"It's ready! It's ready!"
Ellis jolted awake to the sound of the Former Baron's excited exclamations.
"This is going to be a tremendous success, oh yes, a tremendous success! Why it could be my best work since, well, since last week when I was designing the Shoalstrike vessels, in fact. It’s going to be marvellous, truly splendid, a work of philosophick art!" He waved his arms in the air with enthusiasm, then, as no one else moved, looked puzzled. “Well, come on then! Why isn’t anyone else moving? Where’s the excitement, the gung-ho attitude, the love? Why aren’t you doing anything?”
"Okay, Franck, calm down," Siren said. Ellis watched blearily as she stepped over to the Former Baron's side, put a hand on his shoulder and looked him squarely in the eye as she continued, "we're glad you're pleased with it, but we just need to know what to do next."
"Oh, of course, of course! Surely you didn't think I would forget that, did you? But nevertheless it is exciting to have finished remodelling such an ancient and venerable machine as this. Oh my, it has been like a dream come true to tinker with such antique plumbing in surrounds as atmospheric as these."
Ellis stood up, stretched, yawned and then, trying to remember his legs, joined Siren and the Former Baron at their side. Greta and Luke were just rousing from their own sleep nearby. Broken-Hope was watching on, impassive as ever a Fallen was.
"So what do we do next?" he asked once the Former Baron's excited spiel had ended.
"Why, we switch it on of course!"
"Just switch it on? Nothing more complicated than that?"
"Well, I'll need the use of your medallion for a while, Avril, my boy,” Ellis nodded and began to remove the clumsy gold disc from where it was tucked away, underneath his shirt, “and we have to make sure a few other plans are in place first, like making sure the Lich is in the optimal position within the Shoals, evacuating anyone we don't want incinerated, minimalising collateral damage, that kind of thing."
"Incinerated?" Ellis asked.
"Collateral damage?" Siren added.
"Well you hardly thought a machine of this scale could be weaponised without some kind of trade-off, did you? It's like my Great Aunt Johanna used to always say, 'You can't kill a Lich without razing a few cities'."
"She actually said that?" asked Ellis in disbelief.
"Well it was something like that, I'm sure. It might have had more to do with baking and eggs or some other more domestic metaphor, but it's all the same really, for what is a Lich anyway, but a sort of cake mix made of bone meal and hypostatick energy with a delicious purple layer of lightning icing?"
"I think that simile got away from you somehow, Franck," Siren commented, "but how do we make sure the Lich is where we want him and how do we make sure no one else is? And where do we want the Lich anyway?"
"Ideally he should be in the vicinity of that ship from which we all got kidnapped."
"That wont be hard," Broken-Hope interrupted, "my brothers tell me that the Lich is there right now."
"Well, that's just perfect!"
"One of Siren's crew is there too," Broken-Hope continued, "a lanky youth. Bad teeth."
"Gulliver!" Siren and Ellis called out at once.
"Oh, this is terrible," Siren continued, "we can't activate this accelerator with Gulliver out there!"
"Indeed we cannot!" The Former Baron added emphatically.
“We have to do something!”
“We could try to capture him, as we did you,” Broken-Hope suggested, “but the Lich seems to be taking an active interest in this boy so I’m not sure any of my brothers would dare.”
“What about you?” Siren asked, pointedly. “Would you dare?”
“I would…” the Fallen paused, “I would have to think about it.”
“Well I don’t,” she replied before turning her back on him, “come on Ellis, we’re going up there.”
“Wait!”, he called, “We’ll need a plan and… and what about the rest of your crew and-“
“They are all dead,” Broken-Hope interrupted, “such is the power of a Lich.”
“Then that’s all the more reason to rescue Gulliver now!” Siren spat, her contempt for the Fallen now barely contained. “Ellis, are you coming?”
Ellis glanced back at the Former Baron, hoping for something to stop them, to hold them back from facing this terrifying choice, but the old Philosopher merely nodded.
“Go on. I’ll see if I can tweak the machine some more. Broken-Hope will alert me when all is clear, won’t you?”
The conflicted Fallen nodded.
“Then let’s get going, Ellis. Gulliver needs us!” Siren rushed towards the door and Ellis found himself stumbling after her, when suddenly Broken-Hope appeared between them.
“I will… show you the way,” he said.
Siren said nothing in response, but she stepped aside to let him pass, glaring at him as she did so. She waited for Ellis to catch up to her and then they left the lab together.
