[Author’s Note: This is a longer short story, set in Gurhai, and one of few such things that I’ve actually finished. I’m notoriously bad about capturing an entire story arc in less than ten thousand words, but this one is only 6600-some. I wrote it in four parts, hence the sectioning-off. Also, the title is … unofficial, but true to the story contents . Enjoy!]
Arista Reenla opened her eyes and stared into the shadowed rafters, which were untouched by the light thrown from the open doorway. “Report,” she growled, propping herself up on one elbow and squinting as she tried to peer past the torch to identify the man who’d woken her.
“Milady,” the man said, his very tone begging for forgiveness for his intrusion, “we have sighted an unknown ship off the port bow. The ship’s captain requests an audience with you immediately.”
She tried not to sigh as she recognized the face of one of her newest men, a knight named Padryk Vessus. “Where is Captain Keng?”
“He’s– well, right now he’s up in the observation nest, but he said he’d meet you on first deck, milady.” Padryk hovered nervously in the doorway. “Shall I tell him…?”
“Yes, yes,” Arista muttered. “I’ll be up momentarily. Leave me be to dress.”
“Milady!” the knight acknowledged sharply, drawing his shoulders square in a bodily salute before stepping backwards and shutting the door, leaving her in welcome darkness.
Arista tossed the heavy blanket away, letting her eyes adjust to the returned blackness as she strapped her feet into leather boots by feel alone. By the time she’d managed that, she could see faint outlines of the furniture in her quarters, and she avoided colliding with the dresser near her bed as she swept up her jerkin and cinched it closed with a belt around her waist. Actual armor would have to wait, but she buckled her broadsword to her hip before finding the doorknob and stepping into the torchlit hall.
There was an air of tension among the crew that she passed as she made her way up to first deck, the floor just below zero deck – the outside deck, which remained off-limits while the ship was sealed to traverse the void between suns. Captain Keng, a small and brown-skinned man with a wiry build and thick mustache, was waiting near a porthole for her. His uniform was crisp and clean, but he displayed no scorn for her own sleep-softened appearance as he turned to her. “Milady,” he greeted, bowing from the waist.
“Milord,” she returned, saluting with as much energy as she could muster. “What goes?”
“Pirates, I suspect,” Keng said as he gestured towards the round, sealed window. “It’s not a boat fit for cultists of any worth, unless they’re trying for stealth by underestimation.”
“Are they approaching us?” Arista asked, looking through the porthole. Faint in the distance was the bulk of another ship, partially outlined by a nearby sun system. No lights were visible from its windows, and its identification light was unlit.
“Can’t tell yet,” Keng replied quietly. “I have my scanner working to get a solid assessment on just what’s on that boat. We’re not close enough to be sure of their trajectory. We’re steering to keep them backlit against that system.”
“What sun is that?”
“Carennh. A three-world system. We don’t have any outposts there, but it’s not a haven for criminals, either. Humans have little footing.”
“There are non-human criminals, Captain,” Arista muttered under her breath, recalling a certain baghan with a mixture of resentment and amusement. “Carennh… Creen, Yucca, and Mbaun, am I correct?”
“Aye, Captain Exemplar,” Keng answered. “There are docks on Creen that welcome travelers, but they do little in the way of intersun trading. Yucca has one emergency dock, but the fauna is more dangerous than most criminals we’d encounter, and Mbaun forbids humans. Whatever that boat is, it’s unlikely to be local.”
Arista looked through the porthole again. “You were in the observation nest?”
“Aye. Even with my glass, I can’t identify the ship’s make or approximate size. It seems to be of a shape that suggests the presence of gravitic ore, so it’s unlikely to be buthine, and it has a mast, so it’s unlikely to be qkaulom.”
Arista raised a brow as she glanced back at the smaller Lightworker. “You worry about qkaulom, Captain?”
He smiled tightly. “They are a valid worry, I assure you. This isn’t their typical quadrant of space, however…” Keng paused as a noise caught his attention; he waited until fast-paced footfalls rounded the corner, carrying with them a robed man with a troubled expression. “Ah, here. Captain Exemplar, this is my scanner, Archmage Exemplar Drumne. What goes, Drumne?”
