Born of fire and blood, gunpowder and swords
With cruelty in his heart and bloodlust in his veins
Wherever he goes everyone remembers
The name of one Captain Thomas Embers
They waded through thick mud, weather-worn boots squelching with each step. The occasional grunted curse broke the cold silence of the night. Captain Embers led the way, fifteen members of his crew following closely behind. A full moon graced the sky, allowing them to see shapes and shadows more clearly in the marshes. Fifty paces away their ship was beached on a bed of reeds.
They each carried a sword and a pistol, except for Dead Hands Johnny, who didn’t have a trigger finger. They walked with a gait most common amongst those who possessed sea legs. And despite being warned to remain silent, and their best attempts to comply, their heavy breathing could have woken a dead log. This was not the type of physical exertion they were used to, strong arms and light feet cannot easily wade through anything but water. From afar they would most likely look like creatures from the depths of the bog they trod through, but no one witnessed their progress towards the ship.
‘Cap’n!’ Dead Hands called from the back of the group. A couple men turned to see if they were being attacked, but Johnny was alone. ‘Cap’n!’
Embers looked at Slink, who was guarding his right flank. ‘Shut him up,’ he growled.
Slink moved faster than most, even through the mud. Like the Captain, he was still young and agile. The same could not be said for Dead Hands Johnny, who was the eldest amongst them by a couple decades.
‘Slink!’ Dead Hands called out as he saw the other man approaching. ‘I aint happy, left ere at the end.’
‘Shut your trap Dead Hands, unless you wanna be called Just Plain Dead from now on.’ Slink clipped.
‘Slink,’ his tone now quieter, ‘what appens if we get taken from the rear?’ This comment caused a rumble of laughter to spread through the group of men. No, not men. Pirates. For there is a difference between the two, of course. To be a pirate you have to be capable of relying on your basest instincts and never question your actions. Piracy isn’t for the average person; you have to have the stomach for it. ‘Aint no laughin matter. I’d go down, no chance to do much else from back ere, no pistol.’
‘Give’m a pistol, we need a laugh,’ someone in the group laughed out drily.
‘Aint no use, don’t call me Dead Hands for nought, lost them fingers at sea.’ The older man complained.
‘Why we keeping the old man with us anyway?’ another voice joined the conversation, their progress had slowed to a crawl.
‘No need for disrespect!’ Dead Hands groaned.
‘Shut up, all of you,’ Slink hissed. ‘Dead Hands, you’ll serve your purpose just fine. Someone attacks and you’ll fall, giving us all a heads up. Now stop arguing or I’ll give someone else your job and you can serve as fish bait. I believe we even have a volunteer,’ he cast a glance over the group. ‘I’m sure I did just hear someone volunteer.’
Slink considered his job done. He dismissed any further quibbling by heading back to his post at the head of the group.
‘Sorted, captain,’ he levelled his pace with Embers’.
‘Kill him?’ he seemed disinterested in the answer, not even turning as he asked the question.
‘No need, this time.’
‘Fine, don’t let it happen a second time, or you’ll need to find your own replacement.’
Embers stopped as they came to the hull of the ship. He raised a hand and the whole group halted. The Death Bringer had never looked so desolate. It was shrouded in a thick layer of mist that was sickly sweet in both scent and taste. It didn’t feel right. It exasperated the impatient Embers.
‘Bring me Maggot,’ he spoke to no one in particular this time, his eyes focused on the hull of his ship.
The group shuffled around and a small figure appeared from their midst. The figure made its way to Embers’ side.
‘Captain,’ his bright young voice was subdued, barely an audible whisper.
‘Go up top. Find us a way in.’ Embers nodded towards Slink, ‘take Maggot.’
Maggot swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing. The patchy hair on his face still couldn’t form a full beard, but he nodded his agreement.
‘Maggot, I need you to get to the gunpowder. Get there and wait for my signal. We’ll need a distraction when we get on board.’
‘Yes captain,’ the young boy nodded, his voice breaking ever so slightly.
