"This doesn't look like a welcoming committee," Tara deadpanned.
They were finally out of the Wyld-tainted central archipelago, or on its edge at least, and at the border of the Realm satrapy called the Neck. Sure enough, Realm forces were out to greet them in...force. The Essence-powered ships in the opposing navy didn't look nearly as advanced as theirs, and parts of the fleet were old-fashioned sailing craft, but Dragon-Blooded swarmed in the rigging and across the decks, far more than Luthe had yet. And lots of the Luthea were out harassing the Skullstone navy.
"They don't have to welcome us," Xander said. "They don't even have to help us, only stay out of our way. Somehow I don't think it'll be that easy though."
"Just open up with the Essence cannons," Shadow said. "They'll break."
"If we have to, we will," Fred agreed. "But surely between you and Xander...and Tara we can talk this out with them."
"Don't forget the Dragon-Blooded," Willow said. "What if they've sworn to stop us?"
"Maybe we can still break through that," Xander said. "We'll see. Let's send over our diplomatic envoy team." Cannon fire and Terrestrial anima-light erupted from the oncoming fleet. "See? They're throwing us a party."
"Okay, then," Tara said, kissing first Willow, then Fred. She climbed aboard the skiff. "Let's go dance."
Chapter 77--Really Bad Eggs
"I am the Dread Pirate Roberts! Yet I do not come here to strike at the Realm! I lead my forces against the Black Fleet of Skullstone, the enemies of Creation, the strong right arm of the Deathlord named the Silver Prince! If you offer aid I will accept! If you let me pass I will not strike at you! But if you seek to impede me, beware!"
The unnaturally deep voice boomed out across the ocean, barely impeded by the noise of cannon fire. Peleps Aramida pondered the words carefully. "The Dread Pirate Roberts does speak some truth. The Silver Prince is a deadly foe to all who live."
"I find your lack of faith disturbing," came the cold response. "Yes, the Silver Prince is a vastly powerful Anathema. Yet we must trust in the Immaculate Dragons, not in other Anathema. When we have crushed this Roberts and solidified our control over the West, we will be in a better position to destroy Skullstone."
Aramida sighed and relayed attack orders across the breadth of the fleet. "I pray you're right, Deled. I worry about the damage this battle will do to the Water Fleet."
"I have been called to this position to counter the rapid growth in power of the Anathema here, Aramida." Deled's gaunt face showed no pleasure, nor his cold tone, merely ascetic devotion and disdain. "They have gained the allegiance of Wavecrest, and now they come here to claim the Neck--and who knows, perhaps Coral as well. If they challenge the Silver Prince, it is only for their own pride and glory. Would you cede them the entire Western Archipelago?"
Aramida could only shake her head reluctantly. "Never, Deled. My faith in the Dragons may not be as strong as yours, but I hold myself untainted by heresy. If we are to fail, it is the will of the Dragons that we fail in their service."
Deled weighed those words in the balance and nodded once, curtly. "But screw your courage to the sticking place, and in the Dragons' name, we'll not fail. It is only lack of faith that leads others to defeat, when it is not heresy outright."
"I am the Dread Pirate Roberts! I ask only that you allow me to come aboard for parlay! Can we not negotiate terms of passage so that I may strike our common enemy?"
Aramida sighed. She lifted one hand, and the water rippled and roared away from the keel of Dragon's Fury in an ever-growing arc of shattered spray, like rapids in a rocky river.
Massive chop struck the skiff and sent it bouncing up and down on the ocean like a trampoline. Shadow felt as if she ought to have been seasick, but in fact the motion was...relaxing.
"We're going to dive, Buff," Xander said. "You have the bridge."
That should have been a frightening idea. Instead it felt comforting. Alone on a ship? No one to get in her way. Xander and Tara dove over opposite sides of the skiff.
Turbulence or no turbulence, Shadow steered the skiff unerringly toward the enemy fleet's flagship, a vessel that should've been able to slam her little craft under the water with its wake alone. She lifted her little crossbow, sighted it towards the nearest vessel with a sail, and fired, focusing hard. She figured they expected her bolts to be accurate despite the distance they still had to cover. That she might have learned their own methods probably hadn't occurred to them. Her bolts burst into flame as they flew toward ships on either side of her.
Screens of blackwater anima snuffed her bolts and sent them spinning into the ocean. Okay, they were ready for that trick after all. Still, every little bit cost them.
An immense burst of water fountained the sea beneath her. Killing the ship's least god had taken a lot out of her; the spirit had been harmless. But the magic kept the ship afloat and unharmed now, though it leapt from the water and spun about.
This wasn't going to be like reaching Luthe. There was no friendly vessel behind a screen of enemies. At best, she might hope to talk to the commander and calm her down. But if she could...if any of them could...then they had yet another source of allies to assault Skullstone with.
