The Incredible yet Accurate Adventures of the Dread Pirate Captain Solaire Ravenheart
Otherwise known as
The Adventures of Solaire
Part XVI: Gilded Lilies and Sharpened Daggers ii
There are, I have found, two general strategies when it comes to battles. The first is to take stock of the enemy’s troops, identify major lines of command and troop division, and attempt to force your own troops through said lines, destroying communication between your enemy’s forces and simply dividing and conquering the remaining mass of confused men.
Or, you can charge in screaming and hope for the best.
The first strategy is the more accepted one, and has been the subject of centuries of study and refinement. The second never works, with one major exception:
If you happen to be Solaire Ravenheart.
Solaire opened his eyes and groaned. “Wazzwe doin here?”
The blurry forms of Skyler, Willaby, Tomo and Austin looked at each other, then back down at Solaire from where they hovered above him.
“What did you say?” Skyler asked.
“Ow,” Solaire clarified. He sat up and rubbed the side of his head. “What happened? What’s going on?”
“You were assaulted by an unknown actor,” Tomo reported. “He activated your slave plate, somehow. You accidently fired into a pipe of steam, thwarting his invisibility enchantment with the resulting cloud of mist, and allowing Austin to dispatch the enemy.”
Willaby nodded and took a half-step away from the grunzen’s massive hand.
“Accidently?” Solaire scoffed. “Accidently? I manage to calculate, form, and then execute a brilliant plan to neutralize a foe’s advantage while being fried alive via bottled lightning, and you chalk it up as ‘accidently’?”
Skyler raised an eyebrow. “So you knew what was going on?”
“Of course I know what was going on. I just needed to make sure you all knew what was going on.” Solaire got to his feet, did a little bounce on the balls of his heels, and took a step forward.
Instantly, the entirety of the Emperor shuddered with a GROAN that was so enormous, it felt like it shook the core of the men’s souls, and everyone had to brace to keep from toppling over.
“ATTENTION:” a mechanical voice sounded from somewhere unseen, “THE EMPEROR IS UNDER ATTACK. GUESTS, PLEASE STAY IN YOUR ROOMS. CREW, TO YOUR ASSIGNED BATTLE POSITIONS.”
Solaire pointed angrily to the ceiling. “Why did nobody tell me about that?”
“You said you knew what was happening,” Willaby answered.
“I do know what’s happening,” Solaire snapped. “Why don’t you know what’s happening?”
Willaby’s face turned into a mass of confusion. “But…”
“Shut up. How long have I been out?”
“Less than half a minute, maybe,” Austin said.
“Wonderful.” Solaire began to march down the hallway. “To battle!”
“Wait a minute,” Skyler interjected. “What about hiding the rest of our stashes so Weiss doesn’t find it?”
Solaire paused. “Hiding the…? OH! That. I lied about that.”
“What? Why?” Skyler shouted.
“Because chuckles over there was threatening me with my own damn slave plate, and I needed to take him out before he caught on that I was doing it.” Without turning around, Solaire pointed to the group. “The easiest way was to wire you lot up with so much paranoia that you’d all shoot first and ask questions later.”
Tomo regarded Solaire with a serious expression. “Even so, I must still rehide mine. The thieves that stole my Elysium…”
“...were me,” Solaire finished. “I needed to test a theory. You can rehide it later, if you want, but it’s safe for now. So follow me to the top deck.”
Nobody moved, or said anything.
Then they all started shouting over each other at once.
“You lying son of a howler monkey!” Skyler yelled. “You just decide to lie to us and yank our chains around because, what, it’s convenient? I should tie you to the paddlewheel and…”
“...steal from me,” Tomo added. “I have always known that you were a dishonorable scoundrel of the lowest order, but never in a million years would I have imagined…”
“...getting us into so much trouble,” Austin’s bassy voice rumbled. “We could have got caught, Solaire. You could have killed me and everyone else to free yourself, and you think we’re just going…”
“...insult, and lie, and… be mean!” Willaby whined. “And for your information, I do know what’s going on! You just never let me talk!”
Solaire calmly turned around and let the wave of complaints continue. After a minute, the onslaught died down and silence returned.
“There,” Solaire said. “Everyone got it out of their system?”
“NO!” Willaby shouted. Everyone turned to watch him and waited.
The baker blushed. “Alright, fine, I guess so.”
“Wonderful,” Solaire said. “I have a response to all that.”
Everyone held their breath.
“You’re absolutely right.” Solaire clapped his hands. “Now, who wants to help me with my next plan?”
Skyler laughed. “You’re serious? What in the name of the created worlds would make you think that any of us would help you after that little stunt?”
“Because…” Solaire lowered his voice, “if you do, my life will, quite literally, be in your hands, and I won’t be able to pull any more of those little stunts.”
Everyone looked at each other, then leaned in.
Solaire grit his teeth. Well, he thought, here goes nothing.
He reached into the inside of his pocket and pulled out a small, cylindrical device with a name written in bold letters along the side.
Tomo frowned. “Is that…?”
“My slave plate controller,” Solaire confirmed. “The thing that keeps me bound here to Weiss, and the thing that insane thief stole to keep me in line. Or, at least, try to. I don’t think I need to tell any of you how vulnerable of a position I’m putting myself into by showing you I have this.”
Willaby raised his hand. “Hang on, I don’t get it. Can’t you just leave now?”
“Perhaps,” Solaire said. “But I plan to kill Weiss before I leave, and that little bastard said that the plates are hooked up to his heart. I’d like to untangle myself from that and follow up on my intentions before I sail off. And it’d be nice to have as many hands as I can take off this boat before I do so.”
