"You traitor," she hissed, with a voice which could pierce iron.
"What… why are…?"
"Did you really think that you were supposed to send me out!?"
"That was not my intention," Esteban answered, strained. "It's just much less aggressive with a woman."
Several seconds of suspense passed. The situation was familiar, but more grim. This time around, Esteban didn't have any information that could save him from death. If the leader really thought he had tried to defraud her, his life would be over in a fast sweep.
The leader nodded, hardly visible, and made a small gesture…
… and the blade went away.
"There is more to you than meets the eye," she said. "Rough and edgy, but you get results, and that's all that counts. This calls for changed plans, however. Perhaps it's for the best."
So Esteban had made it through. The relief fell over him like a waterfall. His inner storm died out to a pleasant warm breeze.
"Wait outside," she said curtly.
The former mercenary stood up from his chair and walked out of the room. His eyes had begun to adjust to the shady candle-lit darkness. He smiled within as he thought of their progress. They had done it. Just one final battle left. Esteban had never liked violence, but he was looking forward to the coming fight, with intense hunger. So what if they had the leader, the rest of them could sure be fed some cannonballs.
The door to the room was opened up, and a man came out. Taking no notice of Esteban, he sat down at a desk, brought out a feather-pen and a seal. Quickly he began to write. The feather danced swiftly over the roll. Apparently the writer made a mistake, as he grabbed the paper, crumbled it and threw it on the floor. He brought out a new paper. After the new text was done, he stamped it with a seal. With the roll in hand, he left the building.
After he went through the door, Esteban quickly bent down and picked up the botched ball of paper. Quietly, he smoothed it out and read it through.
All units board the target ship. Spare the captain. Leave hostages. Kill all opposiionnn
The message was clear even with the typo. Esteban felt as if his heart had stopped, and ice ran through his veins. The paper crinkled even more in his trembling hands. The tide had suddenly turned, and the Leader had all the high ground.
What should he do!?
Suppose he left right now? Yes, no one would stop him. Just rush to the harbour, get aboard the Delphinus, and then they would blast away. He flung up from the chair…
… then his thoughts caught up with him.
If he ran off, the plot would be painfully obvious. Marked for life. He could put up with that, but Vyse would be marked too. That was unthinkable!
Esteban forced himself to calm down. Trying to gather his thoughts and think clearly, he began to go through his alternatives.
Perhaps… it was one chance in a million, but if he struck at the leader right now… Esteban would be dead, but he'd take the leader with him, and he could save his friends.
No. Not as long as that sword-wielder was with her. He'd get himself killed, and even if the Blue Rogues would get away, they'd be forever hunted. Never would they get any peace, as long as the syndicate tried to get them.
But to get to the Delphinus, they needed to go by the lifeboat, together with Esteban. They still had a use for him, which was why he sat here alive and well, panic and remorse excluded. Yes, they needed him to take them to the Delphinus. The sky was spacious and deep enough for another ship. Turning off the engine could be done in a second.
The relief of having figured out a way through was soon overshadowed by sadness. Having found happiness in life, now it would be all over. But it was his entire fault, anyway. One stupid mistake had forfeited his life. But he'd put his friends into all this, jumped to conclusions which had led up to this grim moment, it was his responsibility to get them out in one piece. Just like Aika had said he should.
Esteban squeezed his eyes shut, feeling convulsions coming, a black cold emptiness spread through him. Never would he see her again. That braided, fruit-obsessed angel.
The more the merrier.
But maybe there was a small chance. He'd seen the harbour just a few minutes ago, and it had been crowded with ships. Even though the Delphinus was number one on the suspect list, none of the attack-group knew which ship to assault, since the message only said 'target-ship'. Boarding a ship was easy to say, but to really do it was totally different. If he just…
At that moment, the door creaked. Esteban heightened his gaze and found himself looking at a woman in silky harem-styled clothes and a crimson face-covering veil. He'd never seen her face before, but knew in that instant that it was the leader (it wasn't like he had any alternatives either). She looked past her shoulder, and then the bodyguard came out.
"I'm certain they'll understand I'll bring my own dear brother with me," she said.
It never hurt to be careful, Esteban had to admit. It was just that she had now devastated his plan. Now he had no other choice than to bring them both to the Delphinus. Esteban had never considered himself much of a fighter, and certainly not against this wandering brick wall of muscles, steel-plated armour and rusty sword. Rust? A closer look revealed the spots on the sharp weapon to be blood.
