In Pirate's Honor, notorious pirate captain Torius Vin makes a living raiding wealthy merchant ships with his crew of loyal buccaneers. Few things matter more to Captain Torius than ill-gotten gold—but one of those is Celeste, his beautiful lunar naga navigator. When a crafty courtesan offers the pirate crew a chance at the heist of a lifetime, it's time for both man and naga to hoist the black flag and lead the Stargazer's crew to fame and fortune. But will stealing the legendary Star of Thumen chart the corsairs a course to untold riches—or send them all to a watery grave?
Chapter One: Stars Never Lie
Scales rustled across the hardwood deck of the corsair Stargazer as she plied the moonlit waters of the Obari Ocean. The crew of the ship had heard the sound many times before, especially on nights when the sky hung overhead like a black silk tapestry strewn with diamonds. This was her time, and they knew better than to bother her when her attention was on the heavens.
Celeste squinted through her sextant at the bright planet Triaxus, also known as the Wanderer, which had just entered the constellation of the Sea Wraith. That boded well, and she manipulated the stylus to scratch down the planet's angle to the horizon. Glancing at the neat array of hour- and minute-glasses—calibrated that very evening at the precise moment of sunset—she noted the exact time. She took another sighting, this one of the rising moon, and the stylus scratched down another pair of numbers. Lowering the sextant, Celeste performed the calculations to determine the ship's latitude and longitude. With a flick of magic so familiar that she barely had to think of the spell, she floated her plotting tools out of their leather case, rolled out the chart of the Jalmeray coast, and meticulously plotted their position.
"Well?" a gravelly voice asked as the stylus scratched an "X" on the chart and wrote down the time.
Celeste's tail gave an involuntary flick of annoyance at the interruption, but she stifled her natural response to rise on her coils and hiss. Most of the crew members were more cautious about interrupting the lunar naga during her reading of the stars, but Stargazer's half-orc bosun was an incautious fellow. Besides, he was just doing his job. They were sailing in dangerous waters, and he needed to know their position.
"You may turn to zero-eight-zero degrees, Grogul, or as close to that heading as the wind will allow." Celeste put away her instruments and folded the case closed against the salt air. "We're beyond Jalmeray's southern reefs, and can begin our approach of Kaina Katakka's south coast."
"Good!" Grogul turned away without a word of thanks, as usual, and started barking orders to the crew.
Stargazer turned to windward, her sails trimmed smartly, and began the slow beat to the northeast. When they settled on their new heading, Celeste noted the set of the stars against the foremast and yards; if they started to drift off course, she would know.
Though she had two hours until she needed to take another celestial fix on their position, Celeste retrieved her sextant once again and recorded the elevations of several more planets. She then traded the sextant for a finely wrought telescope and observed the heavenly bodies more closely. She noted every detail—every angle, rotation, and position of every moon—and carefully scratched them into her logbook. These observations had nothing to do with celestial navigation, but with the science of astrology: the intricate song of the heavens and its interaction with the events and beings of this world.
Tonight, she was concerned with the stars' attitude regarding one particular being: Torius Vin, captain of the Stargazer.
With the harmonies of the planets and constellations singing in her mind, and all the numerical data she needed to interpret them, she consulted her astrological texts. This was the hard part; the stars never lied, but interpretation of their message was often fraught with uncertainty. She knew Torius's astrological signature—the position of every celestial body of significance at the moment of his birth—and she had just observed the current state of the cosmos. How these two interacted was the puzzle she had to solve.
Nothing of significance had changed since her previous reading: The planet Liavara, the Dreamer, still traversed the constellation of the Lantern Bearer, Torius's birth sign. The Wanderer would soon cross the constellation of the Key, the symbol of Abadar, the god of wealth. The planet Castrovel was ascending into the Lantern Bearer, denoting desire, lust, love, or life. The reading seemed straightforward; Torius's dreams, his desire for wealth, would be realized.