“My plan is to sneak a fake controller into Weiss’ room,” he continued. “If you help me do so, I’ll be free to run about the ship as I wish and look into doing Weiss in. If I accomplish that, you’re all free. And, like I said,” he twirled the controller between his fingers, “my life will be in your hands. I’ll be relying on you not tattling to Weiss about this. Personally, I feel like that’s sufficient payback for what just happened.”
Another massive RUMBLE rippled through the ship, and everyone braced themselves.
“But we have to do it now,” Solaire said. “We aren’t going to get another chance like this again, what with the chaos on this ship right now. So, who’s with me?”
Nobody spoke for a moment.
“Would you really try to get me off this ship?” Willaby asked.
Solaire put a hand on his chest. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
Willaby frowned. “No offense, Solaire, but that doesn’t mean a lot coming from you.”
Solaire tipped his head. “None taken. But I think you know how much I want to kill Weiss, and once he’s gone, they’ll be no one keeping you here.”
He thought about that for a second. “I suppose you’re right. Alright, I’ll help.”
Skyler looked to Willaby, then to Solaire. “Dammit… well, in for a copper, in for gold. I’m in too.”
Solaire nodded, then turned to Tomo.
The samurai sighed. “It would not be honorable for a debtor to plan for his debtee’s murder.”
“You’re not doing any of the planning,” Solaire said. “You’re just helping a comrade-in-arms get to a few places he needs to go in the middle of a battle.”
Tomo fidgeted. “I don’t know…”
“Tomo,” Skyler said, “is there anything about Weiss, anything at all, that you would consider ‘honorable’?”
“No,” he answered immediately.
“Is there anything wrong with one low-life getting killed by another low-life?” Skyler followed up.
“No,” Tomo answered again. “In fact, in the Shimi-Ra, it is said that such men court such fates, and when one falls victim to it, it can be considered justice from the heavens.”
Skyler gestured to Solaire with both arms.
Tomo stared. “That… is a fair point. Alright Solaire, I shall assist you this night and keep your secret so that, should Weiss fall by your hand, his death at so rotten, evil, and unholy an opponent shall pronounce his sins to history.”
“Don’t praise me too highly,” Solaire muttered.
“I have not,” Tomo assured him.
Everyone turned to Austin.
“Dammit Solaire,” the grunzen rumbled, “why do you always have to do this to me?” He strode away, back turned to the rest of the group, and stared into space.
Solaire squeezed the handle of a revolver under his coat. This was it, the moment of truth. Everyone else’s responses, even the self-righteous Tomo, he’d been certain would fall with him; they were all constricted by Weiss’ slave plates, and wouldn’t be able to turn down an opportunity to rid themselves of it. But Austin didn’t have a slave plate. His relationship with Weiss was different, for some reason.
And Solaire had no idea what that meant.
He squeezed the revolver again. Depending on what the man said, Solaire might have to put a bullet in his head, here and now.
“I hate Weiss,” Austin began. “I know you all might not believe that, but I do. If I could kill him, I would.”
He turned back to face the rest of the group. “But I can’t, and I can’t afford to be seen planning to kill him. He’s got… something of mine that I can’t risk.”
Solaire held up the controller. “Something more important than your life?”
“Yes,” Austin answered without hesitation.
The silence hung in the air.
“You should be able to get what you need to get done with those three,” Austin said, waving a hand at the other men. “I’ll be at the top deck, fighting off… whatever the hell has climbed aboard. I won’t stop you, but if you all get caught, or if I get ordered to stop you…”
Solaire nodded, finishing the thought for him. He let go of the pistol under his coat.
“For the record,” Austin said, “I’m rooting for you. I really am.” Then the man turned into a doorway and THUD THUD THUDed his way up the stairs.
Solaire watched him go, then turned back to the rest of his men. “Well then… who’s ready for some chaos?”
“VINTHROP!” Weiss shouted, clinging to the railing and watching the battle unfold beneath him. “STATUS REPORT!”
“All passengers have been safely sequestered in their rooms,” Winthrop calmly narrated, no more than five inches away from Weiss. “Damage to the ship appears to be minimal. But, as to the nature of the attackers…”
Weiss frowned and watched as a leather-clad guard spin about, wildly looking for something. As soon as the guard’s back was turned, a man clad in a strange silky black material melted out of the shadows, calmly strode past and, in one swift, smooth motion, slit the guard’s throat and melted back into the surrounding dark.
“Schadow cloth.” Weiss marveled. “Gods and demons, it’s ze Gilded Lilies.”
Winthrop raised an eyebrow. “Beg pardon?”
“Old siefes’ guild. Skilled. Rifal to my fazer’s guild, a time ago.” Weiss turned to watch another man melt out of the shadows and slash a dagger at a spindly golden automaton. The blade harmlessly CLANGed against the leg of the construct and instantly, it whirled away from the engagement with another man it had been occupied with. The shadowy man’s eyes went wide and he stepped aside, misting into the dark, but with one confident thrust, the construct stabbed a bladed arm into the space he had just been. There was a cry of pain, a flash of scarlet, and the dead body of the man materialized, skewered on the weapon.
“The construct guards seem to be effective,” Winthrop noted.
Weiss smirked. “Siefe’s guilds are nefer fery good at respondink to ze changink times.”
Winthrop nodded. “If they continue their assault like this, they will exhaust themselves. I suggest we simply give the order to hold, then wait for them to dash themselves to pieces on our forces.”
“No,” Weiss said. “Zey are here for somethink. Zis is a distraction of some kind while zey carry ze real prize avay.” He frowned. “And zis is… fery unlike zem. Zey prefer subterfuge ofer such bold action. Why ze change?”
“Solaire,” Winthrop noted dryly.
Weiss’ frown deepened. “I fail to see how Solaire could hafe affected…”
“No,” Winthrop clarified, pointing into the crowd. “Solaire.”