She had to try.
"You could have gone," Fred suggested to Willow. "I know you focus on other things, but you're still a Midnight. You're as qualified to negotiate as Xander, and you'd be with Tara."
"Tara wants to know she can stand on her own," Willow said. "She told me she needs some space after what happened...and she needs to get used to being near my level again. I pulled ahead of her as a witch, and then I Exalted...." She looked out overvthe ocean at the approaching fleet.
"She's still sort of a junior partner but not so much," Fred agreed. "Neither of you is running on double-A batteries any more, even if she's got a fission reactor and yours is antimatter."
Willow nodded. Light flared around her, and her body filled out again, taking on the image of life. Had Willow always been this pretty? Fred could easily imagine her as a Hollywood actress, unlike her own unenhanced self. Still..."Willow, I know you like to look this way, but--"
"It's just a trickle," Willow said soothingly. "You do the same, even though you're already of the geeky hotness."
Fred blushed. There wasn't much attractive about her. "If you need it."
"I am kind of planning to do the dark lord thing when the fleet closes in," Willow explained. "I figure this'll work better, and it'll draw attention away from you." Fred must've frowned at that, because Willow quickly stammered out, "You know, cause Lunars have always been out there but there were hardly any Solars. And you, you're the Queen and I'm nobody yet. Though I was starting to wonder if maybe I could take over Skullstone when all this is done."
"You'd make a great Dark Lady, Scholar," Fred opined. "I support you."
"Ships are getting closer," Willow said. "Maybe I should try a spell?"
"Careful with your mana," Fred reminded her. "Wizard shouldn't need food badly in the middle of a naval engagement."
"I know how to conserve energy," Willow said, just a touch chidingly. "I promise this'll be worth it. That's the flagship, right?" She pointed at the massive high-tech vessel from which the worst of the water turbulence was emanating.
"Looks like it," Fred agreed. "And no Scoobies aboard yet."
Willow lifted both hands and spoke a word of power. The soft golden light of her anima flared to ruby hardness, and a blinding fiery bird like a phoenix shot from her palms. It covered the distance to the flagship in mere moments. Just as it was about to strike, a cowled figure tried to parry it with anima and bare hands, but the bird exploded into a fireball despite his best efforts. An inferno covered the ship's deck.
"Willow," Fred said nervously, "what about trying to negotiate?"
"Now we work from a position of strength?" Willow said, not sheepish at all but completely seriously. Fred put her palm to her face.
Xander let go of the shark's fin and seized hold of the rudder, then began to scale the ship plank by plank. He wasn't quite good enough, he'd discovered, to climb the flagship's hull rivet by rivet.
Well, all in good time. He just needed to get aboard an enemy vessel and then he'd find his way to where he needed to be.
He emerged into a hail of magical energy bolts. Green and blue, red and black, they burst past him in a storm of absolute force, making him block several with Wavecleaver.
He'd just made it onto the deck when a firebird manifestation straight out of X-Men (or for the real comics geek, West Coast Avengers) shot by in the other direction and detonated atop the flagship deck, sending screaming crewmen diving into the water wreathed in fire. Scattered Dragon-Blood firefighters rushed about trying to contain the blaze; moments later, as the greater part of it died, more crewmen burst b from the hatch to take stations. And two badly-burned but living Water Aspects rose from the deck, an armored woman and a bald man.
"Slaughter the Anathema!" the man cried out, and Xander lost no more time in scrambling up the rigging to find a rope line to swing over to the other deck with. "They dare to strike at us! Drown them in blood and seafoam!"
Xander wasn't halfway through undoing the rope, but a golden image of him manifested in front of the angry man. "Yeah, we dare shoot one fireball at the people lobbing cannonballs, firedust, and energy bolts at us. What effrontery. How dare we even know the meaning of the word?" He wrapped the rope around his fingers and leapt. Sailors in the rigging began to yell at him. "It's an important word to know the meaning of, effrontery."
Xander didn't get to see the bald man stab his image with a huge harpoon, since he was swinging through the bottom of his arc just then, but he came shooting up over the edge in time to hear the guy shout "No quarter, Anathema! No parley! The Dragons' wrath lies on you till death!" as the illusion dissolved.
"Them's fightin' words," Xander said as he sprang onto the deck in front of the man. Wavecleaver all but leapt into his hands to fend off a harpoon thrust. "You sure you want to throw down with a one-hundred-percent genuine Solar Anathema? Cause I'd be real sure of that if I was--" The spear nearly went through his guts before he could squirm aside. "I take it you're pretty confident, then."
"I am Peleps Deled. I am the Master of the Pinnacle of the Wyld Hunt." Wavecleaver and the harpoon clashed once, twice, six times. "My faith in the Immaculate Dragons is absolute. And you? You are nothing to me, Anathema."