Celeste crooked a smile and bent to the chart. If the prophecy still held, then so did their course. Her readings of the other planets—Eox, the Dead, traversing the Wagon, beneath the constellation of the Throne—had pointed to the long-dead indigenous peoples of the island nation of Jalmeray. Those who had not perished or been enslaved when the great Vudrani maharajah Khiben-Sald introduced his foreign gods and elemental creatures to the island had fled to Kaina Katakka. There they had lived for a time, until the governance of Jalmeray fell into the hands of the Arclords. Wanting no potentially rebellious natives so near, the Arclords had exterminated the entire population, leaving Kaina Katakka a devastated ruin.
That was their destination.
Destiny resides in the stars, she thought, closing her texts and stowing them. She gazed up into the endless tapestry of the cosmos and sighed with pleasure. Out here, far from land, the veil of the heavens shone so clearly that it seemed close enough to touch. Here under the stars—aboard a pirate ship, of all places—she had found her own dreams' desire: a home. These people trusted her, relied upon her expertise and appreciated her talent in reading the secrets of the firmament. She belonged. She was loved.
Celeste swayed with the easy motion of the ship, reveling in a peaceful night under the stars, her favorite place in the world. Her mind drifted, and she contemplated her other favorite place. A smile touched her pale lips, and her forked tongue flicked out to scent the night air. There it was, that heady fragrance of leather, spice, and human, as signature as his stellar harmonic.
Torius Vin ...
The ship's bell chimed, interrupting her thoughts. Eight notes in two-stroke pairs, which meant the watch change. As if her thoughts had conjured him from the air, she heard his approach, his soft leather boots brushing the deck with a faint whisk not unlike that of her own scales. She did not turn, but waited, knowing how he would greet her, longing for that familiar touch.
"Celeste," he said, his voice singing the song of the heavens in her mind as his hand ran through her alabaster hair.
"My captain." She turned and smiled at him, her coils shuddering in an involuntary shiver of delight.
"Are we on course?" He glanced at the chart on the deck.
She scanned the stars and nodded. "There's a slight northerly set to the current, but we're not far off the plot line. I'll take another fix to confirm my calculations, but we should reach Kaina Katakka's coast before dawn. We will reach the cove by late morning."
"Good." His fingers slipped from her hair and he left her to make his rounds of Stargazer's quarterdeck, checking the hundreds of details that kept the ship running smoothly. She neither knew nor cared much about these details. Her milieu was above, while his was here—his ship, his crew, canvas and wood, steel and rope, lives dependent on his every decision. She might chart their destiny, but he sailed it. He returned to her and asked quietly, "So, you're sure about this?"
She smiled at him again. In front of his crew, he was always decisive and confident; only with her did he let down his guard and expose his uncertainties. "The stars never lie, my captain."
"I know, but the truth they tell is often only clear in hindsight."
"Torius," she said, brushing against his shoulder, "the prophecy is clear; your dreams and desires for wealth will be realized here."
"Good, because I've been dreaming of gold a lot lately. A pirate's got to eat, after all. After our last little problem, money's been hard to come by." He turned away and began to pace the quarterdeck, his hands clenched firmly behind his back. She watched, admiring the preternatural grace that made his movements so fluid, almost serpentine, even on the rolling deck of a ship.
The problem he mentioned had cost them virtually their entire stake, including the profits of their last successful job. She slithered to his side and whispered, "Don't worry."
He laughed quietly, running his hand slowly through her hair again. "Telling the captain of a ship not to worry is like telling the desert not to be dry or the ocean not to be wet, Celeste. Until we get a solid stake again, enough to pay the crew and provision the ship properly, I'm going to worry."
"Very well, my captain," she said, leaning in to nuzzle his neck. That was another reason she loved him: he might be a pirate, but he truly cared about his people. He cared about her. She turned to her navigational instruments once again and floated the sextant up to her eye. "You worry, and I will consult the stars."
∗ ∗ ∗
Torius squinted into the glare as the island's barren coast coalesced from the thinning morning mists. As always, Celeste's navigation was flawless. She had already retired to his cabin for the day, so he would have to compliment her later. He just hoped her astrological prophecy was as accurate.
"This cove got a name, Captain?" Grogul asked, as the brigantine eased slowly nearer under reefed topsails alone.