Weiss followed the gesture. There, stumbling out of an open doorway, were the forces of Skyler, Tomo, Willaby… and, of course, Solaire.
They were gathered together in a strange circle, Tomo, Skyler, and Solaire clustered around the tweed-clad sorcerer at equal-distant ends, forming a compact triangle around the man. Willaby had his carved spell-rod raised high in the air, over his head, eyes closed in concentration, lips moving in a mumble of something. He was far too far away, and the din of battle far too loud for Weiss to hear anything, but I doubt that being able to hear the man’s words would have clarified anything for the casino baron:
“Oven stoked to extreme heat,” he was muttering, “billows operating. Mix two parts flour to one part water. Half pinch of yeast, let sit overnight.”
An overwhelming light of bright white flooded out of his rod and into the surrounding area, bathing a radius of almost thirty feet. As the wave of illumination hit, one of the shadow men materialized into the air with an expression of surprise and without missing a beat, Solaire put a bullet into the man’s head.
“Good!” Solaire yelled. “Alright, protect the fat man. Make sure they don’t get a chance to break his concentration. Step together. We’re going for the pump controls, over there!”
With a barely visible nod from the other two, the mass began to walk together, making their way over to an oversized pipe.
Winthrop frowned. “What in the worlds is he doing?”
Weiss squinted. “He is approchink an intake pump… he iz… what iz he doink?”
As they stared, Skyler hooked his blade into the fleeing form of a suddenly-visible shadow thief and slammed his head into the heavy pipe they were now adjacent to, at which point the man slumped onto the floor and did not rise again.
“Skyler, Willaby, cover us!” Solaire ordered. “Tomo, how the hell do I work this thing?”
The samurai stepped forward while the others formed a thin wall between them and the ensuing battle, Skyler picking off targets with a pistol at the edge of Willaby’s light and Willaby half-heartedly flinging arcane projectiles at any thieves that were making steps towards the men, instead of away from.
“This increases the amount of water going into the boilers,” the samurai said, pointing at one of a pair of handwheels. “This one increases the amount of airflow into the boilers, making the flames burn hotter.”
“Which way is more?” Solaire asked.
Tomo motioned a circle with his finger.
“Right!” Solaire shouted as he grabbed both wheels and spun them with gusto.
“Is he... sabotaging the ship?” Winthrop asked.
At almost exactly the same time, Tomo below said, “it appears that you are sabotaging the ship.”
“What?” Solaire replied. “Of course not.”
He began to spin the wheels faster.
Weiss’ frown increased in intensity. “I don’t zink so. I fail to zee hov ze engines hafe anythink to do vis vhat is goink on.”
“Perhaps he’s finally gone mad,” Winthrop guessed.
Several sinister sounding BANGs and CLANGs began to emanate from the pipe, loud enough to cause Willaby to pause and glance over his shoulder. “Er, Solaire…”
“Just a little more!” Solaire shouted back.
Tomo’s eyes went wide. “You are sabotaging the ship!”
“Oh come on!” Solaire shot back. “It is not sabotage. It is a very creative use of the surrounding environment that will bestow a tactical advantage in this combat.”
“By irreparably damaging the engines,” Tomo countered.
“C’mon Tomo,” Skyler said, pausing for a moment to line up a shot that connected into the skull of a thief attempting to dive out of the aura of Willaby’s blazing sphere of light. “This is Solaire we’re talking about. Is it really that surprising?”
Winthrop, who had been listening to the exchange carefully from his perch high above, turned to Weiss. “Do you have any idea what…”
“GUARDS!” Weiss screamed, “SHTOP ZAT MAN RIGHT NOW!”
A few of the leather-clad mercenary men turned up to look at Weiss, confused, at least one man getting his throat slit by a shadow thief for the effort. The rest had just enough time to see where he was pointing to and take a few tentative steps towards the noble before the pipe belched up a ship rattling GRRROOOAAAN.
The sequence of events then followed the below list thusly, in rapid succession:
Solaire screamed “HIT THE DECK!” and proceeded to follow his own advice.
Willaby, Skyler, and Tomo heard the proposal and followed it as well.
Several nearby mercenaries, unsure of who or what was speaking, but hearing the obvious urgency in the interloper’s voice, decided to act upon the command.
Two shadow thieves, absolutely confused at what was going on, did so on instinct.
There was a great, massive gurgling sound from the large intake pipe.
The intake pipe proceeded to explode.
And finally, everyone within a thirty foot radius of the former intake pipe who had either been too slow, to preoccupied, or two hard of hearing to internalize Solaire’s advice were hit with a blast wave of boiling-hot steam and metal shrapnel as the preceding cloud of mist washed over the top deck like a massive tidal wave washing over an over-confidently placed picnic near the ocean.
Winthrop stared at the white-gray mass in awe. From his position higher up, he could see the large cloud laid out before him like a quilt on a bed. The sounds of battle, barely muffled, were still ringing out with gusto, but none of the action could be seen in the dense fog, save for the flash of a few guns and the occasional head of a confused construct peeking out over the mist.
“That clever bastard,” Withrop chuckled. “He managed to find a way to neutralize the enemy’s advantage. If no one can see, then invisibility doesn’t matter; everyone’s back to an equal playing field.”
“DEFIZION A,” Weiss shouted, “CONTSHTRUCTS EINER AND ZWEI, TO ME! Vinthrop, you shtay here and coordinate ze counterattack. I am goink after Solaire.”
Winthrop took a step back. “But sir, all he did was make a distraction to assist our defence. True, in a destructive and disrespectful manner, but given the bigger priority...”
“Zis is Solaire,” Weiss spat. “He nefer jusht does anythink! Leasht of all, help! He’s plannink somethink.”