Before they could walk away, Embers added, ‘and you blow up my ship, I’ll hunt you down in hell and make you pay.’ No reply was necessary.
Another ten paces away the anchor had sunk into the marsh. Slink and Maggot made fast work of climbing the rope. Within seconds they disappeared into the mist, and the waiting game began. Embers crouched down, sinking further into the mud, his weapons ready for anything that may approach from above. His pale hair was masked by a coating of dirt, sweat and blood, and the scar down his left cheek was caked in the same mixture. It had been a tough night, just about to get tougher, he felt sure about that. The Death Bringer was his damn ship, and he was ready to claim her back.
The eerie stillness surrounding the Death Bringer took over the crew. Their breathing slowed and levelled out to a murmur. Adrenaline pumped through their veins, and some fierce grins appeared on their grim faces. Wading they weren’t good at, but waiting for a good fight, that they could manage very well.
After a few tense moments the time for action came, indicated by a small low whistle that could have easily have been mistaken for a small creature of the night. Leading the way, Embers slipped his pistol into its holder and with his sword still in the other hand, he climbed up. The remaining crew followed suit, one of them carrying a large sack over his shoulder. At the rear Dead Hands sighed and put his sword between his teeth before following them up the rope.
As soon as Embers’ feet hit the deck, the night came to life. A small explosion at the stern of the ship rocked the pirates where they stood. Always composed, the captain walked over to the man holding the large sack. Between two men they were opening the knotted top and pulling out what at first glance appeared to be a bundle of rags. Swearing and muttering under her breath, the bundle stood up and revealed itself to be a woman, and a rather beautiful one as things went. This wasn’t important for the task at hand though, and if matters had been other than they were the woman would have had all of their undivided attention.
‘It’s time for some o’ that magic you’re so famous for,’ Embers bit the words out, looking around aggravated.
She hesitated, placing her hands firmly on her hips, looking very much like a woman who is about to give you a mouthful of something not quite so sweet. A groaning emerged from the mist. Ghostly shapes staggered and twitched towards them, their features indistinguishable in the night.
‘Or become fish food with the rest of us,’ the captain breathed the words out to her in a low and menacing tone. To his men he bellowed, ‘for your lives and what they’re worth!’
A barrage of gunshots filled the air with gunpowder fuelled flashes. That’s when they saw the creatures. Rotten and misshapen, they appeared to be completely intangible, grotesque watercolours floating off their canvases. Embers trusted no one, but he knew the woman would be true to her word, because if there was one thing you could trust, it was people’s desire to survive. The same went for his men. He didn’t care what reasons they might have to fight with him, he just knew they’d fight to stay alive. Along with a healthy dose of either fear or respect, whichever kept them from attempting to take his life; it’s all he needed from his crew.
The bullets tore straight through the bodies of the approaching creatures, but they didn’t slow. What should have rent them asunder seemed merely to have slowed their progress. Embers strode forwards, toward his cabin, from where a group of the foul beings appeared to be emerging. His jaw was set, this mood was foul, they had no permission to be on the ship, especially not in his own cabin. As he walked, he reloaded his gun. Not a second after he’d loaded it, he fired the weapon, the bullet burying itself in the head of an approaching foe. The rotted corpse remained motionless for a beat. Then it fell to its knees and finally collapsed on the deck.
With a sneer Embers placed a boot on the creature’s throat. The body was still twitching. He knelt down, to get a better look at what they were up against. The fight around him, which was filling the air with gun smoke and severed limbs, remained mere background noise to his own actions. He remained focused, determined. Even as he knelt, a rotting hand reached for his back, only to be cleanly severed off by one of his men. The prone body under his boot was bloated and putrid. It smelt of brine and tripe, of human waste and death.
‘What are you?’ he asked the corpse. In reply it twitched and opened its eyes. The gaze they returned was milky and lifeless, and it sent a shiver down Embers’ spine. ‘Dead or undead?’ A pair of bloodied hand grasped his leg. He looked down, unfazed. His boot, however, pushed down harder on the throat. ‘Neither one nor the other it seems.’