Torius glanced up at the half-orc; he was taller by a wide hand and probably outweighed the captain by half, but Torius knew that he was more than the brute he appeared to be. Grogul was a fine bosun, a skilled sailor, and a good tactician, even if he did disdain the more esoteric points of seamanship. More than anything, Grogul was solid, dependable, and unfailingly loyal. The captain wouldn't trade him for a half-dozen fancy, rapier-wielding swashbucklers.
"Not on the chart." Torius scanned the rocky beach with his spyglass. There were no visible signs that the place had ever been inhabited. "Used to be a village or town or something here. Seems way back when Nex gave Jalmeray to the Vudrani, the indigenous population hightailed it and came here. Then the Arclords blasted the entire island to cinders." He wasn't about to tell Grogul the rumors that the island was haunted.
"And they brought their treasures with 'em?" Grogul squinted skeptically at Torius as he ran a thumbnail down the gleaming edge of his axe. "Just waitin' in a big pile for us to pick up?"
"That's what we're here to find out. More likely to find a smuggler's stash or some such."
"As long as it spends, I'm not picky, sir." Grogul knew as well as anyone the dire straits they were in when it came to ready cash.
Torius pointed to the northeast corner of the sheltered cove. "Drop a stern kedge and bring her in close there. The tide's on the rise, so drop the bow anchor when there's a fathom under her keel, and keep her hove short. Oh, and have Snick get her babies ready, just in case we have to dissuade any pursuit."
"Aye, Captain!" Grogul grinned. "You want me to tell her she's in command while we're ashore, since we're short a first mate?"
"Sure. It'll make her day." Torius smiled, knowing his gnome engineer would revel in her authority, short-lived though it might be, driving the crew crazy with all manner of inane orders. Snick was an invaluable member of the crew; she kept the ship functioning and her babies—the twelve beautifully crafted ballistae nestled below the deck—working perfectly. But she wasn't much of a sailor. "Launch the boats when we're anchored. I'll be in my cabin."
Despite the daylight outside, Torius's cabin was as dark as midnight, with black curtains drawn tight over the transom windows and a shade pulled over the skylight. Celeste lay coiled on her collection of thick pillows and rugs, only the waves of her white hair visible in the gloom. He moved silently to his bunk and lit a lamp, keeping the flame low. His sword, a beautiful silver-hilted cutlass, hung from a peg. He lifted it down and clipped it to his belt, then pulled a brace of knives from a drawer. He clipped the long fighting dagger with a sword-catching crosspiece to the other side of his belt, and slid the heavy throwing knife into his boot. He retrieved a couple of his standard surprises, trinkets and potions that could distract an enemy or save a life if they ran into trouble, and tucked them away. One last adjustment of his belt and a glance in the mirror—just to make sure that his mustache and goatee were trimmed and combed properly and his hat had just the right rakish tilt—and he was ready.
"Be careful, my captain," Celeste said as he reached for the door's brass handle.
"Don't worry, my love." He gave her an easy smile. "This is the fun part."
Her tail twitched, but she settled back down without another word. He left her there in the dark and joined Grogul on deck. The longboats were bobbing beside the ship, the shore party armed and ready. He regarded them professionally and grinned his approval—all proven pirates, men and women he'd trust with his life, and who trusted him with theirs.
"Don't worry about the ship while you're gone, Captain!" a sprightly voice called from the quarterdeck. He looked up to see Snick standing with her slim legs splayed wide, her tiny hands on her narrow hips. She wore a brilliant red tricorne hat that clashed horribly with her sea-green hair, and a short cutlass at her belt. She snapped him an exaggerated salute. "I'll keep an eye on things for you!"
"Just keep your babies manned, Snick," he ordered, "and if anything that's not us tries to come aboard my ship, kill it."
"Consider said beastie killed, Captain!"
"Good!" He turned to Grogul. "Let's go."
"Man the boats, you scrags!" The crew leapt to comply, swarming down the boarding nets into the boats.