The archmage bowed quickly to Arista, then turned his focus to his captain. “Milord, whatever’s in that boat, it’s shielded and well so. Insofar as I can glean, it is not a black-magic shield, which would suggest pirates instead of cultists.”
Captain Keng nodded once, face inscrutable. “What of the distance?”
“It’s not far, sir. If we stop moving, it’ll reach us in three hours, going at its current speed. Right now, it’s sailing a little faster than we are, and it seems to be trying for an intercept course. If we go dark and keep from being backlit, we can probably track and avoid it without any confrontation.” Drumne twitched his lips in the faintest of smiles at the suggestion, as though acknowledging the unlikelihood of Lightworkers turning down a chance to apprehend criminals. “It seems to be about our size, milord. It’s probably a human ship, though I can’t be certain.”
Arista frowned. “Archmage Exemplar, can you keep track of its location, if we choose to dodge it?”
Drumne looked slightly startled, but he met her gaze and gave a crisp nod. “Aye, milady, I can. I’d need to stay in a half-trance to do so, but it’s far from impossible.”
“…Captain Exemplar?…” Keng said questioningly, a brow arching as he glanced to her.
She gave him a mirthless smile, blue eyes hard. “What concerns me, Captain, is that mages capable of shielding a ship so well could track us as easily as we can track them. Does your ship have external armaments?”
“No, milady, it does not. We are a transporter, not a warship.” Keng’s bushy eyebrow stayed high. “Our atmospheric density is standard, as well; the magic we hold would be spent relatively quickly. This is not a boat meant for a battle in the void. I am loathe to engage a ship that is potentially better-equipped than my own without a very good reason.”
Arista glanced to the scanner. “Brother, you said the unknown ship was plotting an intercept course with us?”
“…aye, milady,” Drumne acknowledged. His eyes flickered to his captain.
“Captain Keng,” Arista said mildly, “the best defense is a good offense. And, should these strangers prove non-hostile, they certainly wanted to make contact with us anyway, judging from their course.”
“Captain Exemplar Reenla,” Keng returned in a cold voice, “how often have you and yours participated in ship-versus-ship battles in the black of the void?”
“One of my men has, as have I, once each. The rest of my men can be briefed very quickly. They are not slow learners, milord.”
“I have been captain for eleven years, milady.” Keng gave her a hard look. “In those years, I have never lost a ship, nor suffered any casualties on my ship. I did not do that by being superior in combat; I have done that by avoiding unnecessary conflict.”
“Milady, if you would please not interrupt. That is not a cultist ship out there. We have no moral imperative to go after them. My orders are to transport you and yours to Os. And,” he added before she could speak again, “we are not currently in a combat situation.”
“I am aware that you have final say outside of combat, Captain Keng,” Arista snapped. “Very well. If you think that a ship so well-shielded, that is running dark on an intercept with us, will not be able to track us as easily as we can them and will, in fact, choose to let us pass by peaceably… Then, by all means, let us avoid them and continue on our way. I leave our navigation and safety in the capable hands of you and your crew.” She spun on a heel and strode away, ignoring the quick salute given to her by the archmage as she passed him.
Keng watched her walk away, then turned to Drumne. “Keep a fast messenger running between you and navigation. I don’t want them closer than an hour’s sailing to us at any point. Understood?”
“Aye, Captain,” the archmage affirmed, saluting again before making a quick exit towards the observation nest.
Quietly, Keng turned back to the porthole, watching the faint silhouette of the ship against the distant sun.
“Somebody in command really doesn’t like you,” Arista groaned without opening her eyes, “if you got sent to wake me a second time in the same sleep cycle.”
“Iamsosorry, milady,” Padryk said in one breath. “Captain Keng has issued a state of alert and requested that–”
“–ah. The other ship, milady. Its speed doubled and it turned straight for us.”
“…um. It’s now less than thirty minutes away. Captain Ke–”
Arista sat up, not caring that her new knight could see more of his commander than he should as her blanket spilled to her lap. Like most Lightworkers, she wore her leggings and nothing else to sleep. “Can we outrun it?”
