[First Part: The Birth Of A Pirate]
The heavy wooden door of the captain’s private quarters slid open a few inches, and a grey-skinned face showed itself in the gap. “Captain Masya. We’ll arrive in twenty minutes. The merchantship is still hovering, and no other ships are in sight.”
Masya turned, long legs folded beneath her and half-hidden by a worn quilt, talon-like feet dangling thick toes off the edge of the stuffed mattress. She grinned past long fangs. “Good. Come get me when we enter atmosphere and can breathe on deck. Everyone ready?”
“Aye, Captain.” Lasna flashed an identical smile from a startlingly similar face, features also lean and angular but muzzle whiter with age. “The skies are still clear of other ships. This will be an easy raid, just like any other.” The other rarra slid the door closed with a thump of wood against wood, and the seal was tight enough that her receding footsteps could not be heard.
Falar watched the exchange in silence, most of his nude body swathed in the same quilt that warmed Masya’s legs, his paw-like hands folded behind his head. Masya met his gaze, green eyes ever-startling in their hue, and softened her smile. “Better get dressed, my mage,” she murmured, reaching a short-fingered hand to touch his knee. She traced circles up his thigh with padded fingertips, small claws blunt enough to tickle and not scratch, and he squirmed.
“You too, Captain,” he replied, a grin creasing his muzzle as he wriggled out from under the blanket. The air in the cabin was cool, the local sun’s warmth not yet penetrating the sturdy hull of the Fanged Flower as it swept through the sun system of Do’agnun. The fine hairs covering his tawny-golden skin prickled and stiffened in the chill.
“I could walk over there naked and not get bled,” Masya boasted with a low chuckle, voice smooth and deep. Her voice and her eyes, so unusual for her people, made her stand out nearly as much as her pirating methods. She stretched her arms out and twisted her torso side to side, pretending to ignore Falar as he rummaged for clothing, his back turned.
“Only because of me and Lasna,” Falar retorted. They both knew he was lying, but it was a good game to play, acting as though Masya wasn’t fearfully competent alone, without her lover and her second-in-command. Though rarra were a species born of a magic-rich world, Masya only used bladed weapons in combat; Falar, on the other hand, was a master of air magic, and Lasna was an exceptionally-skilled water mage. Together, the three of them were a force to be feared on the battlefield.
But they never entered battles if they could help it – that’s what made Masya so unique among pirate captains. She had a full crew and a strong ship, and she only picked targets that she could surely overpower. Most of their raids resulted in immediate surrender, no casualties, and plenty of anonymous loot. The crew of the Fanged Flower had remarkably low death rates and an equally low turn-over of members, and since it always chose minor targets, the law did not know the ship’s or its captain’s names.
Falar buckled his leggings around his waist and buttoned the outer seams along each leg. Masya found his undershirt hiding beneath her knees and tossed it at him, laughing liquidly when he stopped it mid-air and kept it hovering until he finished his buttons. Then, he plucked the soft fabric out of his magical grasp and slid his arms through the open holes. “Smooth,” Masya grinned. “I think you’re getting better with your subtlety.”
“I’d better be, with you around,” Falar grinned back. He shrugged into his leather vest and buttoned it across his chest, dressed unimpressively for battle. An air mage’s best asset was discretion, since they made such good targets for the enemy, and he didn’t look like anything more than a deck-swabbing apprentice. It would keep people from realizing how dangerous he could be long enough for him to incapacitate them if necessary.
Masya, on the other hand, wore a full set of leather armor over fine silks and cotton, looking every inch the deadly captain. Atop her clothes, she wore a weapons harness that held half a dozen weapons; few would mess with a rarra whose skin was heavily scarred with experience, whose blade-like horn had lost its tip and been worn to bluntness. Even her long ears were notched with too many close calls.
Falar sat on the edge of the mattress and watched as she dressed, lean muscles flexing like whitewater rivers beneath her silvery skin. He had spent the last three years in her service as a secondary air mage – secondary only because of his unwillingness to kill with his magic, not because of his skill. He had spent nearly as long courting her, offering up his body to her curious hands, waiting and desperately hoping for the day that she returned his love as well as his lust.
Sometimes, he felt like he had loved her from the day they had met, when she took refuge from the local law enforcement in his workhouse. Back when he worked the land as a farmer, a scorned profession that made no use of his magical training and talent. She had bewitched him then, using mind-magic that no rarra would deign to learn, and released him only when she asked him to choose his future.
He had chosen her. He had devoted himself to her, yearned for her, and only four months ago did she finally admit to enjoying him for more than his flesh. It took her an achingly long time to acknowledge that she wanted his company, his companionship, his presence. His love. And he could not imagine being happier, now that they were truly partners, now that he could share her heart and not just her bed.