Without any words, the little group left the building and walked the dark streets of Nasrad.
"I feel I might've misjudged you," the leader said. "You've had your slips and mistakes; I'd never dream you would serve me the location of Vyse's base. When we get back, you'll be handsomely rewarded."
Her words were just as nice and appealing as the stench of a thousand dhabus. This woman wanted the blood of his friends, which alone was reason enough to hate her. More than he already did. Puking on her would be too kind.
For now he was just a pawn in the Nasr Syndicate's game of chess. But like a diminutive pawn that crossed the board would be a raging queen, Esteban had a secret card to play out.
They had now reached the exit, and looked out over the harbour. The sea was full of ships. Okay, over there halfway to the cliffs was the Delphinus with its portside turned to the city, on the edge of a large group of ships. If he could just find another ship nearby that…
Esteban had to decide quickly. It wouldn't do any good to stand ogling like this. There. A semi-large ship, starboard to the Delphinus. It all depended on who embarked the lifeboat first. The leader, or her bodyguard.
No, Esteban decided. Even if both of them tagged along, he must warn Vyse about the ships. He couldn't do that while lying on the bottom of the world.
Having reached the lifeboat, Esteban sat down in front of the controls, and began to start up the engines. He threw a quick eye back. Graciously, the leader stepped down, while her bodyguard threw a last glance around.
The engine rumbled to life. But just as the little boat left, Esteban could feel some new weight at the stern. Looks like he had got a new passenger after all.
In desperation, he swiftly put the engine at full throttle. The boat's bow was turned upwards, almost throwing him off, if he hadn't had the steering-wheel to hold on to. Normally, lifeboats weren't really known for their speed. But being a lifeboat from Delphinus, and being "modified" by Aika, it had some surprise beneath its hull.
"Oh, no!" Esteban shouted, as the boat rocketed forward. "It's stuck in the overdrive!"
"You idiot!" the leader screamed. "You've…"
Esteban didn't hear the rest. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that there were only two persons left in the boat, including himself.
With a quick spin on the wheel and pull of the gauge, the boat turned to portside while rising in height. For any outsider to the speed-drama, the boat's course was set to the other ship, although the vector took them above the Delphinus.
Despite the noise, Esteban could dimly sense some movement. At the next moment, he felt a hand painfully grabbing his hair. His vision swiftly blackened, as his headband was pulled down over his eyes. Down at his feet, he knew there was a tool-sack. His hand dove into it, and returned with the first solid thing he found.
But right then, two hands gripped around his throat. He felt his strength fade away as quick as the oxygen in his lungs. With his left hand, he tried to bend away the chokehold, but it was in vain. In a convulsion, he threw his head backwards and hit something. The grip loosened a bit. He leant down forward as long as he could and felt her moving along with him. Then, gathering his last focus, he swung the sturdy wrench backwards as close to his head as he dared. It stopped against something that felt like a head. Immediately, her hands fell loose. He then flung around and hit one more time from the side, harder.
With only seconds remaining before they passed by the Delphinus, Esteban tore off his band, managed to grab hold of the leader's limp form, and push them both over the boat.
After a quick rush through the air, they landed on the deck close to the gunwale at starboard side. Dimly, Esteban's felt his feet and knees blistering in pain, and his throat was sore and hurt.
The leader remained still, yet she might awake soon. Unsteadily rising up, Esteban ran stumblingly over to the hearing-tube, his legs screaming with protest at the painful movement. He grabbed the tube.
"They're coming at us!" he screamed with strained and painful vocal cords. "Fire!"
After an instant, the lantern up at the mast was turned to provide light for the shooters. The Delphinus slowly began to rise, steady and calm to not hinder the gunners, while rotating to starboard. Then the whole side seemed to explode as all the cannons opened fire.
Several ships, almost a dozen, were coming for them. Big and small. Sloops and galleasses, all heavily armed. It was clear they would leave that other poor ship alone, but now they had their aim set at the Delphinus. Hopefully Vyse's crewhad been given enough additional time to get ready for the new threat.
Cannonballs whistled through the air. Thunder without lightning. The enemy ships fired intensely, and the Delphinus shot back. Suddenly large chunks of fire were hurled against the Delphinus. Effective against wooden ships, but against the metallic Delphinus it was useless. Burning pieces of wood lay scattered on the deck, smoke rising in the air. Through sheer luck, Esteban had avoided getting hit.