Their journey through the catacombs was shorter than Ellis had been expecting. Much shorter. Within minutes they were at the bottom of a long spiralling tunnel which sloped upwards towards the Ya’Ma’Khul and Ellis wondered if this entrance had always been so deep in the catacombs, or if Broken-Hope had altered things somehow. If the latter was true then Ellis would have to have admitted that he was grateful, but he couldn’t help but wonder, if Boken-Hope was capable of such things, then why on Shadow didn’t he do it earlier when they were searching for parts for the Former Baron. He concluded it wasn’t worth dwelling on, after all, the suddenly tired-looking Fallen was getting enough of the evil eye from Siren without Ellis adding him to his least-welcome list.
Despite the speed of their arrival at the spiral tunnel, its ascent was still lengthy and a good twenty minutes had passed by the time they neared the top and could see the stone door sealing their escape from the catacombs of the Fallen. It looked very much the same as all the other doors Ellis had seen down there, with nothing to distinguish it from any other. It was hard to believe that it might be the door to the surface world.
“Is this it?” Siren asked impatiently, echoing Ellis’ own thoughts, “Is Gulliver just out there?”
“This door leads to the hold of the Ya’ma’Khul. Your friend is currently standing on the deck. It will not take more than a minute to traverse the ship to reach him.”
Siren nodded and rushed at the door, first pushing it, then clawing her fingers around its edge, trying to get a grip on the stone and pull it open. Neither tactic seemed to be working and Ellis watched on, mortified and unsure what he could do to help. Eventually Siren stopped, turned back towards Broken-Hope and screamed at him, “My friend is in danger out there! Open the bloody door, or I swear, I’ll find a way to vaporise you, you effeminate-”
“The Lich is out there as well,” the Fallen replied, surprisingly calm.
“Then you’re a coward as well! Open the door now!”
“If I open the door and you rush out there you will only be falling into the Lich’s trap. Gulliver is under its thrall and is standing there to lure you into the very action you are proposing. Do you still wish me to open it?”
“What else is there to do?” Siren cried, exasperated and, Ellis realised with concern, on the verge of tears. “Gulliver is my friend and I can’t let him stay there when Franck activates this accelerator of yours.”
Broken-Hope remained silent, staring away for a moment and Siren looked like she was about to shout at him again when he looked up again, staring Siren straight in the eye, and said, “I agree, but you should not walk into this blindly. There are precautions that could be taken, wards which could be prepared, hypostatick equations which would predi-”
“There isn’t time! Gulliver is in danger right this instant and I need to be up there saving his skinny ass.”
Again silence. Ellis wasn’t sure he could take any more of the tension, then, “I will accompany you. I might be able to serve as a kind of… shield.”
The Fallen stepped forward and the doors flew open before him. Siren rushed through and Broken-Hope seemed to dissolve around her. Ellis watched on, astonished, until he realised that he ought to be following her as well and so he leapt through the doors and into the hold of the ancient vessel.
The interior of the stone ship was almost as bizarre as its exterior, with organic-looking shelves, curving corridors, round, portal-like doors and carving on many unexpected surfaces. Ellis was only able to take in one or two of these details as he rushed through, trying to keep up with Siren, who he usually only saw as a pair of feet disappearing around a corner, or up a set of stairs. Eventually he could see the light, purple frosting of moonlight filtering in through an open door and he knew that he was just moments away from the main deck, meaning Siren was probably already-
Siren's voice rang out like a shot in the dark, breaking the silence and instantly setting off a response from the Lich. The deck grew suddenly very bright, so much so that Ellis, who was staggering towards the door, had to close his eyes tight and find his way by holding on to the walls. In that self-imposed darkness he could hear a sound like many people screaming all at once, a hellish chorus which sent his skin crawling and filled his head with visions of torture and agony. Gunfire erupted through this cacophony, a baseline rhythm competing with the awful melody to produce a symphony of violence. Ellis felt the wall reach a corner, his hand sliding round to touch the lintel of the doorway and then, ducking in the slim hope of avoiding death, he stepped out onto the deck.
Almost instantly he felt a cold chill pass over him, followed by a slight tingling sensation across every square inch of skin and then an unnatural, but inviting warmth. The cold made him open his eyes and, despite the lights and the sounds and the gunfire and the many other strange occurrences that seemed to be whizzing around them and around the ship, he was able to keep them that way, for in the centre of the deck, in an area no larger than the average living room, all seemed calm and all the bright light was filtered to become dimmer, almost cosier.