“With all due respect sir, I think you’re being paranoid.” A gleam of metal caught in the dim light behind Weiss and Winthrop’s eyes went wide. “SIR, LOOK…!”
A massive hand shot out from the dark, grabbed the head of the slowly emerging shadow thief, and drove it into the opposite wall so hard that it crushed into a soft and squishy paste.
“Aushtin,” Weiss said, turning around, “vere ze hell hafe you been?”
The giant grunzen stepped out of the dark, white suit almost gleaming in the night air. “Trying to get up here. The whole ship is a chaotic mess. What the hell is going on?”
Weiss paused, as if waiting for something.
Austin sighed. “What the hell is going on, sir?”
“Doeshn't matter,” Weiss replied. “Follow me. I need your help vis somethink.” The small man in red velvet strode past him and without a word, the hulking Austin followed.
I sometimes think that the gods favor bards, arranging events through chance so absurd it must be by cosmic actor. Perhaps by some of the more minor ones, like Yindy of fleet-foot, hoping for a little more appreciation and maybe an extra ballad or two. Regardless of who’s responsible, I would like to thank them, here and now, because had the Gilded Lilies not attacked when Sir Herringford was having an affair with a pretty cleaning maid he’d met the day earlier, and had the Gilded Lilies not decided to hold an impromptu command post in Herringford’s bedroom whilst the pair were hiding underneath the bed, having assumed that the sudden sound of vengeful combativeness approaching their door was the honorable Sir Herringford’s wife, I wouldn’t have been able to track down the following details in this tale.
“The distraction is working, sir,” a pair of sharp black-leather shoes reported. “We have lost many of our forces in the assault, but most of the secondary teams report that they infiltrated the lower decks and are currently searching for the armor.”
The other pair of shoes, also black leather but with tasteful gold tassels at the edges, gave a little stomp of indignance. “This is such a mess. We should have had it and been gone by now, not directing a bloody war zone!”
“We’re doing well under the circumstances,” the first shoes offered.
“Six hundred years of planning and effort,” the other continued, ignoring the statement. “Six hundred years of reputation for never being caught, for being the best thieves’ guild in bloody Lorian, down the drain because that idiot Odassa got outsmarted by a stupid Sodtare!”
“Solaire,” the first clarified.
“Gods and demons damn him whatever his name is! He’s reduced us to muscle and fist-fighting like some fresh-off-the-docks band of ruffians. We’re the Gilded Lilies, dammit! We’re above this kind of thing!” The man cleared his throat, then continued with the tone of a well-rehearsed speech. “We are shadows, unseen and unheard of by others. Our companions are air and night, our friends are dark and cold. No man knows of our presence, for we need no man.”
“Then why did you order Odessa to bring in Solaire’s notes about the Emperor’s security, sir?” the first pair of shoes asked.
The silence turned icy.
There was the BANG of a door slamming open, and a new pair of smart black leather shoes, slightly scuffed, joined the other two. “Report from the scouting captains, sir.”
“Give it,” the gold-tasseled one barked.
“All areas in the lower decks have been thoroughly searched, minus those occupied by guests,” the newcomer rattled off. “We assumed that the target wouldn’t…”
“Blast you, man, get to the point!” tassels shouted.
“No sign of the armor,” the scuffed one concluded.
There was a loud groan and the man in the tasseled shoes flopped onto the bed. “So he’s hidden it in a secret room or cranny of some kind. Wonderful.”
“Should we order the men to begin measurements of the ship, sir, so that we can attempt to find this room?” the first shoes asked.
“We don’t have time for that,” tassled shoes said. “We need to get our target and leave, as quickly as we can, before our losses become too substantial.” He paused, then sprang off the bed. “Tell the captains to concentrate their efforts in the mechanical and maintenance rooms; that’s the most likely place for something of that nature. Tell the assault force to retreat and regroup near the captain’s quarters. We’ll make another push there; hopefully, the smaller space and lack of bloody steam should push the advantage back into our favor.”
“Yes sir!” the scuffed shoes cried, then ran out of the room.
“Bartlesby, with me!” the tassels continued. “We’re going to find Solaire.”
The shoes now identified as Bartlesby shuffled nervously. “With all due respect sir… why?”
“Because, best case scenario, he has those notes he was bragging about, and we can use them to find the blasted armor and get out of here. Worst case scenario, he doesn’t, and I will very much enjoy stabbing him in the face several times.”
BANG! The body of yet another shadow thief, face stuck in the pose of a stunned deer, fell dead into the hallway as the sphere of light accompanied by four charging men crashed into the darkened space like the morning sun.
“Keep that light going!” Solaire yelled, unlocking the barrel of his revolver to reload bullets into it as he continued to run down the hallway.
“Four cups sugar, two egg yolks,” Willaby agreed. “Add to flour, mix thoroughly.” As he spoke, he passed the sphere of light from hand to hand, squashing and kneading it like a ball of dough, the mass growing ever so more slightly bright with the motion.
“Where are we going?” Skyler asked. A thief darted from the side, dagger outstretched and eyes entirely focused on the sorcerer and his light. Skyler spun, catching the thief’s neck in the crook of his hook sword and swung him to the ground before turning about, shooting the man in the head with his pistol, and continuing the spin until he was once again running alongside the group.
“Weiss’ secret deck,” Solaire said. Two more men materialized into the light and Solaire dropped both with a pair of shots before continuing. “We need to get our hands on a slave plate controller. One that’s not hooked up to the one on my neck, that is, so we can replace mine with Weiss none the wiser.”
“Dishonest,” Tomo noted, outstretching his katana to slice through a charging thief without breaking stride.
“So is slavery,” Solaire grumbled.
“I say it not as a condemnation,” Tomo clarified, briefly parrying another thief’s dagger before beheading its owner. “Merely as an observation. In all honesty, I have found Skyler’s philosophical argument somewhat… freeing.”