A large boom was heard, and then a clank when a gargantuan boarding hook connected to the gunwale. Esteban had both heard about and seen hook-cannons before. Not too discreet, but practical, if used right. And that trick had paid off once already. If more were shot…
His feet began to feel better, as he made his way towards the hook. He saw directly that the rope was too thick to be cut with his knife; furthermore, it was too tensed. A quick look down showed that several boarders were ready to scale the rope.
Esteban spun around and headed to the nearest fire. He took off his waistcoat, wrapped it around his hand and grabbed the burning piece of wood. Dragging it away to the rope he began to ignite it. The dry rope slowly began to burn. Whether the rope burned off, or if the fire spread to the other ship Esteban didn't care. The threat was neutralised. He vaulted the burning wood over the gunwale, then threw his waistcoat down on the deck and stomped out the fire, hardly noticing the burning pain in his hands.
As soon as he had done it, a new hook was shot. It landed on the deck and soon snaked its way towards the gunwale. Esteban threw himself at the hook and tried to get a hold of it. It was quickly pulled away, dragging him along the deck. He let go just before it reached the gunwale. Then it was stuck, no matter how hard he pulled at it, and the rope was just as thick as before. This time around, he had no fire.
Esteban crawled forward, peered down and saw another bunch of armed henchmen preparing to board the ship.
Kill all opposition. Leave hostages.
His heart pounded as it filled his veins with adrenaline. It would take too long to get a new piece of fire, and he still couldn't run very fast, so he had to make his stand here. But the weight of the wrench felt just right in his hand. No fear, anxiety or worry.
Cold determination. Boiling hate.
Esteban crouched, peering out from the gunwale. Soon he saw a pair of hands clutching the rope. Immediately he flung up and with a piercing scream lashed out with the iron hard wrench and hit the boarder over his head. Esteban felt the sensation of bone cracking against iron but paid no heed to it. He changed his grip and thrust down against his adversary. No one could take a beating like that, and soon the scaler fell all the way down.
Esteban had a quick look down. Several people were still clinging on to the rope. Already, a new one was coming for him. He was still too far away to be attacked but...
Quickly Esteban jumped backwards, dodging the sword precisely. He took one step ahead and placed his foot steadily on the blade before the boarder could draw it back. But the distraction had worked, and the boarder was up at the gunwale.
With muscles boosted from hate and anger, Esteban swung the wrench straight against his adversary, who fell off. Screams of tumult were heard.
"Get a move on up there! We're passing over the clouds!"
They were still trying!? Well, let them. The wrench was stained with blood, but he was far from done yet. A pair of hands gripped the gunwale, but they were soon smashed with such a force that the knuckles must've broke.
Here's for all the innocent people you've killed. All children being left on their own!
A swift climber made the way up to the gunwale. The last thing his eyes saw was a wrench that came straight for him. A hit on his head then made him loose the grip and fall a long way down.
Beat them. Kill them. They don't deserve to live!
The rope strained even more, and distantly he could hear a ship's engine screaming from overload. Esteban took a few steps to the side and peered down. The ship that had fired the hook was now more or less hanging from the Delphinus. It was only a matter of time before the rope would...
The thick rope, made for sustaining heavy storms and holding big sails, finally burst. The ship tumbled down through the skies until it disappeared from sight.
Esteban exhaled in relief. Victory.
No. Not yet.
He clutched the hard wrench in hungry anticipation. One more. Just one more.
Away at her own spot, the leader awoke. She rose up, and found herself in a nightmare. Before her eyes, her fleet was being massacred. Her bodyguard had fallen off the lifeboat; she was thus all alone in enemy territory. And the mercenary had…
Slowly, with the wrench in hand, he came walking towards her. Esteban's grim eyes and twisted smile told their clear meaning. Her tame little looper had suddenly turned into a raging kraken. And she had been caught in his grip.
"So you're awake, you bitch," Esteban said. "Listen up, I could kill you here and now, but we'll take you to Valua, where you'll stand trial for all your crimes."
She tore off her veil and threw it on the deck. Her eyes now wide open, fixed at the traitor.
"What use would that be? You have no trace of evidence."
"Then maybe I'll kill you right here."
"Soo? And what would your Blue Rogue friends say about such a thing?"
She pointed, as in passing, up at the bridge. Esteban didn't fall for that, and held his eyes at her.
"I'll just tell them you struck first."
"You are a traitor," she continued. "Such persons can never be trusted in the long run. If you've betrayed your allies once, you can do it again. They'll eventually realise that, and then cast you aside, or turn you in."