He moved the torch in front of his face, averting his eyes to the wooden floorboards. “No, milady.” Padryk’s voice was softer now, a little more human. “Captain Keng wants to see you in the observation nest immediately. He acknowledges the beginning of a combat scenario and yields top command to you.”
“Between you and me, Brother Vessus, I may need to punch our good captain when I see him.” Arista swung her feet to the floor, tossing the blanket away in the same fluid motion. “Step in and close the door. I’ll need the light.”
Padryk hesitated. “You don’t want me to return a message to Captain Keng?…”
“Not really,” Arista muttered, pulling open a drawer and tossing pieces of soft leather clothing onto the bed. “Now shut the bleeding door and mind your eyes.”
“Captain Exemplar,” the knight saluted, closing the door behind him and turning his back on the half-naked woman.
Arista dressed in her leathers quickly, then moved to the stand at the foot of her bed that held her platemail and began strapping each piece on. It took her less than ten minutes to be fully armored in the gold-edged steel of the paladin. A nice trick, she thought dryly, when I’m not a paladin at all. She finished buckling her broadsword to her hip, its weight comfortingly familiar. “You can turn around now.”
“What would you have of me, milady?” the knight asked, naught but respect in his eyes.
She gripped his shoulder with a gauntleted hand. “Get my men moving, Brother Vessus. Armor and weapons all, and meet in the training den on first deck. Tell Paladin Exemplar Heran that he’s to brief everyone on the finer points of intersun battle as soon as they’re all gathered. I’ll join you after I speak with Captain Keng.”
The young knight saluted sharply. “Captain Exemplar!” He opened the door for her, waited until she stepped past him, then set out at a jog towards the rest of the passenger quarters.
Arista made her way up two levels to first deck and found the door that led to the observation nest, a tiny room nestled inside the mainmast; a ladder led up the hollowed mast itself, kept dark and torchless. With the weight of her armor impressing upon her the severity of the situation, she began climbing the ladder, letting the door drift shut behind her. By the time she reached the top of the ladder and emerged in the nest, which was barely twice the width of the rest of the mast, her eyes had adjusted to the dark again. The little room was filled with instruments meant to make the dim and the distant brighter and closer, its walls lined with wide windows in every direction.
Keng and Drumne were alone in the nest; she joined them and tried to ignore the thin air and lack of elbow room. “Captain, Archmage Exemplar,” she greeted.
Keng gave her a dark-eyed look, but his face stayed too shadowed to read. There were no torches in the nest, and with the door at the base of the mast closed, little light filtered through. “Captain Exemplar,” he replied. “You have my apologies, and command of this ship. They will be here shortly.”
“How shortly?” she asked, glancing pointedly at the scanner, seated cross-legged with his back to the curving wall.
“Eighteen minutes if their speed stays constant, milady,” Drumne answered, his voice soft and distant.
“Are your people prepared for battle and evasive maneuvers, Captain?” Arista asked next, her focus returning to the slender man next to her.
Keng nodded. “Aye, milady. By the time they’re within range of magic, mine will be ready for them. Yours?”
“Eighteen minutes is pushing it,” she said, “but they will be gathered and at least partially briefed by then. Are we still uncertain as to the potential power of that ship and its crew?”
“Aye, Captain Exemplar,” Drumne answered. “Their cloak is very fine. It is purely arcane in nature, though.”
“I’ve gotten a better look at them as we tried to circle them,” Keng murmured, a spyglass still in one hand. “I am not able to positively identify them, but I suspect the craft is indeed a human ship, no larger than we are and seemingly lacking in external armaments. It resembles a merchanter. If they hadn’t been running dark, I would not have suspected them of hostility.”
Arista nodded, her left hand curled around the hilt of her broadsword. “Do we have anyone capable of broadcasting a transmission to them, once they’re in range?”
Keng lifted a brow in the darkness. “No. There aren’t any telepaths on my ship. Why?”
“I was hoping to give them a chance to surrender before we destroy them,” Arista sighed. She ignored her fellow captain’s skeptical look. “What about defensive magic? Do we have anyone who can shield our own ship?”
“Of course. Two of my men – other than Drumne here – are archmages. They’ve cloaked and warded us to the best of their combined abilities. They aren’t exemplars, but they are quite skilled in working together.” The ghost of a smile flitted across Keng’s face.
