Winter was nearing its end. Storms continued to rage, thunder and rain whipped endlessly in the upper atmosphere. Snow billowed and blew closer to the surface and by now, dozens of feet had built on the ground, unlivable unless you burrowed deep into the ice and earth. Some had learned to live that way, in intricate caverns linked together by tunnels. The rest of this world's creatures adapted to live in the clouds, through means of flight or machines.
High in the sky, sinewy blue fingers of lightning reached through the churning black clouds, illuminating a galleon as it floated through the mist. Blue fire engines purred gently, silver paint flickered in the light on the dark hull. The Sky-Marauder.
The crew slept, only a single watchman sat on deck beside a fire wavering within a barrel. He picked at his fingernails with his dagger, chewing loudly on a piece of jerky. He shimmied deeper into lumpy cloak around his shoulders.
A shadow watched from the sails, gripping the slippery tethers in the gales. It dexterously slid down a rope, landing soundlessly on the railing across the deck from the guard. He didn't notice, immersed in chewing at a nail. Sega smirked behind her mask, a skillfully shaped leather raven head with a mane of horsehair and feathers, braids and beads. Perched on the rail, she waited, then she slipped silently in through the hatch to the lower deck. The guard glanced around, shrugged and went back to his task.
Within the hold, bulging hammocks snored and grumbled in their dreams. Sega wove deftly through them. On the far wall, she found an open door leading to darkness. With a glance around, she vanished through the door into the next chamber.
She pulled a small pearlescent bottle from her belt, it flickered into a soft blue glow in her palm. A pair of beady eyes stared blankly back at her in the pitch dark, the light glimmered in them like a distant star. Sega held the light up to reveal a set of jaws big enough to engulf her head, yellowed tusks bared. The mouth belonged to a lifeless boar, hung by its feet from the ceiling.
The light swelled slightly, casting a glow further into the chamber. Gold and jewels sparkled back at Sega, heaps of wrapped foods stacked nearly to the ceiling. With a pat to the boar's snout and swirl of her cloak, her light extinguished and she melted back into the darkness.
In the swirling fog over the Sky-Marauder, a smaller ship loomed; blacker than the space between stars with three masts to sprint effortlessly through the stormy skies. The vessel resembled a cross between a viking long-ship and a Fuchuan, long and slender with an upper deck at the rear. An intricately carved dragon head arched at the stern, mouth agape in a vicious roar. In the cities across the skies, this ship was known to be an omen of death. It hunted vessels for any and all means of goods, sometimes it seemed just for hell of it. Some had even gone so far as to depict the crew as vengeful demons in the skins of men, appearing as shadowy as their vessel. The Valravn was known not only for the savagery of its deeds, but more for its Master. Even hardened criminals quaked in fear at the feet of the captain of the Valravn, a monster so heartless and wicked that the devil himself would beg to be taken as his disciple. Very few who met the Captain of the Valravn lived to spread the truth - That this reputation barely scratched the surface.
On board the shadow black ship, a crew of men sharpened their knives. Their captain focused a spyglass down at the Sky-Marauder from the upper deck. Through the glass, a faint blue light flickered from the sleeping vessel below. Two long pulses. The captain turned with a smirk and gazed over his men with one golden eye, one murky white with blindness. A grotesque scar blazed from his hairline down through the center of his right eye and ended at the corner of his mouth, distorting his grin. The skin to the right of the scar was in shambles, extending over his ear into his scalp. A burn that seemingly never healed.
"We've got a signal,” He turned as his men looked up to him, their faces painted black so only the whites of their eyes floated in the darkness. "See to it that no one survives."
A massive dark-skinned man stepped up beside the captain on the upper deck. The white-blond hair and pale complexion of the captain held a stark contrast beside the black paint on the warrior's skin.
"Vigo, don't let her mess around for too long." The captain lowered his voice, Vigo glanced over at him.
“Yes, Lord Tekla.” Vigo set two axes on his shoulders and marched down the stairs.
Back on the Sky-Marauder, Sega meandered through the treasure hold. She reached the back wall and found another door. With a push, it creaked slightly. She froze. Something rustled in the boxes at her feet.