"Shut your damn mouth!" Esteban snarled. "You don't know them!"
"Apparently they don't know you either. If they did, you'd be behind bars. Now, are you going to prove me right?"
"I'd certainly like to! No one gets upset about squashing parasites like you!"
"Choose your words carefully. Your past isn't completely immaculate, if you pretend that."
"Maybe. But I didn't have a choice while you…"
"I offered you jobs, and you took them. Just like the pill. Do you perhaps want a refill?"
"Don't imagine for a moment I'm thankful to you! I've always hated you!"
She sighed, and slowly walked up towards him. Esteban changed posture, preparing to strike out with the tool again. So far he kept still. Silently, she dropped down on one knee, her arms out to her sides, her eyes locked with his.
"I see there is no way to talk you out of this," she said. "Too bad. I had big plans for you if we got back."
Esteban took a quick step back, to get room to strike.
In a swift move, she sprung up and kicked him straight on his wrist. Esteban's wrench flew off and away. As her leg was on its way down, she pulled her own dagger from her leg-sheath. Bodyguard or not, she was always prepared.
Esteban turned and started to run. She lunged forward, and after only a few steps, leapt upon him and shoved her dagger against his throat.
"Now then, mercenary," she said. "What was it you just said? You wanted to kill me 'here and now'?" She let the edge of the blade glide around his neck. "If I don't get out of this, I'll take you with me."
Suddenly, the door to the ship's interior was slammed open. Two girls ran out. A blonde and a redhead. The latter had a big boomerang in her hand.
"Hey you!" the redhead shouted. "Let him go! Now!"
"Back off!" she called back. "Stay where you are, or else."
In a fast move, she cut the dagger's blade across Esteban's throat. Skin and flesh was torn up. She felt warm blood trickling down as Esteban screamed in pain and shock. The two newcomers saw this and stopped in their tracks at once. Their faces told that the threat had been realised, the point taken home. There would be no more tries. At least not for those few minutes Esteban had left.
"Next time, I'll cut deeper," she said firmly. "Now, traitor, slowly back to the lifeboat." She raised her voice. "If you try to hinder me, you know what happen with him."
She pressed the blade hard against his throat. Just a small swipe or an accidental misstep would cause a mortal wound. Esteban stood more or less paralyzed. Sweat was pouring along with the blood. He managed to keep his feet moving, but just barely. She wasn't in a hurry either. Those two Rogues over there wouldn't move a finger as long as she had Esteban at blade-point. Compassion. That was only for the weak people. She, who had managed to rise over the common people, stood above such things. Let others risk their petty lives.
She had the strength, she made the decisions.
And then, so fast and so suddenly she hardly noticed, her arm flew out. It was as if an invisible hand had grabbed her wrist. For a moment, she caught a glimpse of something round and white. Whatever it was, Esteban was not late to take advantage of it. He bolted away to his friends, his hand pressed against his open wound. With a screech of anger; she ran after, her dagger was crying for blood.
"Oh no, you don't!" the redhead called out and raised her weapon.
A swirling sound was heard, and then the huge boomerang hit her straight at her chin. She fell backwards, and her grip around the dagger loosened. The blade flew out of her hand and landed several meters ahead of her.
The redhead rushed forward towards the dagger. The leader tried to get to it first, but she was hopelessly late. The Blue Rogue raised her leg and kicked the weapon away. For a moment, it seemed as she would trip, but with a swift jump she regained her balance. The dagger glided swiftly towards the gunwale, and then fell off the ship down the skies.
"Now then, lady," said the Blue Rogue. "Are you coming nicely, or do I have to knock you out first?" She held the boomerang with her arm bent, ready to swirl it off again.
And so, the last ray of hope was gone. All was lost. For a short moment, she had let her raging hate for Vyse take the upper hand of her rational thinking. She had failed in her mission and revenge. The Valuan Empire might be gone, but she had continued in her assignment. An order from the Empress should never be turned down, no matter what.
She took a step back, and spat defiantly on the deck.
"Fools! Don't think you've won!"
"Heh, I don't 'think'. I know! Now for the… Hey, wait!"
The leader had suddenly turned and ran. Aika followed in her futile escape. What was the point? There was nowhere to either run or hide.
Now the woman had reached the gunwale up at the front. Quickly she stepped up on it. Aika then realised what was about to happen…
And it did.
Aika rushed up to the gunwale and looked down. No sign of her falling body or any ships below to catch her fall. Never before had the sky seemed so deep.