Skyler squinted at the warrior. “Hang on, are you… living vicariously through Solaire now?”
Tomo blushed. “A samurai would not debase himself by engaging in such an activity.”
“Sea Foam Mother’s sand angels, the world really has gone crazy,” Skyler marveled.
A BANG BANG interrupted the conversation as the bodies of two more thieves dropped to the ground. Solaire slid into the elevator, waited for the rest of his companions to run in after him, then slammed the sliding cage door shut and grabbed the elevator controls.
“Three, One, Two…” he muttered, jerking the lever back and forth. There was a clack, then a rattle, and the elevator proceeded to move slowly downward. After a moment of calm dissension, the doors opened again with a ding.
Solaire stuck out his head, looked from side to side, then spoke “all clear” before moving into the room. After a moment’s hesitation, the other three men joined him.
“What is this place?” Willaby asked, eyeing a rough wooden bed frame and the iron chains attached to it.
“Where Weiss does his dirty laundry,” Solaire said, rummaging through some crates in the corner. “Slave sales, secret deals, so it should be where he keeps…. Aha!” He triumphantly held up a long metal cylinder. Then, grabbing a similar looking device with a crystal at the end, he fiddled with it until the crystal glowed red. Placing his own slave plate controller next to the new one for reference, he tortuously etched the letters in the exact same style as the original until the new one spelled out the name SOLAIRE in large, bold script.
“Perfect,” Solaire muttered, holding it up to the light.
Skyler raised an eyebrow. “Now what?”
“Now we make our way back up to Weiss’ room and place the decoy there. He’ll think he’ll still have me under his thumb, except I won’t be under his thumb, and I’ll be free to plot his downfall.”
Willaby went a little pale. “What, now? With all that fighting going on outside?”
“It has to be now,” Solaire explained. “I won’t be able to sneak into Weiss’ room unless he’s distracted by something else, and this is the best distraction I could have asked for.”
“You do realize that it’s full of those invisible assholes, waiting to stab us in the throat?” Skyler asked.
“And in addition, if you fail to be inconspicuous enough, that we will also have to fight Weiss guards and constructs on top of that?” Tomo added.
Solaire waved his hand dismissively. “Look, we took on that stupid Clockwork whatever on the isle of Delphine. We infiltrated an impenetrable ship. We’ve even solved murders and killed automatons. This is going to be a piece of cake.”
Tomo and Skyler shared a look.
“Well,” Skyler sighed, gripping his hook sword tighter, “I suppose we’re about to test that theory.”
“Blasht it, vhat happened to ze lights?” Weiss growled.
The short, red-velveted man was currently situated in the middle of a group of three leather-clad mercenaries, two of the spindly gold-constructs, and one massive form of Austin, all standing in the small, well-lit doorway gazing out into the darkened hallway beyond.
One of the mercenaries unsheathed his rapier and used it to prod a broken glass orb screwed into the wall. These orbs had been yet another invention of Weiss, large glass balls filled with gasses which then had a small electrical current pass through them, causing them to glow with the intensity of tiny suns. An artificial light source cheaper than rune spells and safer than torches, Weiss had used them to keep the guests partying, or the crew working, for as long as he wanted to. But now, each of the orbs screwed into the wall had been methodically smashed, and the only light in the hallway was a dim green from low-level rune spells inscribed for ‘just-in-case’ lighting, which did far more to accentuate the darkness and shadows than drive them away.
“Looks like sabotage, sir,” the mercenary reported, resheathing his rapier. “Most likely by our attackers attempting to make the most of their advantage.”
“I hate fightink ze smart ones,” Weiss mumbled.
“I suggest we go forward slowly, sir,” the mercenary continued. “Keep you in the center, have Austin lead. If we stay alert, we should be able to…”
“No,” Weiss said calmly.
The mercenary paused. “No?”
“Shtay here,” Weiss commanded, walking back up the stairway. After a brief moment, he returned, carefully rolling a barrel of ale down the steps.
“Anyone hafe a light?” he asked, cheerfully.
Austin reached inside of his coat, took out a torch, dragged it along the ground to light it, then handed it to Weiss. Weiss nodded, removed the large tap, stuck the torch inside, lit end in, handle sticking out, and rolled it down the hallway.
For a few moments, the barrel simply continued to roll, disappearing into the darkness beyond. Then there was a burst of noise and color as a mass of fire erupted, filling the air with bright orange heat and flame. As the fireball billowed, dozens upon dozens of invisible would-be assassins materialized into the open air. The wash of flames quickly set their shimmery clothes on fire and many fell, screaming, attempting to smother the flames before they overpowered their flesh.
“Kanaloa e kala mai iaʻu,” Austin muttered under his breath.
The sentiment was punctured by another loud scream as one of the thieves fell, thrashing, to the ground, his skin charred to an almost charcoal black along his face and hands. With a groan of agony, he raised his hand to one of the mercenaries as he in response, face pale white, raised his pistol to fire into the man’s skull and end his torment.
“NO!” Weiss shouted.
The mercenary looked at Weiss, then slowly put the weapon down as the thief began to groan in pain and sluggishly twist.
“We could have taken them, sir,” Austin said, not turning away from the display of horror in front of him. “You didn’t have to do… this.”
“Yes I did,” Weiss said, mouth twisted into a grin. “Zey snuck aboard my schip. Zey tried to shteal from me. And no one does zat to Mr. Vice visout lifink to regret it.”
He snapped his fingers. “You all, go ahead, make sure ze vay is clear. Kill anyone that managed to escape zat inferno. Anyone alife but incapacitated, leafe zem zat vay. Aushtin and I vill stay here until you hafe confirmed ze vay is safe.”
Without a word, the mercenaries and the constructs left, pausing every so often to half-heartedly fire at something past the flames.