They rowed ashore in silence, stowing their oars when the boats' keels grated onto the rocky beach. Several sailors splashed into the surf to pull the boats higher. Torius, exerting his captain's prerogative, waited until he could vault ashore off the prow without getting his boots wet. The last thing he wanted was to squish when he walked if they were going to do much exploring. Grogul assigned four pirates with heavy crossbows to watch the boats, and joined his captain as the dozen others worked their way to higher ground.
"You sure about this, Captain?" He kept his voice low, his squinted eyes scanning the rocky, vine-strewn cliffs. "Don't look like much."
"As sure as I've ever been about one of Celeste's prophecies." Torius gave the half-orc a grin.
"And how sure is that?" Grogul's dubious gaze turned to him; he was never easily put off by Torius's assurances.
"We'll find something here, Grogul." He clapped the half-orc's meaty shoulder. "As for my dreams' desire for wealth ..." He looked around skeptically at the devastated landscape. "I don't think the Arclords left enough to satisfy all of my—"
A strange, musical trill split the sultry air, drawing everyone's attention. Swords rasped free of scabbards, and Torius found his hand on the hilt of his cutlass.
"Whassat?" asked one of the pirates, pointing to the foliage-covered cliff face. "It's comin' from up there!"
"This way!" another said, pointing to an overgrown path.
A number of the pirates started forward, eager to find the source of the call, but Torius called them back with a harsh, "Hold fast there! Nobody goes blundering off!"
Three of them stopped in their tracks at the command, but several others just kept climbing up the brush-strewn hillside, not even looking back at their captain.
That's not good, Torius thought. They're trained better than that.
"Grogul! Come on!" He drew his cutlass and hurried after them. "The rest of you, form up and follow. Quickly now!"
Luckily, Torius and Grogul were less hindered by the overgrowth than the pirates breaking trail. The captain's group scrambled up, dislodging dry vines, loose rocks, and a cascade of leaves, reaching the top just as the errant pirates hacked away a thick veil of foliage covering a gaping cave mouth. Grogul's huge hand closed on a shoulder and he jerked one woman back before she could venture inside. Torius and the others did likewise, pulling their friends away. All the while, the strange trilling call continued from within. One man twisted out of his mate's grasp and dashed into the darkness.
"Epok! No!" Torius shouted, too late.
The trilling call fell silent, and a sharp crack and a loud thump echoed from within. The pirates who had struggled to enter the cave stopped and looked at one another, their eyes wide with bewilderment. Torius shivered with an unknown fear. Something was wrong; none of his crew were so green that they would go charging into a dark cave like that.
"Don't like this, Captain." Grogul moved to the side of the cave entrance. Torius did likewise and motioned his pirates to split into two squads, one with Grogul and one with himself. He could see now that the arching mouth of the cavern had been fashioned with stonecutting tools, though it was so ancient and cracked that it had begun to look as rugged as a natural cave.
"Neither do I." Torius peered into the darkness. "Who's got the torches?"
Indistinct murmuring was the only answer he got. Grogul looked abashed—or as abashed as the half-orc ever looked, which wasn't much.
"Didn't know we'd be spelunking, Captain."
"Well, we'll probably have enough light from the cave mouth." Torius knew it was no good to chastise the bosun now, but later ...He had another means to light their way if it got too dark, but torches were good for more than light. "Can you see anything in there, Grogul?"
"Nope. Too much light out here." The half-orc shaded his eyes and shook his head. "Maybe once we're inside.
"Epok?" Torius called. He listened for a reply, for a hint that his man was still alive, for anything. He heard a faint scratch that might have been a foot on stone, then nothing. "This stinks like ..." Then he realized that he could detect something, but not with his ears. The distinct scent of rotten meat wafted out from within.
Torius snapped his fingers to get Grogul's attention and, with simple hand signals, outlined a cautious strategy; Grogul would proceed inside with his troop, their backs against one wall, while Torius did the same down the other. Both would keep a sharp eye out for traps or an ambush. Once inside, they would reassess the situation.
They moved slowly, checking every step as they were swallowed up by the cave's darkness. Grogul was the first to call a halt, his sharp eyes penetrating the gloom far easier than the humans'.
"Ssst! Captain!" he called in a stage whisper. "I think we found Epok."
