Llorrin went all the way down to the lowest part of the ship, ignoring everyone in his way. Wyll and Jake were guarding the door to the hold, where the mana stone resided. The risk someone would try to tamper with the stone, or that they even could, was small, but it was better to not take any chances. It didn’t sit right with him that he had none of his own men posted here, but at least they didn’t make a fuss about letting him through. They might have if they knew what he was up to.
He approached the mana stone. It pulsated slowly with the magic held inside. It was difficult to imagine all that energy had come from him. He had the power to move a ship this big… which was amazing, but what he really wanted was the power to move entire fleets. He recalled how Irewyth had sunk Gronbag’s juggernaught. How amazing it would be to have power like that at his fingertips… Or was that the demon talking?
If I can control my magic without the demon interfering, I’ll be able to control it as well. You hear that, demon? Your days are counted, Llorrin thought, stretching out an arm towards the mana stone. He’d always been able to sense magic, but the feeling had always been so faint that he’d never really been quite sure whether or not it was his imagination. Now the feeling was much stronger. He could feel the mana bristling within the mana stone like he did the wind, or the sea moving below him, just as much a force of nature as either of these things.
He could even feel it within him. It was fainter, but definitely there, seeping out through every pore. The energy didn’t appear to be going into the mana stone though, at least, he didn’t think it was. There wasn’t really a proper way to tell, because he didn’t properly recall how he’d done it the first time. He thought he could feel the energy within the mana stone increasing, but only very faintly. Was this truly all the power he was expending? Llorrin could feel the wind howling outside, smacking against the hull, but he tried to block out these sensations to focus on his magic.
He tried using his other hand, figuring it would maybe allow him to focus his magic better, but he didn’t experience much of a difference. The wind was getting louder and the ship was starting to rock harder, which made it more difficult to concentrate. Llorrin tried to use both hands at once, but he still noticed only very little change. He broke away from the stone when he heard the door swing open behind him.
“Captain! Storm approaching!” Jake shouted.
“At a time like this?” Llorrin said, irritated by the interruption. “Clear the upper deck, let’s see how well this crate does in a storm!”
He hurried up the stairs, knowing his place was at the ship’s bridge during a storm. He dodged past some of his men that were hurriedly dragging a cannon from the upper deck inside. Llorrin’s heart was pounding in his throat. The last time he’d been in a storm the entire fleet had been shattered… and he had his doubts this heavy ship would do well in a storm.
On his way up to the helm Llorrin came across some of his marines, who were having difficulty restraining Borax, who seemed to be trying to reach the stairs. The swaying of the ship, which was already making it difficult to stay on one’s feet, made the scuffle look even more clumsy.
“What’s going on here?!” Llorrin asked.
“Captain! He insists to take the wheel!” one of the marines replied.
“This be tha first storm she’s ever gonna go through! I have to be thar!” the dwarf shouted, tackling the legs of one man from underneath him once the man seemed distracted.
Llorrin took a moment to consider. “Come with me,” he finally said. From the corner of his eye he could see Jeredan approaching. Exactly who he needed. “Jeredan, help the others get as much of the heavy cargo down into the hold! I want men posted all over the ship to check for leaks, all candles put out and everything heavy tied down, especially the gunpowder barrels. Go!”
The marines grudgingly let Borax go and followed Jeredan. No doubt Captain Willow was already taking precautions, but he wouldn’t let it be said he’d cowered in the bridge during the storm while Captain Willow led the crew. Borax had already sped up the stairs ahead of him. The dwarf was so eager he actually gave Llorrin a hard time keeping up with him. Borax burst into the bridge and pushed the helmsman – one of Willow’s men – out of the way.
“Outta tha way, scunner!” the dwarf shouted eagerly, taking the wheel, which had been locked because they were on a straight course anyway.
“It’s okay, he’s with me,” Llorrin said as the helmsman scrambled to his feet and reached for his sword. “Report to Captain Willow.”
“Aye aye,” the helmsman said, leaving with a vile look at Borax.
The dwarf pulled a handle, and through the side portholes Llorrin could see the ship’s wing-like sails slowly closing and retracting back into the ship. The wind had suddenly and violently turned against them, and it’d be too much of a risk to have the waves slam into the sails and knock them off. The engines were their main source of propulsion anyway, but Llorrin had no idea whether they’d be powerful enough to keep them on course. Thunder roared and lightning hit uncomfortably close to the ship.