Weiss watched them go until they were out of earshot, then turned to pick at his fingernails. “I hope you know zat zis is your fault, Aushtin.”
Austin’s eyes went wide. “What?”
“Don’t sink I hafen’t noticed your waferink loyalty between me and Solaire. How you’fe let him take command of your little group, vhen I explicitly told you to keep him in line.” He looked back up to watch the fire, flames reflected in his eyes. “Ze time is comink soon vhen Solaire will hafe outlifed his usefulness. Vhen zat time comes, and ze order is given to dispose of him, I want you to remember what happens to zose who displeases me.” He turned to look at Austin. “And zier collateral.”
“Hallway is clear, sir!” someone yelled down the way.
Weiss walked down the hallway, then paused. “Comink, Aushtin?”
Austin took one last look around the burning hellscape, sighed, then followed.
In the interest of skipping to the good parts, let’s accelerate our description of events, shall we?
Weiss talked to Natalia. Natalia said that she’d last seen Solaire and company heading to the top deck. A passing random sailor also confirmed this, and an additional one said that he’d overhead Skyler saying “Weiss’ cabin is this way.” And so Weiss was put onto the trail of Solaire.
Only minutes after that conversation, the same sailor was captured by two of the shadow thieves and, with a dagger to his throat, was politely asked where Solaire was. He repeated the same information. And so the Gilded Lilies were put onto the trail of Solaire.
Not that he was being particularly stealthy about it. Both groups followed a trail of dead shadow thieves and one or two mysteriously smashed constructs on their way to meet him. This was, in fact, the path Solaire and his friends cut through to get to their destination.
As it would happen, they all managed to get to the top deck at roughly the same time.
They just didn’t realize it, given all the chaos around them.
“Lilies, retreat to the upper cabins!” someone shouted into the fog cloud.
“They’re coming from portside!” someone else replied, also unseen. “Get the constructs over here now!”
“Help! I need help over here!”
“Can someone fix this blazing steam pipe?”
“ATTENTION: PLEASE SURRENDER YOUR WEAPONS. WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.”
BANG. CLANG. BANG BANG.
“Medic… I need… I need…”
A sudden wind gust erupted from the center of the deck, clearing away a circle of the mist cloud and revealing the forms of Solaire, Skyler, Tomo and Willaby.
“I appreciate that, sorcerer,” Tomo said.
Willaby blew his nose on his handkerchief. “You ‘elcome. I guess.” He closed his eyes for a moment, reforming the ball of light just in time to reveal a charging shadow thief, dagger ready to bury itself into the man’s jugular.
Skyler whirled around, dropped the attacker with a shot from his pistol, then turned back to the fog around them. “Geez, this mist cloud is still here?”
“The warm air from the steam cloud has mixed with the cold and humid air of the ocean to produce more fog,” Tomo explained. “I would guess that this visual obstruction will not leave until the sun rises and the air warms.”
“And we need to get this over with before that happens.” Solaire looked up. Ahead, the large column containing the command bridge and the captains quarters stood over the fog like a castle in a field. “C’mon, this way.”
Solaire ran, and the others followed, wind gust mysteriously keeping pace just in time to clear the area around the men, ensuring that they were the only ones whom the fog cloud did not hamper. In front of them, just where the fog began, Willaby’s light continued to peirce, and Solaire dispatched one shadow thief, then another, then almost another before realizing that this was not a shadow thief, but one of Weiss’ mercenaries.
“Blast you man, move!” Solaire shouted, barreling into him at top speed and knocking him to the ground.
The mercenary looked at Skyler running past with a confused expression on his face. “What is…?”
“No time to explain,” Skyler said. “Just stay in the fog. As long as you do that, you’re as invisible to them as they are to you.”
The man nodded, then scurried back into the cloud.
“Solaire,” Tomo asked as he threw a knife into the forehead of another newly-materialized thief, “what are we going to do if Weiss is still in his cabin?”
“He won’t be,” Solaire replied. He paused to slide under the blade of a lumbering construct trying to skewer something unseen in the fog cloud, then got back on his feet and continued the charge. “Weiss should be able to figure out that this battle is just a distraction, so he’ll be down in the lower decks, ferreting out the other shadow weirdos and figuring out what they’re after.”
Tomo slit the throat of another thief attempting to sneak back into the fog as Solaire spun and took down one that dove in from behind, again aimed for Willaby. “I’m not sure if you should count on that assumption, Solaire. Weiss’ hatred for you has grown over the last few days.”
“Someone not liking Solaire? How shocking,” Skyler said as he hooked his blade into the collar of another mercenary, yanking him out of the way of an incoming Lilies dagger before shooting the attacker in the head.
“This is more than simple dislike,” Tomo insisted. “He has become rather obsessed with you lately. He is unlikely to just ignore you, even with the battle going on.”
“Look, if he’s there, we’ll deal with him!” Solaire shouted, getting to the door of the column and flinging it open.
“Deal vif vho?”
Solitaire jumped. Leaning next to the door was Weiss, surrounded by several mercenaries, a couple of constructs, and the frowning mass of Austin.
“Er…” Willaby scrunched his hat in his hands and took a few steps back. “H-hello Weiss.” Behind him, shadow in the mist slowly began to form into the shape of a man before one of Weiss’ guards fired off a shot with the attitude of a man idly flicking a fly away, causing the shape to fall to the ground, dead.
“Back this way,” Skyler grumbled, dragging Willaby nearer to the group as he continued to keep his boggled-wide eyes on Weiss.
“Ve do hafe to shtop meetink like, zis Solaire,” Weiss drawled.
Solaire sighed. “Look, I like banter as much as the next guy, but we’re kind of busy, so if you don’t mind…” Solaire took a step forward, towards the staircase past the door, and was instantly blocked by one a large, bladed arm stabbing itself in front of him.
