Black Sails at Sunrise

The Skull in Shadow glided through the sea. Its prow cleaved the calm waters smoothly. Aldrek the mistweaver stood to the rear, motionless as if entranced, channeling his Gift of weather-magic to funnel wind into the ship’s billowing grey sails. Propelled by the young weather mage’s Gift, the ship almost flew across the water at thrice normal speed.

The light of the newly risen sun glimmered on the surface of the sea, granting it an almost glassy sheen. Scintillating rainbows of light refracted through the natural prism of the water to play across the oak of the ship’s hull where it reared up out of the sea.

“Avast, ye bluidy layabouts! Mind yer duties, an’ nae bluidy lazing about!” Rathgar, the first mate, roared at the sailors on deck. The red-bearded dwarf strode the deck from fore to aft and back, keen eyes missing nothing, making certain that all was as it should be.

Atop the forecastle, Maarek Goldgrin stood and calmly watched the sea ahead through an ornate telescope as his bellowing first mate kept the crew on their toes. A ray of sunlight glinted off the gold tooth that gave the captain his nickname as he allowed himself a smile. Ship and crew alike had been through a lot over the past few tendays, since their harrowing departure from the Isle of Crows, and the captain knew they would all rest more easily once their home port was at least in sight.

“Ship ahoy!” Came the call from the lookout up in the crow’s nest. Maarek frowned. They were still days away from land – any land, not merely their own destination – and, moreover, returning from a benighted place where outsiders were killed on sight, not welcomed.  Any other ship in these waters was likely to be up to no good.

The captain’s suspicions were validated with the next call from above.

“Sea wolves, Cap’n! Sea wolves!”

Maarek cursed under his breath. His fingers flickered through the air in the symbol of appeasement to Maelra, dreaded goddess of storms and sea hazards. Pirates – sea wolves, to the Maragashic people – were, after all, one of the deadliest hazards on the water.

The captain peered through his telescope again, and bared his teeth in a grimace at the sight ahead. Not one but two ships approached, moving swiftly, clearly on an intercept course. Sitting high and light on the water, not low like a merchantman, they were clearly hunters rather than prey, and their billowing, wind-filled sails were jet black.

“Ill times, Cap’n,” Rathgar the dwarf declared as he rejoined Maarek on the forecastle. “Yon reavers’re nae friend tae any honest vessel afloat. They’ll be after slaying an’ stealing, ye mark me words.”

“We’ve nothing to interest them,” Maarek growled. “We’re not carrying the sort of cargo that they’re after.”

The captain hoped he was right. The ship carried no trade goods nor riches, after all. On this voyage, its treasure was a half-dozen magically Gifted children from the eastern tribes across the sea, rescued from death at the hands of their own kin and bound for the Black Skull School of magic in Maraport. Not the kind of cargo that could easily be sold, and even slavers tended to steer clear of the Gifted. But these pirates had no way of knowing that.

“Secure the children below, First Mate,” Maarek instructed. “Call our necromancer passengers up on deck – they can damned well help fight for their charges, as the Dread Lady is my witness! Mistweaver, turn your winds on those black-sailed scavengers – if you can becalm them, we can outrun them! And if not, we won’t go down easily. We’ve weathered storms, deep goblins and sea monsters on this voyage, and we won’t fall to reavers now! They’ll regret ever picking a fight with us.”



A Noisy Day by the Beach

The beach at Platamonas hummed with activity. It was Saturday morning, and the beautiful stretch of white sand along the Greek coast was full of people. Some were locals enjoying the weekend. Others were tourists staying at the various hotels that studded the resort town. Already a firm favourite with Russian, Bulgarian and German visitors, it had recently been discovered by the British and the first coachloads of British tourists had arrived the previous day, swelling the numbers already in residence. Now the beach was crammed with people, dogs, sunloungers and bags. Pale, pasty-skinned bodies waded off the shore. Some brave souls dared to swim, and before long the water was almost as crowded as the land. A buzz of noise spread from one end of the beach to the other.

The noise of the revellers spread beyond the water’s edge. Further out to sea, past the range of the swimmers, it disturbed the lone denizen of a grotto deep beneath the waves. The noise of hundreds of beachgoers reverberated off the green and blue coral walls of the undersea cavern, echoing through the submerged chamber. That lone denizen stiffened in annoyance. A forked tongue flickered. Claws unsheathed and sheathed again in irritation. The water rippled through the grotto as a scaly tail thrashed.