Embers stood up and brought down his sword on the creature’s throat, his foot moving a fraction of a second before the blade reached its target. The head rolled away from the body. The twitching stopped. With a grin, he entered his cabin.
On deck the assembled crew were severing limbs and pushing bodies off the deck in every possible direction. And at the centre of it all, stood the woman, chanting. Slink remained by her side, cutting down anything that got too close. Unlike his captain, he looked worried.
‘Nothing’s happening!’ he barked at her, severing another head. ‘You aint cheating us here are you?’ The body fell at his feet, as he kicked it away he looked back at the woman. She sneered at him, but kept chanting.
At the far end of the deck some of the men had set up a production line. Maggot lured a creature over, ducking and weaving out of reach. Another, Firkin, slightly taller and with arms the size of barrels, shoved the creatures towards a third, Fleet-Foot Pete. He was fast with a sword but ironically slow on his feet, he swung his sword and separated head from body with ease.
Elsewhere a couple of men had fallen, the creatures pummelling them senseless. What they lacked in speed they made up for in strength and lack of fear. They had no sense of self preservation, they merely hunted, relentlessly. The cursing of the pirates was the only human sound that could be heard aboard the vessel. From the Captain’s cabin the steady sound of a gun being shot was all that could be heard.
Slink was close to breaking point. His threshold for patience could be described as the best on the ship, but it was still near enough nonexistent. This crew wasn’t known for its calmness. His jaw tightened. A thick vein on his temple pulsed, visible even beneath the layers of sweat and mud pasted to his bronze skin.
‘Finish this!’ he bellowed over the roar of the fighting. ‘They just keep coming! Finish it or I’ll finish you!’ Slink swung the sword around and held the blade against her throat. The gore of the last creature he’d killed dripped down her bared skin. Through clenched teeth he repeated the words one final time. ‘Finish it.’
The witch closed her eyes and turned her face up to the sky. Her chanting ceased. For a moment nothing more happened. The pirates all turned to stare, most of them halfway through butchering a body. After a beat they all felt it, a pulse. It didn’t shake them, but it did seem to move the whole ship and them as one. All fighting stopped then. The shots from the Captain’s cabin were the only thing not to cease.
The pulse beat again, and again. It built up momentum. And with each beat the creatures visibly weakened, falling to their knees, losing their relentless drive. A blinding white light filled the air and in an instant it was gone. Slink didn’t move his sword, not even a fraction of an inch. It took a moment for him to regain his sight, and when he did the woman was gone, his sword held firmly against thin air.
Bodies littered the decks. Slink looked around, most of the men were still standing. Half a dozen had fallen but remained alive. He cracked his jaw, annoyed that he wouldn’t get to kill the witch. He spat his distaste out onto one of the prone bodies.
‘Clear the deck! Get it nice and shiny!’ he hollered, striding off towards the Captain’s cabin.
The cabin’s doorway was piled up with bodies. Giving them a push Slink managed to make enough room to enter. The number of bodies piled inside easily rivalled the number piled up on the deck. An air of admiration filled him. Sat at the far end of the room, his feet propped up on the table, was Captain Embers, cleaning his gun.
‘Captain,’ Slink announced his arrival and awaited instruction.
‘Clean this mess,’ Embers gave the order calmly.
‘Right away, Captain.’ Slink turned to leave, but before he could exit Embers called him back.
Slink thought of the men on the deck. He hadn’t seen Dead Hands when he gave the place a once over. Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen the old pirate since they’d reached the deck or during any of the fighting.
‘Well?’ Embers looked up and placed his gun down on the table.
‘I’m not sure captain.’
‘Find him.’ Embers dismissed Slink with a nod.
Meanwhile, far below deck, next to the ship and not actually on it, Dead Hands called out into the newly silent night. ‘Anyone up there wanna help? I can’t make ma way up top without ma trigger fingers! Cap’n? Cap’n!’