“Of course, of course,” Weiss continued. “I’d be happy to let you help fight off zis infasion vif… vell, exactly vhat plan do you hafe here, Solaire, and vhy do you feel ze need to head to ze central bridge to complete it?”
“Seriously Weiss?” Solaire stamped his foot. “Are we doing this NOW?”
“Tell me vhat you’re doink and you can pass,” Weiss purred.
“Stop right where you bloody are,” a new voice commanded.
All the weapons of the group whirled around and pointed at the source. There, arranged in a semi-circle at the edge of the fog, were a gathering of shadow thieves, each pointing a pistol at the men. Standing in front of the group were two individuals: one, a slightly portly fellow with a carrot-red mustache, and the other a thin, pale man with dark black hair.
“Now, which one of you is Solaire?” the red-mustached man asked.
“He is,” Weiss and Solaire both said, pointing at the other.
Weiss narrowed his eyes at Solaire. “Cute.”
“Right back at you,” Solaire said.
The man with the black hair fidgeted and glanced at his red-haired colleague. “Um, Sir Varathax…”
“You!” Varathax demanded, pointing his gun at Tomo, “which one is Solaire?”
Tomo gestured to Solaire.
Solaire groaned. “Really, Tomo?”
“A samurai is honor-bound to tell the truth,” the warrior replied.
“We have you now, Solaire,” Varathax sneered, training his gun on the noble.
“Finally,” Solaire replied. “Tell the truth now, how long did it take you to realize that daggers weren’t much help in a gunfight?”
“Normally we’re bound to avoid these sorts of weapons, but since everything’s gone to blazes anyways…” He cocked back the hammer of the gun to accentuate his point.
Weiss raised an eyebrow. “Vait, I sought you were after me.”
“Typical Weisse, eh, Bartlesby?” Varathax asked, glancing over to the black-haired man. “Always about himself. You’re right, Weiss, we are here for you. Or something you have, at least.”
“Typical Lilies,” Weiss countered, “continuink to shteal ze scraps from ozers.”
“Come now,” Varathax added, “just because we have a little class when it comes to our operations doesn’t mean you need to get all petty about it.”
Solaire took a tentative step towards the door.
The blade arm immediately sandwiched itself between Solaire and the door again. The mercenaries trained their guns on Solaire. Solaire’s crew trained their guns on the mercenaries. Both groups suddenly remembered the shadow thieves, and the three collections of men began to jab their gun barrels back and forth amongst the huddle of the group.
“Weiss, would you just deal with these jokers?” Solaire hissed.
“Only if you tell me vhat you’re tryink to do!” Weiss hissed back.
“Why the hell do you think what I’m up to is more important than what they are?” Solaire demanded.
“Because you won’t tell me vhat it is!” Weiss answered.
“Ah.” Varathax smiled. “How delicious. Seems we’re at a three-way stalemate, gentlemen. Solaire, would you mind handing over what you promised us so we can end this little farce?”
Weiss glared at Solaire. “Vhat are zey talkink about?”
Solaire shrugged. “No clue.”
“Are you lyink to me right nov?”
Solaire rolled his eyes. “How the hell am I supposed to answer that question?”
“Come now, Solaire,” Varathax prodded. “You’re going to have to help one of us if you want to end this little showdown. Why not the one you hate the least?”
“Fair point,” Solaire said. “But here’s my counterargument:”
And he reached over and slapped Willaby.
“Ow!” the baker complained, rubbing his cheek. As he did, the small globe of light in his other hand faded away and died, leaving the group in darkness.
And the Lilies suddenly vanished.
“NO!” Weiss shouted, eyes wide with fear. He and the other guards immediately backed up to the wall and began to fire, blindly, at where the Lilies were.
“Let’s go,” Solaire hissed, darting into the doorway. The others soon followed, Willaby massaging another light into existence.
“DON’T LET HIM GET AVAY!” Weiss shouted, bounding up the stairs after him.
“Sir, don’t!” Austin protested. The edge of Willaby’s newest light managed to wash over Weiss just in time to reveal a thief on the stairs, mid-leap towards the man. Almost too fast to see, Austin grabbed the thief by the neck and slammed him into the deck floor outside, leaving him in a crumpled heap as he and the other guards thudded up behind Weiss.
“Blast it, blaze it, and triple damn it!” Varathax shouted, running up the stairs as well. One of the guards pointed his pistol behind him and he slid to one side of the doorway just in time to avoid the bullet before returning fire of his own, mercenary tumbling down the stairs as a result. “C’mon Bartlesby!” he shouted, stepping over the body.
At the top of the stairs, Solaire flung open the door to the captains quarters and dived inside, managing to crouch behind a chair. The interior was just a decedent affair, done over in plush velvets, gold furniture, and all manner of fine arts and fixtures, fixtures where Solaire was now bumping and knocking over in his attempt to explore the room.
“Slave plate controllers, slave plate controllers, c’mon, they have to be here somewhere…” He rounded a corner too quickly, ran into a solid gold, life-sized statue of a nude woman, and hissed in pain. “Gods damn art and artists, where the hell is the important stuff?!”
Skyler, Weiss, and Tomo soon filed in, staring at the room in awe.
“Wow…” Willaby said.
“And it’s light in here,” Skyler noted, looking at the abundance of chandeliers and lamps. “That’s a good sign.”
“OUT OF MY CABIN!” Weiss yelled, stumbling in. The other three fell back in a half defensive crouch as the small man glared at them. “Vere. Is. Solaire?”
“In this room,” Tomo said. “Presumably.”
“Tomo…” Weiss growled.
“For crying out loud, all I can find is this junk…” Solaire complained, coming into view with the large, golden gauntlet from the Clockwork Temple held in front of him.