“By the stars, that storm is huge… and we’re sailing right into it!” Llorrin said. The clouds were blocking out nearly all of the sun’s light, and even Llorrin couldn’t look very far ahead unless lightning lit up the sky. Day seemed to have turned into night in a matter of minutes.
“Hahaa! She be beautiful!” Borax jeered, his arms bulging as he kept the wheel in place.
“The ship, or the storm?” Llorrin asked.
“Both, ye land rat!” Borax shouted happily.
“We might all drown, and this is when you decide to cheer up?!” Llorrin shouted over the sound of hammering rain, crashing waves, thundering lightning and Borax’s excited yelling.
“Have a little faith laddy! This be tha only way to live!” Borax laughed, hitting several more of the buttons and switches he’d installed alongside the wheel. Borax had been unwilling to share all of the ship’s functions, and Llorrin had decided against letting anyone experiment with them out of fear of breaking the ship in half. This was strange, new technology, and he wasn’t going to mess with it. To survive this storm however, it was likely they'd have to pull out all the stops.
“We have to turn the ship around!” Llorrin said. Then the ship suddenly violently shook, nearly knocking him off his feet.
“Stars! Was that the engine?!” Llorrin said. It had felt much different than the impact of a wave, so it couldn’t have possibly been just that.
“Nay, tha engine be fine! I built it!” Borax shouted back.
“I wish I had your confidence! Now, turn this ship around!” Llorrin said, when a marine burst into the bridge. The man’s face was pale and he was soaked from the rain.
“Captain! There’s an orc ship right behind us! They’re firing at us!”
Llorrin stared at the man for a second. There were at least a dozen reasons why there shouldn’t be an orc ship so close behind him which he could think of from the top of his head. “Of course there is,” he finally said.
Llorrin moved to the portholes at the back of the bridge, taking his spyglass. Right now he wouldn’t be surprised if he saw Deathwing himself coming out of the darkness to swallow them whole. He opened the porthole and looked through the spyglass. He could see the enemy ship well now. It had the crude shape of a troll destroyer, but it was bigger than any destroyer he’d ever seen. Painted skulls adorned the hull and the side railing was built from bones and skulls. The figurehead was that of a screaming man, and two large cannons stuck out of his mouth like tongues. The ship didn’t have the modern engines of a destroyer and was sailing against the wind, but somehow it was keeping up with them.
How? Llorrin thought, scanning the deck of the ship with his spyglass. He saw orcs and trolls, and even some ogres on the ship, all armed to the teeth. He found three shamans, with their distinctive wolf-like appearance, among them. The shamans were chanting, their claws bristling with energy as they cast their spells and their bodies levitating off the ground ever so slightly with every spell they cast. They were apparently protecting their ship against the storm, or perhaps even directing the storm against Llorrin’s ship. Though they sailed against the wind, their sails were bulging and pushing them closer. No doubt the shamans were responsible for that as well.
“Borax! Take a look at this!” Llorrin said.
“Hold this for me laddy, will ya?” Borax said, leaving the messenger to hold the wheel while he was gone before hurrying over to Llorrin.
“Gimme that!” Borax said, snatching the spyglass from Llorrin’s hands. He opened one of the lower portholes and looked through it.
“By me beard. That be no mere orc ship… That be tha Cryin’ Man. Tha ship of Ork’thar tha Maneater!”
Llorrin searched his memory. Jeredan had mentioned the name to him once or twice, if he recalled correctly. “The one who sank your ship?”
“Aye, him! Take another look for yerself. Right thar on tha foredeck, tha bastard with tha one head!” Borax said, offering Llorrin the spyglass.
“One head?” Llorrin asked puzzedly, looking through the scope.
“Oh…” he said when he found Ork’Thar. Though Borax’s description had seemed silly, now that he saw Ork’thar it made it unmistakable who he was. Ork’thar was a two-headed ogre, at least, at some point he must have been one. Where his left head should have been was a gruesome stump, but the head that remained looked more than mean enough to make up for the one that was missing. He wore an eyepatch where his left eye should have been, and a purple scar ran from the right corner of his mouth all the way up to the hole that should have been covered by his right ear. A massive spike grew from the top of his head, and the eye he had left was large, yellow and wolf-like. A few strands of long, thin black hair fell back across the back of his head and neck. The massive tusks and sharp teeth that showed even when he had his mouth closed made his face look like it was set in a permanent, angry grin. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the ogre captain picking up a human and biting his head clean off. Unlike most ogres, he was clad almost entirely in black armour. Despite the ogre’s horrid appearance, the real shock came when Llorrin moved the spyglass to look at the orc standing beside him.