Masya turned to him, resplendent in her red-dyed armor, every knife snug in its sheath. As though on cue, the door slid open again and Lasna’s sharp voice filtered through. “Air on deck, Captain. We’ve unsealed the ship. The boarding crew is ready and in place.”
“Perfect,” Masya said, her smile reserved for Falar as their eyes met. “Let’s go.”
This will be an easy raid, just like any other. Lasna’s words echoed in Falar’s head, looping and warping until they were barely intelligible. The smell of smoke was thick in the air, waves of heat washing against his skin. He was moving mindlessly, his wrist trapped in Lasna’s steely grasp, trailing behind the older rarra as she ran towards the fraying rope bridge that linked the merchantship with the Fanged Flower. She was nearly dragging him; his feet didn’t want to work, claws scraping dully against the deckboards with each step.
They were the last ones to retreat. The rest of the crew had already fled back to the pirate ship on Masya’s orders, readying their galleon for an immediate and speedy exit.
The skies had been clear when they boarded the merchanter, no other ships in sight. They were high in the atmosphere of Sivef, low enough to breathe shallowly, low enough to not need the air mages to preserve breathable air around each pirate’s face. It made boarding much easier and much safer. The pirates outnumbered and overpowered the guards and combat-capable passengers of the other ship, so the civilians had surrendered. No one had even gotten hurt.
After chaining the fighters up and clamping magic-dampening shackles around the magicians’ wrists, the pirates began looting. Falar and the other air mage had been free, for once, to help their crewmates gather valuables, instead of having to guard against suffocation in the unbreathable winds of the void. The pirates were in high spirits, laughing to each other, complimenting the civilians’ fine belongings and loudly estimating their worth in coin.
But the watchman perched on the Fanged Flower‘s proud mast let loose the alarm: Lightworkers! he howled, voice carrying across the top deck of both ships. Lightworkers!
Lightworkers, the peace-keeping force of the galaxy, the righteous warriors and healers whose military might could challenge the combined strength of all the black magic cults and space pirates and Coalitionist terrorists. Lightworkers who, in ages past, had been largely peaceable luirkanni, teachers and preachers– Lightworkers who were now mostly humans, paladins and knights, bringing magical talent and an eagerness for violence in service of the Light.
Falar caught a glimpse of the incoming ship before he raced below-deck to find Masya; it was a small ship, smaller even than the merchantship, which would be why they had so little warning of its arrival. Despite its size, it would hold enough warriors of the Light to make trouble for the pirates.
Falar shouted the warning through the halls, alerting his fellow pirates, and Masya sprang from an open doorway as he passed. He stopped, and their eyes met, unspoken understanding that the situation had suddenly turned from laughably easy to potentially deadly. “Call a full retreat,” she snapped, gesturing him back to the stairs. “I’ll get everyone on this level out.”
He didn’t hesitate, spinning and sprinting back towards the stairs, racing back up, shouting his captain’s orders. The captured civilians were beginning to struggle against their bonds, trying to get free in time to help the incoming Lightworkers, but the pirates ignored them as they fled for the ship. There was no time to waste.
They still weren’t fast enough to avoid a confrontation with the Lightworkers, who boarded the merchantship on the flank opposite the Fanged Flower. The Lightworkers came with swords drawn and maces hefted, halberds and staves extended, eyes glowing golden with the power of the Light. Most of them were humans, but some were not, a sharp contrast to the pirate crew that had so few humans and so many others.
The Lightworkers freed the civilians, and those who could fight thronged among them, chasing the pirates down. The captain of the Lightworkers led them with a booming cry, broadsword raised above her helm, bedecked in the traditional gold-lined silver platemail of the paladin. Falar heard her name as Maliza, shouted from the mouths of her warriors as they followed her lead.
Half of the pirates were safely aboard the Fanged Flower, readying it for departure, when the leading edge of the Lightworkers crashed against the last line of the pirates. Masya was in the rear, the last of her people, and she turned first to rip her blades through flesh and the weak points in armor. But even her skills could not easily breach the platemail that the paladins wore, though the knights’ chainmail succumbed to her flashing steel.
Falar stood with his captain, his love, stealing air from lungs and leaving their opponents unconscious through asphyxiation. Lasna stood on Masya’s other side, staunch and steady, wielding water in whip-shapes and drowning those who proved to be too great a challenge for Masya’s blades. Together, they stopped the Lightworkers’ charge, and the warriors formed a tightening crescent around the trio while the rest of the crew fled.
Maliza was a strong human, broad-shouldered and thickly-muscled, her skin dark and her eyes burning with the Light. She held off Masya easily, and Falar’s and Lasna’s magic could not touch her while she was shielded with Light by her priests, who stood well beyond the line of combat to heal and protect their brethren. Unlike the well-armored paladins and knights, the priests wore only cloth robes over light leather clothing.