“MY ARMOR!” Weiss and Willaby shouted together.
Weiss narrowed his eyes at Willaby. “Vhat did you jusht say?”
“Your armor, your armor!” Willaby quickly replied.
“Well in that case… catch!” Solaire threw the gauntlet at Weiss before running into another room. Weiss dove and managed to grab it before it hit the floor.
“Dear heafens… is it alright? Did he hurt you?” He turned it over and over in his hands, too preoccupied to notice a shadow from the wall suddenly becoming more and more solid as it slid over to Weiss, dagger raised high.
“SIR!” A massive fist collided into the shadow. Varathax managed to just barely roll with Austin’s punch, flinging him halfway across the room and onto a couch, breaking it with impact.
“C’mon, sir, we need to leave,” Austin said, picking Weiss up and setting him on his feet.
“Not until ve get Solaire,” he insisted.
“Bartlesby!” Varathax cried from across the room. “Assistance!”
Another shadow peeled itself off the wall, stalking towards Austin before it changed tactics and dived back, just in time to avoid being skewered by a seven foot sword.
“THIS AREA IS FORBIDDEN TO PASSENGERS,” the construct informed, head tracking the moving shape. “PLEASE LEAVE.”
“Willaby!” Skyler shouted, jumping onto a table. “Up here, with me!”
The baker scrambled up to the table top. Skyler gestured and Willaby nodded, raising his arcane light above his head and illuminating several corners and crevices of the room, revealing a collection of shadow thieves, who instantly jumped back out of the light’s range. Both Tomo and the rest of Weiss’ guards formed a circle around the table, defending themselves from the hit and run tactics of the Lilies.
“Ve need to…” Weiss began to say, before being cut off by the BANG of a gunshot in the dark and one of his mercenaries collapsing onto the ground, dead.
“Solaire, they still have guns!” Skyler shouted, hooking a nearby golden serving platter with one of his blades and raising in the air in front of Willaby just in time for a resounding BANG DONK and the platter to dent inward with the force of an incoming bullet.
“Hang on, I still haven’t found it,” Solaire said from somewhere unseen.
“HAFEN’T FOUND VHAT?!” Weiss demanded.
“It better be what we talked about, Solaire!” Varathax called from the darkness.
“SCHUT IT, YOU!” Weiss snapped, standing onto a chair in an attempt to see things better.
Almost immediately, Bartlesby lunged for Weiss and the gauntlet he was currently cradling like a child. Austin leapt up and wrapped a hand around the man’s waist, then flung him like a doll across the room and into a desk in the opposite hallway.
Solaire jumped back as in front of him, Bartlesby smashed into the desk like a sledgehammer, reducing it to wood scraps and splinters.
And underneath the body rolled several small cylinders.
“Finally!” Solaire shouted. Taking a brief moment to make sure that everyone was still paying attention to the fight, he slipped his own fake slave plate controller amongst the others. “It’s done!”
“Is it?” Skyler asked, whirling the serving tray around to intercept another bullet.
“Yes. And now, I can finish this.” Solaire unsheathed his cutlass, grit his teeth and sprinted towards the table where all the fighting was. “Tomo, boost!”
The samurai turned from the battle and crouched on one knee. Solaire jumped and landed with one foot firmly on the warrior’s large shoulder pauldrons. Tomo stood just as Solaire jumped again, catapulting the noble thirty feet in the air and on an arch towards the other side of the table. Weiss watched in horror as the man flew, sword outstretched, right for him, and could only cower in fear as Solaire landed inches away and drove his sword down…
...right into a patch of shadow behind Weiss.
Weiss removed a finger from his eyes. The shadow patch was… bleeding.
There was a shimmer, and suddenly the form of Varathax materialized, cutlass dug deep into the top of his skull.
“Bloody… Solaire…” he groaned, before falling to the floor, dead.
The room went silent.
“Y’know...” Solaire placed a foot onto the man’s head and withdrew his blade. “If I’m counting this right, you’ve lost your leader and your second-in-command tonight, not to mention a whole lot of your friends. If I were you, I’d leave now before you get added to that list.”
Then, there were the sound of a thousand phantom footsteps rushing out of the room and to areas unknown.
“Well,” Solaire said, turning to Weiss, “I think that worked out pretty well, don’t you?”
Weiss took a step back. “I… vhat?”
“Best way to stop a fight, cut off the head of the snake.” Solaire gestured to the body of Varathax. “Of course, I had no way of finding him, but after figuring out what they were there for, that stupid armor of yours, thought the best way to flush him out would be to dangle it in front of him.”
“And you couldn’t tell me zis vhy?” Weiss asked.
“Would you have let me use your precious armor as bait?” Solaire replied.
“No, I vould not hafe.”
“Well there you go.”
“And zat’s all you came for?” Weiss pressed. “Zat vas your plan all along?”
The two men stared at each other, not moving.
“Um, sir…” Austin said. “We should probably…”
“Don’t sink I hafe forgotten about zis, Solaire,” Weiss said. “You may sink we’re enemies, but trusht me, you don’t vant to see vhat I can do vhen I vant to hurt you.” Then, he hopped off the chair and stalked towards the door. “Men, vis me. Let’s mop up ze lasht of zem.”
Austin, Tomo, Skyler, Willaby and Solaire stayed, watching Weiss and what was left of his guards head down the stairs and into the remaining battle.
“Did you do it?” Austin whispered.
Solaire nodded. “And with Weiss none the wiser.”
“He suspects,” Tomo said. “He’s not sure of what, but he does suspect that you have done something.”
“Don’t worry,” Solaire said with a smile, fingering his own slave plate controller inside his pocket. “That will just make it all the sweeter when we do finally put a bullet in his head.