“Damnit, that’s Gronbag right beside him!” Llorrin exclaimed.
“Gron who?” Borax said.
“He’s an orc captain whose ship I sunk… whose crew I killed. I think he’s back for revenge, though I’ve no idea how he got that ogre on his side…”
“I say we go thar an’ beat their heads in!” Borax said.
“A boarding action in a storm like this? We’d all be swept from the deck! You built this ship so you could get revenge for what he did to your last ship, didn’t you? I’m sure this crate is capable of some tricks that I haven’t seen yet! You can’t kill Ork’thar now, but you can show him he can’t sink this ship like he did the last time! That’s the best revenge you can get right now! Are you with me, Borax?!”
“Aye!” Borax shouted, stomping his foot on the ground and smashing his fists together. The messenger hurried out of Borax’s way when the dwarf came back to the wheel. The ship shook again from another impact.
“They’re targeting the bridge!” Llorrin said. Ork’thar’s ship was also coming closer. He somehow didn’t think Ork’thar would hesitate to launch a boarding action, given the opportunity.
Borax opened a panel, revealing several more switches. He cranked the first one up as far as it could go, and a smaller shock now went through the ships, as he could hear the engines straining. The pirates were no longer gaining on them.
“Let’s see them pox-ridden maggots try to catch us now!” Borax jeered. “Gimme a sign when those bastards are about ta fire thar cannon again!”
Llorrin didn’t know what Borax was up to, but he’d learned that sometimes in these kinds of situations it was better not to ask. He kept an eye on the cannons, for with the help of his spyglass he could vaguely see Ork’thar’s crewmen loading them.
“Now!” he shouted as he saw the light of two fuses being lit in the mouth of the sinister figurehead.
Borax pulled another handle moments before the cannons fired, and the area around the ship briefly lit up as the ship expended magical energy, forming it into a dome that covered the ship and deflected the cannonballs off to the side.
“Amazing!” Llorrin shouted, but then the shield flickered and disappeared. “Can’t you keep that shield in place?” he asked.
“Limited energy, laddy! If tha mana stone gives, we’re done! We’ll only activate it just before those scallywags fire!” Borax shouted back.
Llorrin nodded and focused his attention back on the deck of the Crying Man. Lightning lit up the sky, and Llorrin and Ork’thar’s eyes met. Despite the darkness, he had the eerie feeling Gronbag and Ork’thar knew exactly where he was. He felt his heart throb in his throat as he dropped the spyglass. These were the monsters he’d grown up fearing and hating in equal measure, but now there was no more room for fear. Now that he finally had his chance to face them, he wasn’t going to back down. The storm shook Llorrin’s ship more mercilessly than it did Ork’thar’s, but this had the added side effect that it was more difficult for the orcs to aim at them.
The shield held back another salvo, and then Llorrin saw Ork’thar moving towards the cannon crew, barking orders at them.
“Watch out, I think they’re up to something,” Llorrin said, right before he saw another fuse being lit. “Now!” he shouted.
The shield lit up again, stopping one cannonball.
“Don’t power it down, they only fired once!” Llorrin warned, but Borax was already powering down the shield. The second cannon fired, hitting the bridge and knocking out a porthole.
“Damn it,” Llorrin said. “They’ve started firing their cannons separately, to force us to use the shield more often. They must have deduced that we’re working with limited energy here.”
“There be a slight delay between powerin' tha stinkin’ shield up an’ off, ya searat,” Borax warned him. “Enough for ‘em ta fire that other bleedin’ cannon before I can get tha bastard back up! We can’t afford leavin’ tha shield up all tha time!”
“Then you’ll have to power it off when they don’t have a clear shot on us. Pay attention, I’ll say when!”
“Good thinkin’ laddy!” Borax said.
Every time the waves pushed the bow of the enemy ship up, keeping the enemy from getting a clear shot at them, Llorrin shouted for Borax to turn off the shield. They didn’t sustain any more hits, but Llorrin still felt like they were using more energy than they could afford. He could always go down to the mana stone to pour energy into it, but he hadn’t exactly been successful at powering it up so far, and he felt he was needed here.
He looked at the messenger, who Llorrin had almost forgotten about, focused on his task as he was. The man had been waiting for orders silently, apparently awed at the battle he was witnessing. Llorrin knew that if he survived and looked back he’d be rather daunted at the scale of this battle and the strange tactics he’d had to adapt to, but there was no time for that now.