Willow didn't get it. Okay, if she'd struck at the wrong time she might have hurt one of the others, but she'd planned it all out perfectly. Now the fleet was closing on Luthe and its nominal defensive patrol--not that it needed one much!--and its command officers were injured or caught in a running battle on deck.
Lightning crackled past her, so she returned some of her own--now bolt-shaped daggers, now actual golden bolts, contrasting with the Air-aspected blue-white. "Got a storm coming on," she quipped.
"You worry me, Willow," Fred murmured. "You go to all this trouble to look like yourself again, but it seems to me like you're less yourself than when you were a mummy. Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"You're just jealous 'cause you can't do anything from here yet," Willow observed.
Fred just rolled her eyes. "Towers of Azure, activate subsidiary guns."
"Acquiring firing solutions," the AI reported. "Firing." With that, Towers opened up with the machine-gun emplacements Xander had installed, raking the decks of every ship in range save the flagship.
"As I was saying," Fred resumed, "I'm worried about you, Willow."
Willow ground her perfect Solar teeth. "It's nothing."
Every ship has drains, First Age dreadnoughts no less than simple triremes. If they did not, mere surf would flood them, given enough time. Those drains are meant to be one-way, but a determined creature could force its way inside most; such creatures merely are not common in nature.
Lunar Exalted break that rule. Tara slithered up the drain in the form of an eel that flopped about for the few moments it took the sailors to turn their eyes to other work. Before they could look back she was a human girl bashing their heads together. She didn't have a one-liner on hand, so she just mimicked the fallen sailor's uniform and began jogging up the stairs. No one looked twice at her; crewpeople were running hither and yon everywhere she went.
By the time she reached the top deck it was covered in firefighters putting out the aftermath of some minor catastrophe, and Xander was trading blows with a burnt, bald man, completely oblivious to the woman raising her hands to, no doubt, blast him from behind.
"Hey," Tara said. "We offered you parley. Aren't you a little ashamed of yourselves?"
The woman in armor jumped, blinked, and turned to aim her palms at Tara instead. "We don't owe you a word, Anathema." But she didn't fire.
Tara was new at this. But she knew from Willow that people found her attractive, even cute. That they underestimated her. That her shyness only drew them in. She dropped her eyes. "I just thought that having a common enemy was at least reason to t-talk about our p-problems before fighting." She was a friend, only here to talk, a little frustrated at not being listened to.
The woman still didn't blast her. She was dark-haired, with epicanthic folds and a faint bluish tinge to her skin. Tara smiled uncertainly at her, and she responded, "Only if you were really on a different side from Skullstone. But nice try."
Tara held out her open palms. The woman didn't seem to realize what Tara was doing to her feelings. She wanted to keep it subtle, limited. Makeup and roofies could both net you smoochies, but only one was wrong. "I'm Tara Maclay. I'm not even from around here. I promise, I'm not interested in hurting you, or the Realm, or taking anything that isn't mine."
"Peleps Aramida," the woman said, mouth twisted wryly. "I hope you realize I can't just take your word for that." A flicker of her eyes warned Tara to step aside as another Terrestrial threw a flying kick at her. Tara caught the man midair and slammed him onto the deck. "I'd love to have help dealing with the Silver Prince, but I have my orders." And she flung a blast of green energy at Tara.
The burst knocked Tara back and set her to coughing as seawater filled her lungs. She hacked it up, staggering aside from the follow-up bolt. "I'm disappointed, Aramida. I thought we could t-talk like reasonable adults." The man Xander was fighting was still shouting insults about Anathema and Dragons. He sounded like her father. "But I guess some people disapprove of that."
The bald man shot her a glare, but Xander had him pinned down, forcing his lance away by the crossguards. Tara shoved a Terrestrial lining up for a roundhouse punch on her left, knocking him off balance and spoiling the blow. Aramida said, sotto voce, "Deled disapproves of most things."
"I hope you don't have any secrets from him," Tara said softly. She picked up a fallen barrel and tossed it at the bald man's legs, knocking him to the floor just as Xander thrust with his sword. Wavecleaver sank in up to the hilt, but when Xander pulled the blade out the wound vanished save for a burnt-red scab. Deled still groaned loudly as he got to his feet.
Aramida didn't answer her, but the next bolt of energy she fired went wide. Shadow was finally climbing over the railing beyond Xander; she had taken a few cuts. She traded quips with a lithe, white-haired man who rushed at her.
"If you were to give the order," Tara wondered, "do you think the fleet would stand down and let us talk?"
Aramida shook her head. "Never the Wyld Hunt," she said warningly, "and Deled would have my head for it. Or worse."
Tara thought that over, stepping aside so that a pair of swordsmen rushed past her and collided with each other. She wasn't a killer, not even of demons. Not unless she had to be.
But sometimes you had to be.