Arista nodded. “Very well. Captain, I am trusting you to manage your own men and maneuver your own ship. I and mine will be focused on offensive combat.”
“Milady,” Keng acknowledged.
“I’ll be on first deck if you need me,” Arista said, lowering herself to the second rung of the ladder. “They’re coming in to starboard?”
“Aye. Towards the bow.”
“Then I’ll be near those windows. They’re fools to push a fight on us,” she said tersely, stepping onto the ladder. “Light be with you, gentlemen.” As Keng and Drumne returned the blessing, she descended, shutting the door to the hollow mast behind her when she reached the bottom and stepped out onto first deck.
Paladin Exemplar Heran was in the middle of his briefing as she arrived in the training den; in unison, twelve men and women turned to her and saluted sharply. “My brothers and sisters,” she said, no smile softening her sober tone. “In the coming battle, may the Light be with us and boil the blood of those who would harm us.” She met each Lightworker’s gaze in turn, past helmets and chainmail coifs and a few priestly cowls. “Priests, you stay in reserve unless one of us gets hurt. Paladins, I want your focus to be on holy fire along the windows of the other ship, as soon as their arcane shields go down.” She looked to her knight and her lone archmage. “Brother Vessus and Sister Yepu, you’re both with me. Brother Heran is in command of the rest of you.”
Amidst murmurs of acknowledgements, Heran approached her and leaned in close. “Milady,” he said, dark eyes worried. “I’m not sure they’re taking my words to heart.”
“Nor am I, brother, but we must trust them. We don’t have time for anything but.” She gripped his shoulder, her gauntlet clicking against his pauldron. “Lead by example. Finish your talk if you have the time.”
“Good luck with the kids,” he returned, a slight grin twisting his lips.
She mirrored the grin. “Vessus, Yepu, let’s move!” she snapped as Heran turned back to the rest of the Lightworkers. The young knight and the robed archmage hastily followed her as she left the training den and took up a position along the starboard wall, near the forward bow of the ship. “Listen to me very closely, the both of you. Our focus is not on the Light, but on arcane magic.”
“…milady?” Gaila Yepu’s eyes were wide. For a Lightworker to request her subordinates to ignore the very force that united them…
Arista smiled tightly. “We’re going to rip apart their shields. Once we do, the paladins will be able to burn holes in the ship and let their air out. It will be a quick battle, so long as we do our job well. Understand?”
“…permission to ask a personal question, milady?” Padryk asked, eyes on her boots.
“Granted, so long as you ask it quickly and quit staring at my feet.”
He met her gaze. “…I thought you were a paladin?”
Arista permitted herself a small chuckle. “Knight, actually. It’s belied by the armor, I realize.” She gestured with her right hand, an unspoken comparison between her heavy platemail and his lighter, more mobile chainmail and leathers. “If you follow my lead in unraveling the shields, we should have them in tatters before they realize we’re doing anything at all. I am skeptical about pirates having exceptionally sensitive mages or anyone who would suspect Lightworkers of dismantling an arcane spell.”
“Captain Exemplar,” Gaila murmured in acknowledgement, echoed by the young knight.
Arista looked out the window; even in the blackness of the void, the other ship was close enough to be visible in some detail. “Three minutes,” she estimated, leaning forward and tapping her gloved fingertip against the thick pane of glass. “Prepare yourselves in whatever ways necessary, my friends.”
Unsurprisingly, Padryk resorted to an under-his-breath prayer and Gaila fell into a meditative trance to gather her focus.
As they did, Arista smiled to herself as she drew arcane power to hover like lightning at her fingertips.
“Two minutes,” Arista murmured, watching as the incoming ship began to roll. “I assume Heran said this first, but in case he didn’t have time: we’re going to go belly-up to them, and they to us, in order to avoid crashing into each other from the pull of each ship’s gravitic ore. We’ll be perpendicular to them, so we’ll still be able to see either their bow or stern.” She shot her knight and archmage each a hard look. “Wait until they’ve engaged us before you even think about attacking. That ship is faster than this one; if our magic is detected before they’ve committed to the battle, they could pull out and run for it. Understood?”