“You! Go tell Captain Willow to take command of the back-mounted cannons. Tell him to return fire every time we drop the shield!”
“Aye aye, sir!”
Llorrin had almost forgotten about the cannons placed on the lower parts of the forecastle. They weren’t as big as the forward mounted cannons, but they’d have to do. By the next time they dropped the shield, the cannons returned fire. However, Ork’Thar appeared to have a similar kind of defense for his own ship, for his shamans picked the cannonballs out of the skies with their magic like a hunter would a pigeon. This was becoming a battle of attrition, and who would win depended on who ran out of magical energy first. Llorrin feared he already knew who that was going to be.
His troubles only grew when he saw a cloaked figure moving up to the foredeck of Ork’thar’s ship. This pirate, oddly enough, looked more like a human, a woman, even, but her hood concealed her face, so he couldn’t really tell for sure. She raised her arms at her sides, briefly revealing pale skin and black fingernails, and two bristling fireballs appeared in each hand, rapidly increasing in size. The other pirates appeared to be cheering her on, all except Gronbag and Ork’thar.
“Borax, they have some kind of sorceress with them! Can this shield hold against fire?”
“That be tha mage! Tha one that sunk me ship! I don’t think tha shield will be able to stop ‘er!” Borax shouted.
“Damn it…” Llorrin said. They were running out of options fast.
Suddenly he saw a shadow flickering through the air, moving from his ship to the Crying Man. The shadow had moved so quickly his eyes had barely managed to register it. Llorrin looked through his spyglass, scanning the deck of the Crying Man for the shadow. Suddenly someone was standing on top of the nearest shaman’s shoulders, thrusting two blades down into his skull. The figure flipped backwards off of the orc as he collapsed, landing between three pirates. Lightning struck again, and Llorrin could finally discern the shadow’s face. Ishrien?! Llorrin thought. She crouched and spun with her knives at her sides, cutting their legs and causing them to collapse, then used one of the falling pirates as a stepping stone to launch herself towards the second shaman. He fell with both her blades buried deeply into his chest. She yanked them free and threw them at the third shaman, who was too caught up casting his spells to muster a proper defense. The edges of the daggers disappeared into his eye sockets and he collapsed backwards onto the deck.
The pirates were now closing in on Ishrien from all sides. An orc threw a spear at her while a troll tried to jump her from behind, but she dodged left, burying her dagger deep into the trolls’ belly as the spear thrown by his companion hit him in the chest, impaling him. Ishrien then grasped the spear with both hands and swung it, using the troll as a shield against more incoming projectiles before launching him at a group of orcs that had come too close, the corpse knocking over the group of orcs.
Some pirates were getting very close now though, so she turned and ran, dashing up the shrouds with the agility of a cat before launching herself at the opposite shroud and then dropping herself down to the part of the ship the pirates pursuing her had just abandoned. She landed feet first on the face of one of the pirates left there, then dropped herself backwards and landed on her arms, flipping herself around and landing on her feet again. Ork’thar was getting dangerously close to her and she’d also attracted the attention of the mage, so she broke off in a sprint towards the edge of the Crying Man, as close to Llorrin’s ship as she could. Ishrien jumped, launched herself off the side railing, and floated through the air… and then the sorceress threw the fireballs after her.
She’s not going to make it! Llorrin thought. The front of Ork’thar’s ship had just been going down when she jumped, and the back of their ship was now going up as it finished climbing another wave. The fireballs were about to slam into her back… Llorrin closed his eyes, when a bright flash of light burned into his eyes even though they were closed. He looked just in time to see the fireballs dissipate behind Ishrien. Green wings made of pure energy had sprouted from Ishrien’s back, and had caught the fireballs on them, protecting her like a shield. The wings gave her the edge she needed to make the jump, but disappeared as soon as she hit the deck.
Ishrien split her legs as she landed, catching her fall on one arm and stretching out the other to help keep her balance. She looked over her shoulder and grinned at the sight of the pirate ship getting hit by the full brunt of the storm and the forecastle’s cannons simultaneously now that they no longer had shamans protecting them. The wind blew into their sails so hard the ship was swerved hard to one side, and quickly disappeared into the darkness of the storm, out of sight. Llorrin was lost for words as he looked at Ishrien’s face through the spyglass. Her grin and the look in her eyes was unsettling. That wasn’t the face of the confused and timid girl he’d met in Theramore, it seemed more suited to that of a… A demon, Llorrin thought.