No-one was sure, later, which of the several boom boxes brought to the beach by tourists was switched on first. The locals insisted they had brought no such thing. It would be rude, they asserted, to drown out everyone else with their own music. If any of the old grandmothers and grandfathers recalled the stories and traditions of their childhood, the real reason why such devices were never brought to this particular beach, they did not share them with outsiders. But the foreigners switched their boom boxes on, and loud music erupted from several spots in the crowd, becoming a raucous din of competing sound.

The racket was not confined to the beach. It rolled out to sea. The cacophony transmitted across open water and into the depths, losing none of its volume. In the deep sea grotto, claws flexed. A scaly tail thrashed again. And a decision was made.

The incredible din meant that the first panicked yells and screams of tourists in the water went unnoticed. But it did not take long before people saw the huge ripples bursting against the shore, far too large to be normal waves, and beheld swimmers, those who had ventured furthest from land, picked up by tornado-like spouts of water and flung through the air to splash down in the shallows.

Most people gaped in shock when the scaly tail, longer than a bus and tapering to a point, broke the surface and slapped the water hard, generating enormous waves that sped the remaining swimmers back to shore. Others turned and fled, screaming at the top of their lungs as they escaped the scene.

A scaly green neck erupted from the water, topped by a head the size of a small car. Huge teeth gleamed in the sunlight as the monster opened its jaws. Vast amber eyes glared balefully at those humans who had not yet fled. The beast sucked in a deep breath and then exhaled. An enormous jet of water shot from its maw, like a high-pressure water cannon but super-sized, mowing down the remaining bystanders. Drenched, terrified, they scrambled to their feet and fled the scene. Their dogs, barking wildly, led the way inland. In moments, the beach was cleared.

After several loud crashes, silence reigned on the now-empty beach.

Those brave souls who dared return, some hours later, reported that all of the belongings abandoned on the beach during their rout remained intact. Except for the boom boxes, each of which had been smashed to fragments. Remarkably, no-one had been hurt, at least beyond minor scrapes and bruises.

The eldest among the locals murmured knowingly to one another. They knew the stories. They knew the old ones would only cause true harm as a last resort.

Deep in his undersea grotto, the sea dragon embraced the renewed quiet, the raucous din of the hated noise machines gone. Satisfied, he curled up and resumed reading his book.



A World Without Guns

Tom woke to the blaring of his alarm. 5AM, time to get up and ready for another day on the beat. As he stumbled out of bed he flicked on the television to catch the morning headlines. The war in Syria was ongoing, with another round of rocks dropped from warplanes on the enemy. Kinetic strikes, the Royal Sky Force called it, or geo-saturation if you listened to the scientific types who had probably never seen a real dead body, but to Tom it was all just dropping rocks from a great height to cause carnage.

As he shaved, another story came on. Public unrest at the Cornish quarries. Ever since the invention of warplanes and the designation of quarries as a strategic asset, the anti-war mob had been getting more vocal. This lot were demanding the Allies in Syria quarry their rocks right there in Syria, rather than ship Welsh and Cornish rocks to the Middle East to drop on people. He supposed they had a point, after all rocks were heavy and it must burn a lot of fuel to carry them so far just to drop them. It wasn’t as if they could be easily retrieved either once they had hit the ground and smashed on someone (and smashed someone). No wonder war was such an expensive business and taxes were rising to pay for it all. The protesters were lucky they weren’t across the ocean in the United Theocracies of America though, they dealt harshly with dissent there.

As he scrambled into his heavy uniform, complete with stab vest and anti-slash sleeves reinforced with steel rods, and made his breakfast tea and toast, a story flashed up about unrest at one of the UTA quarries, almost as if thinking about it had made it happen. Somewhere in the Diocese of Colorado, apparently. A riot had broken out, and the Adjutant-Bishop had sent in the riot police with their chainsaws. What bloody carnage! Limbs and gore everywhere.

Finishing his breakfast, adjusting his uniform, Tom picked up his sturdy oak truncheon and left his ground floor flat, blinking at the bright sunshine outside. Let the American Theocracies’ coppers keep their chainsaws and their belt-fed crossbows, he thought. A stout oak stick was still good enough for an honest British beat officer, and if he needed long-range support on the streets of London, an armed response car with a couple of lads kitted out with trusty Welsh-style longbows was only a radio call away. Besides, it was pretty rare to run into a crook armed with anything more than a knife, let alone a bow.

Tom vaguely remembered reading something about some smuggler, two or three centuries ago, who had tried to weaponise fireworks – fireworks, of all things, with gunpowder in them, the sort anyone would have at a party! – but failed when, unsurprisingly, the wretched things blew up in his face.  He wondered idly – just for a moment – how different the world might have been if it had worked and the idea had caught on, then snorted and dismissed the whole crazy notion.