"Who's there?" A man's voice croaked from the floor. Sega looked down, her light grew slightly as a man sat up from his bed, rubbing his eyes. He blinked, she cocked her head like an oversized bird inspecting a worm.
In one swift motion, the man leapt up and Sega grabbed his collar, pushing him through the door into the next hold. The man landed in a heap on the floor. Rows of bars filled the room, creating the cells of the brig. Shadows danced hypnotically across the bars, cast from a lamp swinging from the ceiling, and Sega briefly glimpsed a few shapes huddled in one of the cells. She shut the door behind her and the guard popped to his feet, drawing a short saber from his belt. He opened his mouth to yell, raised his blade and rushed towards Sega. Like a striking snake, her hand shot out and silenced his yell with a punch to the throat. With deadly precision, she disarmed him, lifted him by the throat and flipped a dagger from her belt. She sliced the blade across his neck and dropped him sputtering to the ground.
She watched for a brief moment until he stopped squirming in his pool of blood. She stepped over him and grabbed the lantern from the hook on the ceiling. She held it up as she approached the bars of the first cell. A woman and young boy shied from the light, filthy and scorched in places. Sega grabbed the lock on the door before turning back to the man on the floor.
"He hasn't got them…" A man's voice crooned from the darkest corner of the cell.
Sega turned back and approached, lifting the lantern to fill the space with wavering light.
A young man turned his eyes down, avoiding the light. He wore tattered and scorched robes, but she could see the shape of a warrior beneath them. Shackles on his wrists glistened tauntingly in the light, the skin beneath chaffed and bleeding. His dark, filthy hair hung over his shoulders like a hood. Still, he didn't look up.
"Is there a way up from here?" Sega's soft voice caught him off guard, but he schooled himself before he could look at her. He nodded his head towards a far corner. Sega raised the lamp, revealing a small hatch, hardly big enough for a man to fit through. The women and child could manage, she looked back at the man doubtfully. With a nod, she turned to the lock and began to pick it.
Outside the vessel, The Valravn erupted from the wall of clouds above the Sky-Marauder. Black painted men dangled from ropes hung from the hull of The Valravn, they dropped onto the deck of the ship below. Like slithering smoke, they swarmed the deck, faces contorted maliciously as they rampaged.
The crew poured down the stairs into the hold. The Marauders woke in a flurry of hammocks and flashes of swords. A fight broke out, but the Marauders were quick business for the painted demons. One Marauder fell from his hammock and scrambled with scrawny arms under the other hammocks. Swords stabbed down and narrowly missed his panicked face, feet stomped down just shy of his hands. He managed to reach the brig door unscathed and tumbled through.
Unfortunately, he'd picked the wrong door. He shut it behind him and pressed his back to in with a brief sigh of relief. He noticed the lamp on the floor, and a dark shape that lurked just beyond. A bright flash and he was pinned to the door by his throat, a long dagger pierced all the way through his neck.
The man in the cell chuckled. "He's got them."
Sega stepped forward and rifled through the dead man’s vest, she found the ring of skeletal keys and jingled them towards the prisoners.
She unlocked the cell and approached the man, reaching for his manacles.
"You don't think there's a reason they put these on me? Perhaps it would be best to leave them…" Sega's hands stilled on the chains. She felt the metal in her hands, a strange type of iron that wouldn't normally be fit for chains. She glanced at the wounds under the manacles. Blistered, festering skin. She tilted her masked head up to look at his face. He gazed down at his hands, his eyes still hidden. Perhaps it is just the firelight reflecting in his eyes, but from her perspective, they looked almost gold.
She unlocked the chain from the floor, but stood without unlocking the manacles.
"Get the others through the hatch, I'll be right behind you." She motioned to the woman, who clutched her young son against her leg. The woman nodded, not realizing that Sega's remark was directed at the warrior.
Hidden in the shadows, Sega stood guard at the door as the prisoners maneuvered their way up to the ceiling, balancing boxes to build a set of steps. She watched the warrior gently lift the woman and child before hefting himself gracefully through after them. The ship tilted, nocking the boxes over.