“Milady,” Padryk acknowledged, echoed by Gaila. “Will our own shield hold up under their attacks?”
Arista gave him a somber look. “I don’t know. That’s up to Captain Keng’s archmages. Either way, we need to work quickly. This isn’t a warship, so there’s no archmage specially trained in air magic, as far as I know. If they breach our shield and put a hole in the hull, we’re going to have unpleasant but relatively quick deaths by suffocation. And all this is assuming they don’t have illegal cannons along the underside of their ship. I don’t need to remind you that arcane shields don’t affect physical weapons.”
“How… likely are they to try to board?” Gaila asked, her eyes uncertain, flicking between her captain’s face and the porthole.
The captain exemplar shrugged impassively. “Unless they have a vested interest in taking hostages, not very likely. Didn’t Heran cover that? The easiest way to loot a ship is after everyone’s dead, and the easiest way to kill everyone is by letting the air out, rather than trying to come over here and fight us in person. Less potential casualties for them. Besides,” she added, watching with a frown as the other ship disappeared from view below them, “we aren’t a warship, and any ship without an air mage is an easy target.”
“Will we be able to see them again?” Padryk asked nervously, trying to look straight down from the porthole and failing.
“They’re paralleling us,” Arista sighed. “A bastardly trick. We can’t see them, but they can’t see us. They wouldn’t pull it if they weren’t sure of their own firepower. Our bellies should be facing by now, though… Keep your senses on our shield. As soon as we’re attacked, we retaliate– and you both will follow my lead. We need to focus on the same part of their shield if we hope to take them down in time to– Light, there it is. Feel that?”
The arcane shield invisibly woven around the ship began shredding, a weakness along the starboard side forming within heartbeats. The archmages maintaining the shield began repairing it, but the damage was accelerating more quickly than the mending. Arista fell quiet, seeking out the part of the enemy’s shield that had naturally thinned to allow their magic to reach out and attack– there. “Follow me,” she whispered, body heavy and immobile in a trance as she began systematically destroying the other shield.
Within seconds, Padryk’s and Gaila’s own magic joined her efforts. Like their own shield, the enemy shield was being repaired as it was being dismantled, but not quickly enough. It would be a close race. “Do not hold back,” Arista said, steel in her voice as she absorbed more magic from the ship’s air and funneled it through her body. It was like drinking lightning and fire. Crackles of yellow-white energy danced along the unseen ship’s flank.
Both ships’ shields fell nearly simultaneously. “Light bless our paladins,” Arista breathed, relinquishing her grasp on the nearly exhausted supply of magic left in the ship. “Vessus, Yepu, stand down. It’s their turn. Good job, both of you.” She could feel her skin buzzing; her breath felt electrified, nerves in her lungs igniting with tiny jabs of pain. Too much purely arcane magic, too quickly – she was out of practice with it.
In the split second after the shields failed, the ship rolled just enough to put the other boat into view at the very bottom of the portholes. It wasn’t a dangerously steep angle – the stronger polar side of the layers of gravitic ore in each ship were still facing away from each other – but it did put the enemy into sight again. On the pirate ship, white fire licked alongside the row of windows near second deck, focused in two spots alone. “They’re working together…” Arista smiled. “Heran is getting a commendation for that.”
“Milady, I see somethi– is– is that a jumper?” Padryk pressed his face to the glass, chainmail coif clinking against the sturdy pane.
A small, dark mass crawled from the port hull of the other ship to the belly, detached itself from ship’s underside, and soared gracefully across the intervening space towards them.
Arista stared. “They’d have to be idiots,” she muttered. “Or after someone in particular.” She paused. “Or out of magic.”
“Whatever that is, milady, it is bigger than we are. Could it force its way into the airlock?”
“It’s more likely to try to break a window,” Arista muttered, spinning. “Yepu, stay. Vessus, with me, now.” She sprang into a full sprint, boots thumping loudly along the wooden floorboards until she stopped in front of the airlock – the only way to access zero deck. “My brother, pray that you and I can kill it in under two minutes.” She jerked open the inner door of the airlock.
“–what?!” Padryk yelped, staring at her in shock as she pulled him into the landing at the base of the stairwell and shut the door behind him, making sure it was completely sealed.