"Gozreh's guts!" Torius swore as his eyes became accustomed to the gloom. Epok stood before them, one hand still clutching his cutlass, while the other gripped one of the wrist-thick bamboo spikes that had impaled him. A wide frame studded with sharpened stakes had swung down from above, propelled by a heavy stone counterweight. It spanned the entire tunnel, and would have killed or maimed several of his crew had they ventured inside with the unlucky Epok.
"There," Torius said, pointing to the thin trip cord that had released the deadly trap.
"Aye, and he wasn't the first." Grogul gestured with his axe at the skeletal remnants of several other unfortunate trespassers. There were at least half a dozen of them scattered along the sides of the corridor beyond the trap, still wearing the tatters of their long-decayed clothing and clutching rusted weapons.
"Well, we're not going to join the club. Come on, and everyone watch your step!" Torius advanced, cutlass thrust before him.
They edged past the trap, flattening themselves against the rough-hewn wall to pass. Grogul had to nudge the thing to fit his thick torso through the gap, causing Epok's gape-mouthed corpse to sag on the spikes. Torius swallowed hard. Epok had been a solid pirate. Passing the frame, he noticed the condition of the device; though not green, the bamboo was far from old. The island wasn't as deserted as he'd expected.
When the last of his squad had passed, they formed up again, advancing slowly. Enough light trickled in from the cave mouth to show that the tunnel widened ahead. Then their rear guard gave a startled gasp and cried out.
"Captain! Epok! He's not dead!"
"What?" Torius turned, his free hand reaching for the curative potion he'd brought from the ship. Torius knew death when he saw it, and Epok had looked as dead as dead gets. But true to the pirate's claim, Epok was moving, struggling to free himself of the murderous spikes thrust through his chest. Judri, the tall Mwangi woman who had called out, moved to help her comrade. "Wait!"
Epok's hand lashed out to grab her tunic, while his other lifted his cutlass to strike. Judri gaped in shock as the sword thrust through the bamboo frame, ill-aimed but accurate enough to pierce her shoulder. Her scream echoed around the cavern as Epok drew his weapon back for another strike.
Torius dashed back, sword raised, but Grogul beat him there. The bosun's heavy axe smashed through Epok's arm, the bamboo frame, and into the animated corpse's torso. Judri stumbled back, but the zombie—Torius could no longer think of it as Epok—wasn't through yet. It thrust clumsily at Grogul, the cutlass scoring a line on the half-orc's arm. Grogul growled a curse, snatched its wrist and bent the arm over the frame until the elbow joint popped and bent backward. He wrenched his axe free and severed the other arm with a chop. The zombie still fought to free itself, but literally disarmed, its struggles were futile.
Torius went to Judri. The wound was deep, and right in the shoulder joint. It was hardly mortal, but would ruin her sword arm for good if it wasn't tended properly. He flipped the stopper from the bottle and pressed it to her lips. "Drink!"
Judri complied and the wound in her shoulder closed immediately. Then her eyes widened and she pointed behind Torius. "Captain!"
"We got trouble, Captain," Grogul growled, reaching down to hoist the injured woman to her feet.
Not three feet away, the bony remnants of the trap's previous victims twitched and clawed their way to their feet, their rusted swords and axes clutched in fleshless fingers.
"Defensive formation! Now!" Torius flicked up Judri's fallen cutlass with the toe of his boot, caught it and put the hilt in her hand. "Everyone! And watch your backs!"
The veteran pirates formed a double row in close formation, half facing the scrabbling skeletons, the other half guarding against the darkness of the corridor behind them. This way, Torius figured, they could defeat the skeletons and then face whatever menace might await them farther down the corridor without worrying about a threat at their backs. At least, that was the theory.
At the first clash of blades, however, theory and practice diverged as the moaning wail of new assailants echoed in the dark behind them.
"Damn but this is a pretty trap!" Torius said between clenched teeth. "I'm going to have a few terse words for Celeste when we get back to the ship."
"If we get back, you mean." Grogul deflected a skeleton's axe, then smashed his attacker to shards with a powerful overhead chop. He glanced toward the dim corridor behind them, wrinkled his nose, and spat. "Zombies. Lots of 'em. Gods, I hate zombies."