Sega marched over and gazed up through the small hole. A hand reached through to help her, she snorted and brushed it aside before swinging herself up and through the hatch.
The door to the hatch hardly clicked closed before the door to the brig blasted open, and Vigo stomped through. He had to bend slightly to fit in the room, comically large. He stared at the cell doors swinging on their hinges, and poked the man on the bloodied floor with his boot. The door shut itself behind him, Vigo glanced over his shoulder and smirked. He pulled the long dagger from the man's throat and stuffed it into his belt.
After the ship was cleaned out of its crew and all the goods transferred to the Valravn, the black ship drifted away into the mist. Sega leaned against the rail, gazing down at the shrinking Sky-Marauder. She nocked three arrows in her bow. Lord Tekla stood beside her, his hands behind his back as he stared blankly ahead. Vigo held out a flame to the tips of the arrows, and the blue fire danced in the wind.
"Loose." The Captain did not wait to see the show. He turned abruptly and marched off. Sega released the arrows and watched them sail down until they lodged into the wood of the ship below. It burst into a blue plume of fire. The Valravn crew unleashed whoops and hollers before joyously returning to their work of storing their plunder.
Sega stared at the burning ship until is tilted and sunk into the churning thunderheads below. She reached up and pulled the raven mask from her head, the glowing ship reflected in her dark, unreadable eyes. Her long hair whipped in the wind, no longer tamed by the mask.
Behind her, Lord Tekla mounted the stairs to the upper deck, one step at a time like it was a laborious task. The crew stopped their work and looked up. Once on the next level, the Captain turned and started over his crew.
"Well earned, men! If you haven't debts to pay, the shares of these treasures should last you a year." He pulled a bottle of wine from a box nearby, and drew a dagger to slice the top clean off. He poured some into his mouth as the men cheered and jested on the main deck.
Lord Tekla held the bottle out to Vigo behind him, who took it and marched down to the main deck to hand off to the men to pass around.
Without waiting, Sega melted into the crowd of men. She made her way towards the hatch to the hold. Two men lifted a body wrapped in canvas to the railing of the ship. Sega stopped in her tracks as the rest of the crew turned to watch the two men. Lord Tekla moseyed down the steps , reaching out as a torch was handed to him. He took it, his face grim.
"With that joy comes the tragedy of our lost brother." Lord Tekla approached the body, its white shroud reflected the firelight. "Now we send you to the halls of the great beyond, brother Victor."
He held the torch to the canvas. It erupted in blue fire.
"Until we meet again." Lord Tekla dunked the torch in a nearby barrel, extinguishing it with a hiss.
The men holding the corpse swung and tossed it into the night beyond the ship.
"IN GLORY" The rest of the crew raised their right fists to their heart, and then to the sky above.
The fiery shroud plummeted through the mist into the thunderheads below like a lazily falling star. The men resumed their duties, Sega turned to disappear through the hatch when a movement caught her eye. She watched as Vigo approached Lord Tekla, muttering something into the Captain's ear. She noticed a book under his arm, the Captain's Log from the Sky-Marauder. He handed the book to Lord Tekla, whose face remained a cool mask of indifference.
Vigo pointed at a page within the log and shook his head slightly. Despite the distance, Sega could make out that something was afoot. She melted into the shadows, her veins turning to ice. With a wave of his hand, Lord Tekla sent Vigo off and two men fell in line behind him. Others started to notice a disturbance. Lord Tekla drug his eyes over the men.
"Who amongst you cleared the brig?" Although he kept his voice low, his timbre held a subtle threat. His eyes stopped as they fell on Sega. A ghost of a smirk flickered at his lips.
"What seems to be the issue, My Lord?" Sega stepped out into the open.
"Tell me, Sega. Did you see who cleared the brig?"
Sega parted her lips to answer, but the Captain's attention snapped to the sound of a scuffle near the captain's quarters. Shouting and grunts filled the air, a woman shrieked. The Captain turned slightly, tilting his head curiously as Vigo hauled a man from the quarters by his collar. His two mates followed close behind, dragging a woman and child with them.
"Ah, it appears we have found our missing cargo." Lord Tekla motioned for the men to approach, "Bring them here."
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