Lasna, ever-keen, slipped a stream of conjured water past the Lightworkers and pushed it into the nose and mouth of one of the priests, drowning him within moments; the shield around Maliza sparked and thinned as the priest died.
In retaliation, Maliza swallowed Lasna’s right arm in a plume of white holy fire, the trademark magic of paladins, twice as hot and twice as hard to extinguish as any other fire. Lasna instinctively countered with her water magic quickly enough to survive, and a cloud of steam issued from her body, hiding her from sight. “The other priest,” Masya growled to Falar, her jaw set and long ears laid back against her head. Falar wrenched the air from the priest’s lungs and kept them empty until the human collapsed, not quite dead before the rarran mage released his hold on the air and let her breathe again.
His efforts galvanized the air around them and cleared the steam from Lasna, revealing a cauterized stump where her elbow and forearm used to be. She stood stiffly, a thin veneer of shock glazing her pale eyes, but still she called up water against the Lightworkers. Maliza stood unshielded now, wisps of Light flickering around her body like floating flames, shaking with rage as she clenched her broadsword double-handed.
The three pirates were alone now, the rest of the crew safely aboard their own ship. It would be ready to sail by now, waiting only for the captain and her second-in-command and her air mage to join them. Lasna swayed slightly on splayed feet, shoulders trembling.
A new shield shimmered into place around Maliza, thin and still fragile in its nascence. Masya palmed a throwing knife and sent it soaring through the air; Falar barely had to use magic to correct its arc so that it plunged into a third priest’s unguarded throat. The shield dissipated like the fading glare of the sun.
“Take Lasna,” Masya told Falar, moving to engage Maliza with steel on steel, knives versus broadsword. It was a stall tactic, meant only to hold the paladin off long enough for the other two to reach the Fanged Flower.
Falar, ever the dutiful lover, ever the obedient mage, moved to help the older woman. He crossed behind Masya to reach Lasna, who was still stubbornly flanking and defending her captain, her daughter.
In that instant, Maliza engulfed the pirate captain in a spinning column of white fire.
There was no noise. No scream. Not even a sizzle of melting skin and charring flesh. Only the gusting of blindingly bright flames that swallowed air so fast that winds whipped around the towering inferno like a miniature tornado.
Falar and Lasna acted simultaneously, one ripping the air from the fire and the other dousing the flames with water, but even with their combined efforts, the holy fire lingered before fading to thick, reeking smoke. There was little left of Masya: blackened and splintered bones scattered in a pile of wet ash, the deck scorched and warped where she had stood.
Falar stared at the stain on the deck, unable to comprehend what had just happened. The next attack of holy fire was aimed at him, and he didn’t move; Lasna soaked him in conjured water, and only the skin across his chest and left shoulder was seared raw and bloody by the blast. The older woman grabbed his wrist with her remaining hand and ran for the edge of the deck, throwing her weight forward to get him to move.
He followed, numb, unthinking, one sentence looping endlessly in his thoughts. This will be an easy raid, just like any other. This will be an easy raid.
This will be easy…
Blasts of heat followed them as they fled, balls of white flame lobbed after them. None of the attacks struck either rarra – perhaps the other air mage was sucking the air from the fire, or perhaps another pirate had created a moving shield over their heads. Perhaps the Lightworkers were deliberately missing, intending to chase them off instead of slaughter them. But Masya…
They reached the rope bridge that held the ships together. Lasna pushed Falar ahead of her, waited until he had stumbled across half a dozen rungs, then wrapped her good arm in the ropes before using her magic to untether the bridge. They fell in an arc, swinging straight for the sturdy hull of their ship.
Falar wasn’t sure if he wanted that impact to kill him or not, but at the last moment, he summoned a gust of air to slow them and cushion the blow. The two rarra were stunned briefly but not shaken loose from their lifeline; the Fanged Flower was already gaining speed while someone on deck retracted the rope bridge and lifted them upwards. The air was thinning rapidly as the pirate ship pointed its prow at the emptiness of the void and the safety offered within the darkness between suns.
Wrinkled talons and a curving beak hauled them over the rail and spilled them on the deck. Falar landed on his back and didn’t move, barely registering the dull thud of his head against the wooden planks. “Get up,” a halasshi snapped, looming over them on four long legs. “We’re leaving atmosphere. We need to seal up.” Its vulture-like face angled away, and Lasna entered Falar’s field of vision when she struggled to her feet. The sight of her wound propelled him upwards to help her, and the three of them hastened across the deck to the last open hatch that led to the belly of the ship.
They descended steep and narrow stairs to the first deck, and the halasshi sealed the hatch behind them, preserving the air left in the ship that would be recycled by the veritable forest taking up the entire bottom deck. The halasshi led them to the common quarters, the only area in the ship big enough to comfortably seat all the bandaged casualties of this horrifically failed raid. A dozen hollow-eyed pirates of varying species sat in stunned silence, their expressions betraying their grief. By now, the entire crew knew that they had lost their captain. Later, Falar would realize that three other pirates had also died in the retreat.