"Gozreh's guts!" Torius parried a blade and gave a deft twist. The fine cutlass snicked through the skeleton's forearm like a piece of kindling, but the monster raked him with its free hand, leaving bloody trails down his forearm. The crewman to his left smashed a boarding axe down through its skull, and it toppled. At least they were fragile. He spared a glance over his shoulder and saw the crowd of zombies shambling out of the darkness. Some were armed and some weren't, but their eyes gleamed with the maniacal, hungry look shared by all undead. "This is not my dream's desire!"
"Unless you've been havin' some pretty weird dreams," Grogul agreed, hacking down another skeleton.
"Not even in my nightmares would I desire this!" Torius parried and slashed low, severing his opponent's spine just below the empty rib cage. The skeleton went down, but still managed to clutch at his legs. "Forward! Take down the skeletons before we have to fight on both sides!"
The pirates focused their attacks, smashing with a vengeance at their bony adversaries in an effort to beat them down before the shambling zombies arrived. Already Torius could hear the slow scuff of rotting feet against the stone floor and smell the rank stench of decaying flesh.
Finally, the last skeleton fell under a flurry of blades and the pirates turned to face their new foes. Aside from a few scratches and one shallow cut, they were all hale and ready. Torius and Grogul pushed through to stand in the front of their double line.
"Now we'll see what's what!" Grogul said with a tusky grin, swinging his axe from a center position where he could do the most damage.
"Watch our flanks!" Torius ordered. "And aim for their joints. Take them down, then finish them on the ground!"
He tensed, listening to the muttered curses of his crew. They knew there was no retreat. The trap grating was as effective as a portcullis; if they tried to squeeze past while being mauled by the zombies, people would die, and if Epok's sudden animation was any clue, each fallen pirate meant a new foe. Their only hope was to find whatever had animated the dead and destroy it.
"Ready!" he yelled, brandishing his cutlass.
"Aye, Captain!" his crew cried out, and Torius felt his heart lift.
"All right! On my word!" The undead shambled relentlessly forward. "Now!"
The pirates lunged as one, their blades cleaving the zombies with a predictably sickening result. Putrid flesh spattered the floor and walls of the corridor, and the stone underfoot quickly became slick with the foul suppuration that seeped from their wounds. Several of the undead went down, but others swung their rusted weapons or grappled and clawed at the pirates.
Torius slashed, aiming for their joints, trying to sever the limbs that reached for him. He had just downed one zombie and turned to the next when everything suddenly went black, as if someone had rolled a huge boulder across the cavern's mouth.
"Back!" Torius commanded, disengaging from his opponent and fighting to maintain his orientation. "Everyone step back!"
One step, then two, and he could see again. A wall of darkness so thick Torius doubted he could swing his blade through it loomed before them, but the zombies emerged unimpeded from the black, sloughing forward, their clawlike hands outstretched. Then, to Torius's horror, the darkness advanced with them.
"Gotta take out whatever's doin' that!" Grogul suggested, hefting his axe. "If they pin us against that grating, we're meat!"
"We'll have to run it." Torius looked at his crew, gauging their morale. By their dubious faces, he knew they couldn't do it, not with any hope of getting through. But someone had to. "You and me, Grogul! The rest of you, form a defensive line. If we don't win through, get back to the ship."
The pirates shouted, "Aye, sir!" in unison; they'd stand as long as they could.
They charged into the darkness.
Want more? Check out Pirate's Blade in paperback or ePub format!
Coming Next Week: A brand new, standalone prequel story featuring the piratical adventures of Torius, Celeste, and the rest of the Stargazer's crew!
Chris A. Jackson is the author of the Scimitar Seas nautical fantasy series, which has won sequential gold medal awards for fantasy from ForeWord Reviews, as well as Weapon of Flesh, Deathmask, A Soul for Tsing, and the Cornerstones Trilogy. He lives with his wife on a sailboat in the Caribbean. For samples of his work, his blog, and his convention schedule, visit jaxbooks.com.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.