With the leader out of the way, Aika suddenly remembered about Esteban. She ran back to her friends over at the door. Esteban stood on his knees, his bloodied hand tightly on his wound. His face had whitened. Fina stood next to him with a sacres-crystal ready. Cupil floated above, looking as concerned as it was possible.
"I can't apply it until you remove your hand," she said, calmly. "Please let me do it, it will go fast."
"I can't," Esteban moaned. "I'll bleed to death."
Aika laid a careful hand on Esteban's shoulder. Standing so close to him, she could see how streams of blood slipped through his fingers.
"You have to let us put on the crystal," she said. "Else you will really bleed. We'll do it quickly, okay?"
He nodded, or maybe he just convulsed. Firmly but softly she grabbed his wrist. With one "Ready?" to Esteban, and a nod towards Fina, she pulled his hand aside. At once Fina pressed the crystal at the wounded area. The blood then stopped pouring. Either it was a fine crystal, or the wound wasn't that big after all. Well, anything on the neck was potentially deadly.
The door was swung open, and Chloe appeared with some bandage rolls in her hands.
"I thought you might need this," she said. "I heard that… whoa! Your forehead!"
"Screw that, that's old," Aika said. "Now, Esteban, can you walk?"
Shakily, Esteban managed to stand up. But instead of following the others to the door, he went away to the far end of the deck. The others had stopped, but their gazes followed him. Where was he going? Did he want to check where the leader had fallen, or make sure she hadn't stuck in the air?
Esteban bent down to the deck and picked up something. As he was walking back, they saw him tying his dropped headband. The sight made Aika almost smile. After nearly getting his throat cut up, now he had already recovered to be mindful of his appearance. As he went back, he was limping slightly, but his gaze was clear and steady.
"… so then I jumped off, and you know the rest."
Vyse was up at the bridge together with Aika, Fina and Nicole, listening to Esteban's report. With the battle behind them, they all felt quite accomplished. But questions still lingered. Why hadn't the leader just gone along with Esteban's original plan? It was far easier for Esteban to say that his lady-friend wouldn't come along after all, than having her whole fleet do what not even the ancient gigases had managed: take on the Delphinus and win. And then that messenger. Could he really have made such a dire mess up for real? Or did something else lay behind it? Had she wanted to know how he would act on the new information?
Well, what mattered was that they had cleared their goal.
"You've done a great job," Vyse said. "What you did back there was incredibly brave. It's definitely worth a celebration."
"Well, I wasn't alone," Esteban said.
"Yeah, yeah, we all know that," Aika said. "But a little now-and-again-boasting never hurts, you know."
"Then you can learn a lot from her," Vyse said.
"Keep your big mouth shut! You talking about boasting!?"
"Knock it off, it's not my fault everybody started to address me as 'the legend'. But if you want a title I'll give you one now. How about: Aika the Devourer of Fruits?"
"If you want, Aika, we can take that 'mutiny' now," Fina said.
Yes, all that trouble was out of their way. Now it was time for relaxation, where the biggest issue was how to keep Aika out of the food storage.
"I hate to be a party pooper," Nicole said. "But what do we do about the ambush?"
"Oh!" Vyse exclaimed. "Oh, that. Well, we just stop by and tell them things changed."
"Maybe we could send a letter to Enrique," Aika suggested. "Something like: 'Dear Mr Emperor;… uhm, thanks for nothing'?"
"Maybe we should stay on Valua's good side for now," Nicole grinned. "Heck, I remember one time when…"
While everybody was listening to Nicole, Esteban stood in his own thoughts. He'd just broken the last chains to his past. He had been in the vicinity of death, but made it through, and also redeemed himself.
She was gone forever. It was a strange thought. At the end she had seen so real, like a manifestation of everything he despised. Hardly human.
On the other hand, at least she hadn't told the others about that pill. No need for them to...
He felt a movement just next to him. Looking up from his controls, he saw that Fina had left her panel.
"I'm so glad all this is over," Fina said with a relieved smile. "And that you made it through."
"You're not the only one," Esteban said.
"A wonderful time awaits you. Just like it did for me."
An evil thought had probably never crossed that sweet little mind of hers. But there was one thing she and the others just didn't know.
The future was indeed a bright horizon. But a small dark shady cloud was growing…
But for now, everything was fine. So he should just savor the moment, like he should have done before.
Many thanks to MartinIII for proofreading. Any remaining mistakes are my own.