Lasna sank onto a pile of rumpled blankets, her body shaking so badly that she nearly convulsed; she seemed to notice her stub of an arm for the first time, looking at the blackened, mutilated flesh blankly. Falar sat next to her, pressing his back against the sturdy wooden wall, and couldn’t feel any of his wounds, though he was sure he had some. The scent of his own burnt flesh was radiating upwards from his chest, inspiring nausea and hunger all at once.
The halasshi was speaking to the group, its salmon-pink skin surprisingly unmarred by the battle, but Falar couldn’t listen any longer. He closed his eyes and let the world melt away, felt the floor drop out from under him, and wished the boneless thump of his face against the deck was hard enough to shatter his skull.
Maliza. The name was etched into the backs of his eyelids with white fire. He couldn’t bring to mind the image of the column of fire engulfing Masya, couldn’t even think of her scarred face and smirking grin, her eyes such a startling shade of green, her river-deep voice and hard body. The enormity of his loss was beyond his comprehension, life as he knew it destroyed, and so he thought instead of the muscular human woman with dark skin and glowing eyes.
He would kill her.
The next few days were reserved for grieving for the people lost in battle and putting distance between the Fanged Flower and the sun system of Do’agnun. As second-in-command, Lasna became the new captain. She recovered from the shock of her wound and the loss of her daughter quickly, though the emptiness in her eyes only deepened as the hours passed. She organized the crew, assigned those uninjured to the necessary duties on the ship, and let the others recover. They had one good healer among them, a caline druid, who spent his time with the few who needed magical healing and not just time to rest.
Falar stayed in Masya’s quarters, though Lasna should have claimed the captain’s cabin for her own. He struggled every minute against the urge to stop breathing, against the urge to leap from the ship into the endless void, against the urge to scream and plead for Lasna to turn around and help him murder his love’s killer. He had never before wanted so badly to see someone die, and the blind rage ate away at his stomach until he could not stand to smell food or drink water. He wanted to empty all the unnecessary viscera from within his ribcage and be as hollow in his body as he felt in his heart.
It was only a matter of time before he succumbed to one of the three urges. Lasna woke to a knock on her door, a blanket of grief and horror thicker over her mind than the quilts over her aching body. “What?” she called out, steeling her voice so it wouldn’t shake.
Falar entered quietly and slid the door shut behind him. “Please,” he said, making no such effort with his own voice. “Please.” Lasna let the silence stretch, knowing what he wanted, refusing to play into it. Falar swallowed and knotted his hands together, pressing them against the plane of his stomach. “We have to go after her. We have to kill her. Please.”
Lasna closed her eyes against the desperation that twisted his features into something starving and terrified. “I will not lose more people in another fight against the Lightworkers,” she said slowly, feeling the grief in her chest spread to her throat and thicken her voice. “Killing the human won’t bring Masya back, Falar.”
The air mage recoiled like he’d been slapped. “We outnumber them! You saw that ship, it has half the crew we do!”
“They would still kill at least one of us, Falar, if not more. I won’t let that happen.” Lasna opened her eyes and met his gaze. He looked away from her hollowness. “We have enough grief,” she said softly.
“No, Falar. No.”
Falar returned to Masya’s quarters, retreating to a mattress that still smelled like her, quilts that still bore shed silver hairs, old dressers that still held her clothing. He trembled until his mind went blank, then he withheld the air from his own lungs until he passed into a semblence of sleep. He still could not be convinced to eat when he awoke.
Lasna named him her second-in-command. It gave him purpose and duty, which kept him from holing up in Masya’s quarters and going mad with his loss. The following days saw him speak to each of the other pirates, sometimes at length, sometimes only briefly. At the end of each conversation, there was a shared fire in their eyes.
A week after Masya’s death, Falar and a handful of other pirates confronted their new captain during one of the communal meals. “Every single person on this ship,” Falar said between clenched teeth, “wants revenge.” Lasna opened her mouth to speak, but Falar continued quickly, his voice already shaking. “Every single person on this ship is willing to chase down the Lightworkers and risk death to see Masya’s killer dead.” The two rarra locked gazes, Falar’s burning and Lasna’s vacant. “Be our captain. Lead us. Let us have revenge.”
Lasna looked at the faces around her, the long snouts and the round muzzles and the hard beaks and the nimble mandibles and the soft-lipped mouths. “You all agree?” she asked, though the resolve in those eyes told her all she needed to know. Nods and muttered ayes swept the common room. Lasna met Falar’s eyes again. “Very well,” she breathed, all the strength gone from her voice. “We will hunt the human paladin and kill her.”
Cheers rocked the room, and Falar smiled a cold, long-toothed smile.