“You have a sword for a reason, knight,” Arista snapped tersely, tossing a rope harness over his shoulders and knotting it around his torso. “Make sure this is secured to the rails before you go over the side, or our gravity will see that you fall down and right towards the other ship.” She handed him the metal grapple attached to the other end of the long rope. “Keep your left hand on that rope at all times.”
“If it cuts the rope–”
“Then stab your bloody sword into the hull to avoid a very long fall. Trust me, you won’t breach it like that.” Arista tied a second harness around herself, grabbed her grapple, and inhaled deeply. “Breathe your last for a moment, my brother, and good luck.”
“Light help us–” Padryk started to say, but sucked in a hasty breath as Arista unlocked and opened the heavy door onto zero deck. The air in the small room thinned and dissipated immediately, and the captain exemplar led her knight up the stairs and onto the outer deck. Together, they shut the outer door, then drew their swords and moved towards the starboard railing and secured their grapples. Their movements were solid and muffled – whatever strange, air-like substance that made the winds on which intersun ships sailed still conveyed some slight noise, however unbreathable those winds were to living creatures.
Below them, clinging precariously to the side of the ship, a larger-than-human creature was tearing at the seal of one of the portholes.
Arista gave a final tug to her safety rope; when the grappling hook didn’t budge, she vaulted over the railing and slid along the hull on her boot heels, her left hand closed around the rope to slow her descent and her right hand drawing her broadsword from its sheath. It was inkily dark, but the light spilling from the portholes was enough to illuminate the creature below as a halasshi – one of the most common people of the universe, but an uncommon pirate. A featherless, four-legged avian, its withers were higher than the top of her helmet and its talons bore four-inch hooking claws on each digit.
And this one, she realized as she stopped herself just above it, was armored in dark chainmail and sturdy leathers. The Lightworker smiled mirthlessly as the halasshi looked up and met her gaze; surprise flickered across its wrinkled, vulture-like face, and it reached up a clawed hand–
Padryk slid to her left and didn’t stop quite so high as she had; his boots landed against the halasshi’s flank with a solid, silent thump and sent the pirate sliding below the window. Its beak gaped in a silent, breathless curse as its talons slashed across his rope harness. He still held the safety line in his left hand, though, and did not fall as he tried to brace himself against the curving hull to bring his sword to bear–
Arista lowered herself more carefully, swinging to the right with the drop so that she stopped to the halasshi’s other side. It had been less than a minute since she’d taken a breath, and already her lungs were beginning to burn. She bent her left leg and pressed her hip to the hull, turned her right leg to plant her foot firmly next to her other ankle, and stabilized her position enough to arc her broadsword in a strike without sending herself swinging.
The halasshi dodged it with another gape-beaked expression, which widened as Padryk’s longsword bit into its flank beneath the hem of its chest armor. It twisted, talons scrabbling desperately against the hull, and attached its full weight to the young knight. Its beak closed on his neck, unable to pierce flesh past the chainmail coif, but still able to apply crushing pressure. Its haunches tensed, then it fired itself and its captive in a leap toward the pirate ship’s belly below–
–just as holy fire incinerated a blackened hole in the enemy hull.
Instinctively, Arista tried to shout and expelled the last of the air in her lungs in the futile attempt. Releasing her grip on her safety line, she twisted and kicked off from the hull, gravity and her own force propelling her after the halasshi and her captured knight. She made herself an arrow, led by her sword’s tip– and as soon as it plunged into the halasshi’s hip, she jerked it upwards with the flat of the blade facing her.
It wasn’t enough. It gouged a bloody hole in the pirate’s flesh, but the halasshi and Padryk continued falling and now spinning, and Arista jerked to a painful halt as her rope ran out. There was no air left in her lungs, and she was becoming dizzy from the lack. She could see the lights in the pirate ship flicker and extinguish, one by one, as their torches suffocated without air– just as the people inside would be doing. Just as Padryk would be doing, if the halasshi hadn’t broken his neck yet.
Arista hung limp, dangling from her safety line, until she thumped against the hull of the ship. She was nearly below the bottom deck, but not so far that the polar side of the gravitic ore couldn’t still pull her inwards, towards the ship. She had to get back inside before consciousness fled her; in the void, there was no magic to use, and no way to rescue young Padryk.
