Coal Dog's blood pumped, boosting him forward like a current of blood in the engines of a machine made only to fight. The glimmering curve of his rang swept in front of him, its concave edge scything through the green-black torso of one of his masked attackers. An eternity of fighting, the sword an arc-path to the end of this interminable dream of blood.
Behind him, Spark Drifting Upward, the latest of a series of companions for Coal Dog, rushed equally quickly, stabbing left and right with his quick daggers, and shouting Coal Dog's name. Coal Dog's name... Did he have a name? No time to remember, only to fight.
No exit, no escape. There was only fighting. There was a net, but the sword, the sword, that iron curve, sliced it to ribbons. Something, a dart, caught in the fist. Was it his fist? Spark fell behind, fell below. No time to stop. No time to mourn. Fight, run. Break through.
An arrow came from beside him, but it was tipped with a globe of glass, filled with a frothy liquid. It shattered, glass shattered, froth became ephemeral gas, blowing across Coal Dog's face like a web of mist.
That was what Spark had said- "'Ware of their magic."
Coal Dog breathed in that deadly mist. Where was up? Where was up? Coal Dog knew better.
"This is not magic, Spark!" he shouted, muscles collapsing, mind fogging.
"This is not magic, it is alchemy. It is alchemy, Spark," he gasped, as if it were the most important fact in all the world. "Alchemy."
Darkness, and flickering bright. Coal Dog sat, laid, grasped a head that threatened to explode with white pain.
"d**n you, Ringing Pain!" the warrior shouted, cursing the Spirit which hammered the inside of mortal's skulls, making headaches.
A thick, phlegmatic chuckle opened Coal Dog's eyes, filling them with an image of a burning lamp, hanging from a bronze chain above his head. The ceiling which his eyes took in was stone, carved in an archaic style with many geometric, stylized beasts, here a God he recognized, there an animal. Preminent was an ugly figure, a bug-eyed, cat-like fiend with a lizard's tongue, staring down upon him like an evil God in a granite Heaven.
The chuckler passed a shallow ceramic dish over Coal Dog's face, allowing a whiff of some pungent, spicy smoke to waft into his eyes and nose.
The pirate was lifted to his feet, arms held behind him by two black-and-green swathed, masked warriors. Before him, there stood a hunched being, leaning heavily on a staff, wearing a draping silk robe of black. Its cowl was drawn forward, the face sunken deeply within. The dim light betrayed nothing of the form within.
Coal Dog, groggy still, shook his head, allowing his shaggy brown hair to drift over his eyes. He spat upon the floor, a surface of grey-green tiles, and growled "What have you bastards done with Spark Drifting Upward?"
The cowled one shuddered, leaned more upon the gnarled staff, and was shook by a series of hacking, rasping coughs that shook its entire shrouded frame. As the fit subsided, the cowled one said: "Worthless One, my mask."
Another masked being scuttled up, bowed even below the cowl's hunched frame. It held a frightful snarling-smiling mask, which it threaded upon the hood of the cowl.
Mask afixed, the cowled one turned its nightmarish mask upon Coal Dog. "Your companion was removed. He was an impediment," the mask rasped, in a voice much like iron filings scraped upon stone. "Much as you have been, pirate." The mask spat that word, "pirate", with as much conviction as a Blue Coast trader might muster. "It is now five contracts which you have caused us to break. Five. One was only a trifling, and was easily remedied- we never fail, but for your intercession. But you are the sand within our shell."
The demon-face shuffled closer, closer, and said: "Five, Coal Dog. Five is no trifling breaking of promise. Our promises must be kept, pirate. Must be kept. We have had considerable difficulty in replacing the contracts which you have made void."
Coal Dog grinned, a bright white grin. "I have made a rather nuisance of myself, haven't I?" His improbable sea-green eyes glimmered in an Imperial-golden face, shadowed by a shaggy, disheveled head of Imperial-brunette. He had a long, straight nose, not at all Imperial, that spoke of an Uwonath or Ffolkki ancestor. His chin was shadowed with stubble, and a barely-grown, barely-noticeable, moustache, merely a stubbled lip, really.
