “It’s already ended. My world has ended, yours is ending as we speak!” He came on then, rapier ready, and I breathed out slowly. He knew what he was doing, that much was clear – he had training, perhaps even something similar to what I had received, and whatever madness had infected him he barely seemed phased by my abilities. I wondered if he realised how real this fight was.
He feigned for my left, I pretended to fall for it as he flicked the tip of his sword around my guard and stamp lunged for my stomach. I stepped back, clanging his weapon away with a sweep of my rapier as I slashed at his exposed side.
He wove aside, almost stumbled, recovered and immediately attacked again. I picked every attack off neatly, looking for an opening that didn’t present itself. He was good – very good – but as the ship listed sharply to the left we were both sent staggering and I knew I didn’t have time to enjoy this.
“Levaunt, where is she?” I pressed, catching myself on the edge of his heavy desk. “Where is Tatianna?”
“She’s gone. She’s gone.” He gibbered at me, eyes darting around. “I loved her, did you know that? She was mine!” The last came out as a scream and he rushed forward, all fury and madness. “You! You knew! You should have told me!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I shouted back, giving ground. “Where is she?”
“You should have told me!” Another explosion sounded from somewhere inside the dying Maiden, and I knew I was out of time.
I let him impale a clone as I whirled aside, trails of violet energy streaming from my body as I left more shimmering replicas in my wake. I stood to his side, just inside his peripheral and lunged forward, my rapier stabbing a finger’s length into his thigh. He bellowed in fury, slashing wildly at me, but I conjured another clone to take the impact as I withdrew my blade and slashed at his sword arm. The tip cut through his upper arm, deep, and I felt the moment of resistance as the point of the weapon glanced off of bone.
Crying out, he dropped his sword but batted away a clone before his good hand, balled into a fist, slammed into my gut. The wind was blasted from me, and I staggered back, my clones dissolving into light, my sword raised and aimed at him as he sagged back against the wall, clutching his arm.
“You bitch! You’re with her now, aren’t you?” He hissed at me, barely audible over the chaos. “You’re just one of hers when she was, once, one of mine!” I couldn’t speak, even if I wanted to, taking in gasps of air as he started to scramble for his weapon, awkwardly lifting it with his left hand. “I saved her from the law! They were going to lock the little thing up for what she did to her father! I saved her! I saved her! I-” The ship pitched, and the two of us went tumbling sideways, cutting off his ranting.
I hit wall hard, barely rolling aside to avoid being crushed by the heavy desk that slid along the floor towards me. The ship was capsizing, and when I got to my feet amidst the falling debris I realised I was standing on what had once been the wall. Water was pouring in.
Disoriented, I had no chance to respond before Levaunt was on me. His sword was gone again, lost in the fall, but I couldn’t bring mine to bear as he tackled me and carried me hard to the ground, sending a spray of seawater up around us. The back of my head slammed against something, my spectacles spinning away. He roared, looming over me as he brought his fist back, hesitating in a moment of sanity as he was suddenly confronted with my milky eyes.
I seized the opportunity, snatching my boot knife with my free hand and stabbing the slender blade into his armpit. The pirate captain shrieked, reeling back, and I planted a foot against his chest and pushed him off of me. He tumbled backwards, clawing hands ripping the knife from my hand as he did.
“She was mine!” Levaunt screamed madly, yanking the blade out. His voice was growing weaker, and with both his arms now all but useless, I knew the fight was over.
“Where is she, Levaunt?” I said, scrambling to my feet. “Where is Tatianna? What did you do with her?”
“She’s a serpent, Kaede.” He hissed. “But she was my serpent. She… she was…” He trailed off as he saw, as I did, his doom rushing towards him.
Green tinted vision rushed down the sideways corridor he had attempted to shoot me in, barreling through what was left of the door and the monster, moving with that impossible combination of grace and power, slammed into the captain, carrying him off his feet to fly across the cabin. The two slammed into the back of the room, Levaunt howling like an animal.
He tried to grapple with it, but the powerful tail stabbed him through the wrist and into the wood, pinning him in place. One of the beast’s forelimbs took the pirate’s free arm and, with a horrifying strength, tore it casually from its socket and sent it falling away. The pirate’s wailing reached a new, fevered pitch and the monster shrieked into his face, drowning out the screams.
I had a moment of seeing through both their eyes. Levaunt staring through already dimming vision as the monstrosity’s slavering maw opened wider, jaw unhinging to open impossibly wide, rows of jagged teeth gleaming with green light and red blood.
Through its eyes, I saw the captain’s terrified, pleading face. His mouth moved, trying to speak, but a clawed forelimb grasped his head and forced it to one side, baring his throat. Helpless, he stared at me as the thing’s jaws closed on his neck and shoulder. It hesitated, as if savouring the moment, and I could hear it release a long breath.
Then claws and teeth dug into the pirate’s flesh and, in a motion so effortless it seemed like an afterthought, the monster flexed.
Captain Mishael Levaunt was torn into pieces. His vision went mercifully dark, the whimpering ended abruptly, and I heard the wet slaps and splashes as limbs and worse were scattered across the cabin. Warm blood hit me in the face, and I gagged at the sudden stench as the monster screamed its victory over its kill.
The room had been turned on its side, literally, and I knew my memory would be useless with all the changes. Unless the monster turned, I’d have no idea how to escape, but if it turned I was finished. I was in no state to fight this thing, not without my gun and not on a sinking ship. Best I could do was delay it, confuse it, look for a chance to escape.
I braced myself, sword held ready, clones flickering into view around me, putting a half-a-dozen of them between me and it as I slowly backed up. The green tinted gaze turned to me, almost lazily, and as it dropped down into the ankle-deep water it hesitated, looking back and forth between my copies. I tried to keep my breathing steady, tried to focus on keeping my clones as natural looking as possible, mimicking my disheveled and bloodied appearance as well as I could.
Then, with a groan, as if sensing the death of its captain, The Cloven Maiden listed further. I grabbed at the wall, looking for something to hold on to, but the water-slick walls gave me no purchase. The monster hissed, eyes zeroing in on me, claws digging into the wood as it began to crawl towards me.
Something else broke in the ship, launching me off my feet. With a shout, I fell towards the ceiling, then the floor, then the ship was rolling again and my clones shattered into nothing. Green vision surged towards me, but a wall of water hit me first and true darkness swallowed me whole.