Her stomach twisting, the captain exemplar sheathed her bloodied broadsword and curled both cold-numbed hands around the rope. Methodically, she pulled herself upwards, hand over hand, heavy boots scraping against the smooth wooden hull and finding little purchase except for the tiny ridges between well-fitted planks. She didn’t let herself look down; the halasshi and Padryk would have reached the other ship by now and found no air to relieve them.
Her vision was blurring and her arm-strength failing. She was not a large woman, but her platemail was a considerable weight in trying to reach zero deck while painfully oxygen-deprived. She passed second deck and climbed doggedly towards first as her fingers stiffened. She paused for a moment, hanging still, then found herself rising jerkily upwards.
Arista looked up. A man she couldn’t identify in the darkness was crouched over the railing, reeling her in with great scoops of his arms. He paused just long enough to exaggerate a pointing gesture downwards, then repeated it when she shook her head.
When she glanced down, she saw a handful of dark shapes leaping from the belly of the pirate ship towards her ship. Among them, she thought, was the halasshi pirate and its captured Lightworker.
Alternately swearing and praying, Arista could do little more than accept the man’s hand when he was in reach; he threw her arm over his shoulders and nearly carried her back to the airlock, the eerie quiet of the void punctuating their muted footsteps. They thudded down the short stairs – he’d left the outer door open – and he dropped her on the landing to shut the door and seal the ship.
Within seconds, the inner door had been unlatched and flung open, and air flooded them.
Arista nearly passed out as her lungs reinflated; she sputtered, suffering a hot flash as her body struggled to reacclimate to temperatures above frozen, and caught her breath over the span of several heartbeats. He’ll be unconscious, she thought as she found her feet, ignoring the Lightworkers – some of Keng’s men – around her. But maybe not dead.
“–milady, you can’t go back out there,” her rescuer protested, once he saw her picking up her grapple and settling her other hand to her sword hilt.
“I have a man out there,” she snapped, eyes flashing. “And if he isn’t alive, the criminal who killed him will die.”
The sailor looked at her for a long moment, then laid hand to the cutlass at his hip. “I’ll come with you.”
“…you don’t have armor. Light, you’re not even wearing a shirt. Didn’t you notice how blasted cold it is out there?” She gestured with the grapple; all he wore were thick cloth leggings and a belt for his blade. She paused, then, scanning the other three men who formed a half-circle around her; none of them had armor, though two had leather jerkins, but all of them had their hands on their hilts. “Very well,” she said, glancing back to her rescuer. He was a tall, long-limbed, dark-skinned man; he reminded her of a man she’d known, but for his angular features and long braids. “Your name?”
“Paladin Arshie Xen, milady.” He squared his shoulders in a bodily salute.
“Xen, you’re with me. You three follow after we’re out – don’t forget your bloody safety lines. And for love of Light, someone let the priests know we’re going out to fight so they can keep us from bleeding out.”
“Aye!” chorused the sailors. Arista tried not to think about the piss-poor odds facing them as she shut the inner door in the determined faces of three men. A glance showed her that Arshie had been wearing a safety line already; she gave him a silent nod as they both inhaled for the last time.
Absorbing as much magical energy from the thin atmosphere of the airlock as she could, Arista kicked open the outer door and returned to zero deck, the unarmored paladin at her heels. After he sealed the door behind them, they both paused just long enough to affix their safety line grapples to a sturdy rail next to the hatch.
The pirates were already clambering over the starboard rail; she identified two Lo’hês, a human or something close to it, the halasshi, a buthine, and what was probably an anean. Terrible odds against two humans unable to use their trademark magic, especially with one unprotected against claws and teeth and pincers and blades.
Arista pointed an arm at the halasshi, then made a beckoning motion. It was too dark to make out more than the faintest of silhouettes against the inky blackness; she couldn’t tell if Padryk was draped lifelessly over the pirate’s back or if he was clinging of his own volition.
Still, she could see well enough when a Lo’hêsalo reared up on its haunches and stretched its long jaws towards the knight on the halasshi’s back.