Questions rose and fell in Ellis mind in nanoseconds. He didn't understand any of what he was seeing or feeling, but the central image of this bizarre tableau was ultimately what held his attention. Amidst the chaos, Siren stood facing Gulliver. They were talking. Gulliver was crying. Ellis stepped closer to hear them.
"You have to come with us, Gulliver," Siren was saying, "it's not safe out here. In a few minutes Franck will-"
"I can't," Gulliver replied, sobbing, "I can't do anythin'. 'E's in my mind! 'E's got complete control over me. I can't even 'ate 'im!"
"Concentrate, Gulliver! You can break free of the Lich's control. You can do this! I know you can."
"I can't! Even now 'e's whisperin' in my ear, tellin' me all the things 'e wants me to do to you. 'Orrible things, Siren, 'orrible."
"Then why aren't you doing them? You have some control already, see? You just need to concentrate a little harder." She took a step closer towards him.
"It's just so difficult. I can't get 'im out of my 'ead!"
All around them the Lich's magical attacks were battering the ship, tearing chunks off the railing, ripping through the hull. It was clear that the monster was completely outraged by the strange shield that had formed over his intended victims.
It must be Broken-Hope, Ellis realised, he's somehow protecting us. Then he remembered how reluctant the Fallen had been and how he had implied it would cost them dearly to go up against the power of a Lich. He can't have much time left, he thought, and Siren's way is taking too long.
Without thinking any more, Ellis charged. He tore along the deck, moving faster and with more vigour than he had since he had run from the Stoneskins back in Blackfeather. He rushed past Siren, who had only a split second to turn her head in puzzlement before he ploughed into the equally puzzled form of Gulliver, sending the lanky pirate sprawling across the deck, his head rebounding nastily off the stone surface even as Ellis tumbled past him, acquiring bruises and grazes like dough collecting flour.
"What are you doing!?" Siren called out, utterly disbelieving.
"I'm saving his life!" Ellis shouted through the suddenly increasing din. All around them the effects of the Lich's attacks was becoming more and more noticeable and the shielding effect which could only have come from Broken-Hope seemed to be diminishing. "Come on," he shouted, "help me carry him inside."
Siren stared, dumbstruck for a second or two longer, long enough for the wind of hypostatick explosions to start ruffling her hair so that she had to sweep it out of her eyes, then she rushed over to Ellis’ side, helped him up and then took one of the now unconscious Gulliver's shoulders as they lifted him between them and dashed towards the door to the interior of the ship.
Something hot, purple and loud happened to Ellis' left. He could feel the force of it try to lift him off his feet as he ran, causing him to stumbled to the right slightly and upsetting Siren's balance. They staggered, nearly dropping Gulliver in the process but then managed to regain their equilibrium and run the last few feet into the shelter of the ship.
Except inside the ship wasn't really shelter at all. The Lich's furious attacks were tearing through the stonework, creating holes through which shafts of ephemeral light projected like laser beams. The whole vessel shook with the force of them.
The trio tumbled down the stairs to the next deck, narrowly avoiding being hit by some falling maritime masonry, then skidding along a corridor, hopping over gaps that appeared almost as quickly as they avoided them. Another deck lower and then the door to the catacombs was visible before them, carved out of granite built right into the hull of the ancient ship. It was only ten metres away, then seven, then five.
"What? Where am I?" Gulliver said, rousing, "Where are you takin’ me?" His feet slammed down onto the stone boards of the deck and suddenly he was pulling back against Siren and Ellis' progress. "'E doesn't want me goin' in there. You can't make me!"
"Gulliver, this is for your own good!" Siren screamed, "Wake up and let us save your sorry ass!"
A plume of purple smoke and green energy shot across the deck a few feet away.
"We can't stay here Gulliver," Ellis said, "please, let us move you!"
"I'm not goin' anywhere. 'E won't let me!" There was a hint of panic in Gulliver's otherwise subdued tones which was heartbreaking.
"There isn't time for this!" Ellis said, feeling a sense of deja-vu. Siren must have felt it as well because, before he could say another word she had cold-cocked her former crew-mate so that he slumped back down into her arms.
"Well, you managed it," she said, in a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone. "Now let's move!"
They ran, then, carrying Gulliver between them once more and let the maw of the catacombs swallow them whole. There was a sound like rushing wind as they ran into the corridor beyond and then Broken-Hope was running beside them, looking haggard and bruised with cuts across his pale skin, his robe torn and all his glory somehow diminished. The doors slammed behind them and then, then there was blissful silence.