He was well muscled and tanned from years on the sea, and his outfit spoke of his former home on the Eastern Sea. His left arm was clad entirely in scarred plates of armor, strapped across his bare chest with a leather thong. Around his neck was a charm necklace with the symbol of some sea-spirit and a sinew thong strung with coins, claws, and feathers. Three great scars marked the left side of his chest, running back to his spine, the marks of a battle with a fierce island-tiger.
He wore baggy shorts that hung to his knees, belted with silk. Many small silk and cotton wraps and cloths were tied to the belt, as well as three or four small pouches at his right hip. The Grass Spiders had left his rang, his sword, hanging upon his left hip. He was barefoot, feet calloused from long months of walking.
"Yes... A nuisance. Worthless One! Our guest's new heart!" the demon-mask rattled, turning and taking a carved wooden coffer from the scuttling servant's hands. The mask's gloved hands cast back the lid, revealing a huge and glimmering diamond.
The demon-mask began to pace back and forth in front of Coal Dog. "A nuisance. The sand in our shell. An irritant. You are a man of the Sea, pirate. You must know this- the Wisdoms say that when sand is caught within the clam, a pearl is formed."
"Hah!" Coal Dog laughed boldly, cocking an impudent eyebrow. "What a worthless idea! Wisdoms know nothing. Pearls are made from sea-gods' tears."
Demon-mask stopped and glanced at Coal Dog. "Indeed. Well, perhaps, in any case, the situation can be remedied. The grain of sand can become our pearl. I offer you a choice, nuisance." It lifted the diamond into Coal Dog's field of vision. It flashed in the light of the lamps. "Do you see this, Coal Dog? Do you know what it is?"
Coal Dog nodded. "Yes. It is a flashing-stone, such as can be found on the isle of Manthey and in the Mountains."
The demon-mask bobbed. "Yes. You are not exactly the fool I thought. Yes, this is a flashing-stone. It is also your heart."
Coal Dog snorted, but before he could speak, the mask interrupted. "Laugh not," and, abruptly, thrust his hand, diamond and all, into Coal Dog's chest, the gloved digits sliding through the warrior's flesh like a rang through water.
They came out clean, but grasping a beating red object. "Your heart, Coal Dog. Or, it was."
Coal Dog gasped in horror, face twisting, and exerted his strength against his black-swathed captors, to no avail. He was rewarded with a chuckle from the demon-face. Said that face, "Divide it."
A green-robed attendant stepped forward, carrying a dagger. The heart, no longer beating, was slashed into seven pieces. Seven black-and-green assassins came forward, and each took a piece of the heart.
The warrior's revulsion became fear. His eyes darted, shifting across his body. "My heart... Flashing-stone..."
The mask said: "Yes. Within you is the flashing-stone. It is a sorcery, Coal Dog. Within nine days, the flashing-stone will burn. You shall die, in terrible pain, all your innards gutted by the fire, though you shall stay alive until the very end, until you are nothing more than outer flesh and ash, ash in human semblance. It is a terrible way to die. I know; I have experienced it more than I would care to remember."
Coal Dog set his jaw, refused to believe. "No. You have only tricked my eyes with sorcery. There was nothing. I still live. There is no flashing-stone within me."
"Good," the demon-face said. "Then send me a message in nine days. Nevertheless- I offer you a choice. Join us. Join the Grass Spiders, and bow before me. Bow before all of us, the Three Elite Fiends, and know our Gods. Be our finest tool, our weapon, and help to finish the contracts which you yourself have broken. Do this, and we shall forestal the burning of the flashing-stone, and you shall live, for as long as you serve us."
The pirate remained silent, eyes smoldering.
"Or, you can refuse. In nine days, the flashing-stone will burn; you shall die. We shall harvest your higher-soul for study."
The demon-face extended his hand. "Give us your pledge. Join us."
Go to them.
A horrible voice spoke in Coal Dog's mind- "Go to them, go to them." Coal Dog's mind warred between two- a Grass Spider and a free man, grappling within his skull, while Ringing Pain hammered the headache into new blind fury. Coal Dog stared at the outstretched hand, its long, spidery digits like a shadow in the flickering light of the room.
The rest was quick- a burst of strength, his rang flashing from his side to slash through his captors. The demon-face swept backwards into darkness, and the rest was a second slow dream of blood and battle.
Run, run, run.
There was no more.