Arshie ran past her, his bare feet light on the wooden deck, his short blade outstretched before him. Arista stayed motionless, focusing on the Lo’hêsalo until a faint aura of magical light collected around it. It has been four minutes, she thought to herself, and he is probably dead. With that admission, she allowed her rage to ignite, and the magic she’d projected towards the Lo’hêsalo ripped its body apart with uncontrolled force. Pieces of flesh and splinters of bone spattered the pirates around it as a heap of tattered organs slumped steaming to the deck.
The halasshi galloped forward, limping heavily from the stab to its lower ribs and the chunk of flesh missing from its haunch; Arista waited until it passed Arshie and closed on her, then drew her sword and lunged forward in the same spring-loaded motion. Her blade cut into its neck, just above the hem of its chainmail, and it hit the deck and rolled. Footing was suddenly uncertain as blood spurted across the wooden planks.
Behind her, the outermost door of the airlock opened, and three sailors charged up the short flight of stairs to zero deck with a vengeance. One stopped, sheathed his sword, and hauled Padryk’s shadow-dark body back inside the airlock; the other two rushed to join Arshie in fighting the pirates.
There was already a faint glow of Light around the shirtless paladin’s body, healing the gashes he’d earned so far. Arista silently thanked the priests and moved forward at a slow walk, her muscles still shaky from being oxygen-deprived for too long mere minutes ago. The human pirate had already been cut down, as had the other Lo’hêsalo; the buthine and the anean were proving to be more difficult foes. None of the men had weapons heavy enough to break through the buthine’s exoskeleton – it was too dark to accurately aim for its few vulnerable spots – and its pincers and venomous tail were difficult to dodge.
Arista stopped, still a dozen feet from the skirmish, feeling her lungs resume their insistent burning. She spat out the rest of the magic she’d stored in her body, feeling painfully empty as soon as she did so, and wrapped it around the buthine. She couldn’t focus enough to transform raw arcane magic into any particular element, even the holy fire that was the trademark of Lightworkers, so she simply pushed it into the buthine’s six eyes with as much force as she could muster.
After a moment of convulsing, the buthine lay still on the deck. The four Lightworkers, still receiving distant healing from the priests on first deck, surrounded and cut down the remaining anean pirate. Arista had already descended the stairs into the airlock by the time they turned and jogged towards the hatch. One of the men paused to release all five safety lines and carry everyone’s grapples inside. Her body feeling sluggish and heavy, Arista leaned against the inner door as Arshie and another man pulled the heavy outer door shut and securely latched it. Once the hatch was sealed, she pulled the inner door open and and squinted against the torchlight, her mind groggily blank.
The air inside the ship was too hot and too magic-dry for her tastes, but it was a relief to breathe again.
The faces around her were unrecognizable blurs, and the burble of voices was hard to distinguish. She lifted an unsteady hand for silence, then spoke, her voice broken and dry. “Knight Vessus?”
Someone stepped forward from the crowd, and she focused enough to identify Captain Keng. “The priests are tending him now, milady,” he said, his voice seemingly fuzzy. “He’s badly hurt, and his mind may not recover fully from suffocating for so long, but he’s alive.”
A second voice spoke up, and she recognized Drumne after a split second. “There are no survivors from the pirate ship, Captain Exemplar.”
Keng gave him a quick hand gesture, then glanced back to Arista. “Our hull was breached in two places. Archmage Exemplar Drumne kept our air inside for long enough for us to reseal safely. We are now completely out of any danger.”
Her tongue felt thick. “You’re an air-magic specialist, Drumne?” She looked hard at the robed archmage, who smiled faintly and nodded. “Fine job, then.” She glanced to the four men who had accompanied her to zero deck; one’s skin had greened with buthinian venom, but a priest was already draining the wound and murmuring a prayer to the Light. Arshie and the other two were bleeding, and one was cradling an arm to his chest tenderly, but they were all standing under their own power.
“Our men and women will be fine,” Captain Keng said, answering her unspoken question. “There’s enough magic left on-board for the priests to heal the wounded; good sleep will do the rest.”
Arista finally allowed herself to relax, shoulders slumping beneath the weight of her pauldrons. “Thank the Light,” she breathed.
The rest of the trip to the sun system of Os was noticeably less exciting.