“I have sent communication to Franck,” Broken-Hope said, his usually calm voice sounding haggard and hoarse.
Out of curiosity, Ellis glance at him out of the corner of his eye, to try to see the lines, angles and emotional impressions he associated with the peripherally viewed Fallen. He tried for a second and gasped. “How are you standing?” he asked.
“Standing?” Broken-Hope asked, “I suppose it is all relative. I am here. That is all that matters. Don’t worry about me.”
“Thanks,” Siren said, then, looking genuinely grateful. “How long until this accelerator works, then?” she continued, “And do we need to be any further away?”
“No. The catacombs should shield us and it should be starting any second… now.”
There was a rumbling sound from somewhere beneath them, which rapidly became like the sound of an approaching steam engine, complete with high-pitched whistle. Ellis quickly found he had to cover his ears and Siren did likewise, but even then, he could still hear much of what followed.
There was a tremendous roar which seemed to go on for minutes and in its midst the sounds of screaming, of rushing waves, of singing, laughing, crying, of thundering feet and heartbeats and a million other sounds, surreal in their new context.
On the surface of the shoals, several hundred feet away from the Ya’Ma’Khul there was a large pipe sticking out of the sandbank. It rose into the air about ten feet then stopped, a small cone-shaped diffuser completing its chimney-like appearance. As the rumbling beneath began to grow it quivered a little at first, then thrummed, then shook, the sand at it’s base bouncing away in a hundred tiny landslides. There was a screaming rush of hot air and then the diffuser shot off the top of the pipe at the same time as a spurt of green and purple energy erupted into the sky. The noise seemed to only grow louder as it rose, reaching a peak in volume as it hovered a couple of hundred feet up, and there it stayed for a few seconds, a dreadful, glowing choir in the sky.
The Lich, absorbed in trying to tear the ancient Stone Ship apart, only looked up towards it briefly as its glow began to compete with his own powerful energies and by then it was too late.
The glow expanded suddenly, a vast, searing explosion the likes of which Shadow had not seen for some time. The sounds which accompanied the energy grew louder once more, sweeping across the souls even as the energy which made them tore through the stone of each ship, ripping stone boards off stone decks until only the fabled stone ribs remained, and even they were rapidly diminished by the heat, the energy, the swirling sand.
The Lich screamed as the energy hit it. All around it enthralled henchmen were turning to blood, to bone, to dust, but the Lich stayed standing long enough to really feel the assault. Its lightning soul battered valiantly against the heat and force of the hypostatick attack, but as sand began to fill the sky and the world grew darker around it, its own light began to fade. Bit by bit its power diminished, its bones became pocked, then chipped and then, as if its integrity had finally gone, it simply crumbled into dust, blow away by the force of the explosion before it could even touch the ground.
Miles away the Dusk Raider received the full brunt of a massive tsunami of sand which swept across the shoals, unhindered by anything as paltry as wood, rope and canvas. It disintegrated even as the wood burned.
Then the energy passed, the noise fading away and the sea began to slowly reclaim parts of the surface.
At last the roar diminished, then, as Ellis uncovered his ears once more, it petered out into a long, anguished sigh and then nothing.
“What was that?”
“The sounds of a life, sped up until it can take no more,” replied Broken-Hope. “A fragment of soul pushed to its very limits, torn open so that its true energy, not just the fizz and pop of its existence but the core life, the hypostatick essence, if you will, is released from within. It is utterly, inexhaustibly powerful and, as the Lich outside has no doubt just found out, completely devastating.”
“Do you mean to say we just fired a soul like… like some sort of a bullet?”
The haggard Fallen gave a half-smile, “Something like that.”
“Come on,” Siren said, dusting herself off, “we had better take Gulliver down to the others and then work out what to do next.” She glanced back at the door behind them and muttered under her breath, probably hoping no one heard her. Ellis did hear however and his heart went out to her as she whispered, “So many dead. How do we carry on when all the rest have just… stopped. How do we make any of it worthwhile?”
She turned quickly and, without glancing at anyone else, began to haul Gulliver down the slope. As always seemed to be the case, Ellis had to rush to catch up. He grabbed Gulliver’s legs and the going seemed to get a bit easier after that. Even so, he couldn’t help but wonder at what Siren had said. How would they carry on now?