Tara and Aramida circled one another. Tara's jaw sprouted, elongated, wicked snaggled teeth emerging from her gums. Aramida gasped; coming from a woman so hardened, that gasp had to indicate Tara's face was utterly horrifying right then.
As they came around, Deled was trapped between Tara, Xander, Shadow, and a wall. Tara ignored the risk of Aramida blasting her again. Why shouldn't she? They were friends. Xander raised Wavecleaver to stab at Deled again...
And Tara's jaws closed around the bald man's head. She felt, and heard, his neck crunch, tasted blood and spinal fluid in her mouth. She hadn't been hungry before; now the sensations made her feel ill. She opened her mouth and let Deled's head roll out onto the deck.
Shadow and Xander stared as if they'd never seen her before. Tara reached out to put a hand on her jaws and "shove" them back into her face. The battle had grown eerily quiet. Other Terrestrials were staring at her too, her and Deled's headless body. Someone whistled. "--had it coming," someone whispered.
She'd killed the man. What was she thinking? Of course she'd killed him. He was...rabid. Like her father, only with extra violence and superpowers on the side. She'd killed a man. Not in the heat of combat with him, but just...because it needed doing. She'd...not even thought about what she was doing till it was done.
Tara sank down cross-legged onto the deck, heedless of the faltering battle. "Did I hear a call for parley?" Peleps Aramida called out, but the sound was curiously distant.
"Parley," Xander agreed.
Shadow tried to pull Tara to her feet, but Tara pulled her down instead. "Did I really--?"
"It was the cost," Shadow said firmly. "Somebody had to pay it. I...didn't think you'd be the one, but it had to be done."
"He'd never have let us talk," Aramida confirmed. "If you wanted that, he had to be dealt with first."
Tara knew that sometimes the price of peace was death. She'd just never been the one to hand it over before. Numbly she let them pull her to her feet.
Chairs were brought out onto the open top-deck of Dragon's Fury, and Shadow gestured for everyone to take a seat. "I know we have some big differences here," she began. "I don't think those differences matter that much when we're up against an evil undead overlord. Anyone want to disagree?"
A few of the Dragon-Blooded officers raised their hands, but they looked a little sheepish doing it. "You're Anathema," a bald woman with a complexion like soot argued. "The values you represent run completely counter to everything the Immaculate Faith espouses. Individualism, disorder, risk...."
"Life?" Tara managed weakly. Shadow worried that Ma-Ha-Suchi's memories were affecting her more than they'd expected. Or maybe the "moon-madness" the Sage had mentioned happened from time to time. The idea that lovable, peaceful Tara could literally bite a man's head off--even an asshole like Peleps Deled--was, um...hard to swallow.
"The Immaculate Order does share that in common with you," the monk admitted. "The Underworld is an aberration against the cycle of existence."
"I'll be the first to second that notion," Xander said with a smirk. "Look, I'm not asking you to like us. I'm asking for a temporary ceasefire so that we can work together against Skullstone. Think of it as...a chance to demonstrate your values as better than ours. What do you say?"
"I say we don't have the authority to suspend Realm directives or deny basic tenets of the Immaculate Faith," Peleps Aramida said reluctantly. "Please don't misunderstand me. I value your assistance against the Silver Prince. But to open up the crews of my fleet to potential reprisals isn't just disloyalty to them. Under the circumstances, it could further destabilize the Realm itself. Tge Water Fleet represents the second-largest portion of the Realm navy. If we seem to be going rogue....well, think of what that might do. I...I simply can't authorize it."
"That's all right," said a faintly familiar voice, deep for a woman and poshly-accented. The heads of every Terrestrial in the room spun to look. "I can."
"Mnemon?" Aramida stared openly. "I was given to understand you were moving against Anathema forces in the far South."
"Events have outrun rumor," Mnemon said. "The Anathema and I fought to a stalemate. Rather than waste more lives and equipment, we signed a treaty. And within the next two weeks I intend to seal that treaty with a wedding."
That produced a range of comments from startled to outraged--the latter mostly from the monks. "Mnemon," the dark-skinned Fire aspect said, "surely you can't seriously--"
"I can," Mnemon said. "I will, because this is what it will require to preserve Creation. That outweighs the Order. That even outweighs the Realm, should it come down to it."
"Are you here to fetch me for the Anathema to marry?" Aramida wanted to know. "Because if you intend to use me as a spy or a tool--"
Mnemon waved her hand dismissively. "Hardly. I'm going to marry Buffy Summers myself. Despot?"
Dressed in resplendent red-and-black robes, Buffy stepped up to the table, face red, eyes shifty. "Um...hi guys? Mnemon, time to meet my friends."
Mnemon's lips curled into a smile that never touched her eyes. "Delighted, Despot Summers, I'm sure." She held out a hand for Buffy to take. "Introduce us...darling."