On Stranger Tides Page 29


"Keep the tiller over!" commanded Davies, "and let us slow down now," he added to Hurwood. "We'll come around across the Carmichael's bow and board her on the starboard side."


The two ships had been slowing even before the de Lagrimas lost her mast, and so even overloaded and losing speed the Jenny had yards to spare when she came around, still heeling, under the Carmichael's bow. Then the Jenny's in-turning bow was scraping up splinters along the ship's hull and the sloop rocked and shuddered as it lost its momentum; Davies ordered grappling hooks flung up, and a moment later the pirates were swarming like big, ragged bugs up the ropes. Among the first of them was Shandy, who was finding it ironic that in this second capture of the Carmichael by the Jenny he should be one of the bearded wild men scrambling up the boarding lines.


When he was halfway up the line, bracing his boot-soles against the hull as he wrenched himself upward, the hull suddenly jumped like a whacked drumskin and he was swung over sideways and slammed hard against it; the impact rang his head against the hull strakes and numbed his right arm, but he managed to keep his left hand clamped onto the rope. Blinking down past his dangling boots, he saw most of the men who'd been on the lines with him splash into the turbulent water between the two vessels.


"The Spaniard just hit her on the other side!" shouted Davies, leaping for one of the slack lines himself. "Now or never!"


Shandy took a deep breath - through his mouth, for his nose was dripping blood - flexed the fingers of his right hand, swung it up to grab the rope, drew his legs up and pushed himself away from the hull and wearily resumed climbing. He was the first to grip the rail and swing a leg over, but, in spite of his concern for Beth Hurwood, when he had wincingly pulled himself up he just crouched there and stared for several seconds.


The Spanish ship was a sky-blotting tangle of shattered spars and fouled rigging, but Shandy's attention was on his immediate surroundings. The ship to whose rail he was clinging was simply not the Carmichael - the waist was broader across but shorter fore and aft, there were two poop decks, one behind and even higher than the first, and the cannons were mounted right out on the top deck rather than one deck down - but what drew his unhappy attention were the sailors aboard her.


They moved awkwardly, and their skin was the color of scummy cream of mushroom soup, and their eyes were the milky white that, in fish, was a sign of having been dead too long.


Most of this poorly reanimated crew was rushing to the port bow, where a lot of similarly ruinous mariners were clambering across the shattered rail from the de Lagrimas.


Shandy wanted very much to jump back down into the water. He had seen things like these in the most horrible of his childhood dreams, and he wasn't sure he wouldn't drop dead himself if one of these creatures were to turn its dreadfully knowing gaze full on him. I


Then he knew they were aware of him, for several of them were moving toward him at an eerie plodding-but-rapid pace, brandishing corroded but very solid-looking cutlasses. Their bare feet, shuffling across the deck, made sounds like someone rolling dead toads down a shingled roof.


His voice shrill with panic, Shandy yelled the beginning phrases of the Hail Mary as he jumped to the deck, wrenched out his saber and stepped into one of the counters against multiple attack that Davies had been making him practice; he feinted as if to charge between two of his attackers, then ducked to the other side, engaging another opponent's blade in a screeching bind that sent Shandy's blade corkscrewing in to chop heavily into the pearly neck. Leaping over the tumbling, nearly beheaded figure, he saw several men shambling toward him - and, on the next deck up, he saw the bedraggled figure of Leo Friend, who was looking both furious and frightened. Friend was staring at something behind and above Shandy, and after he'd done a quick feint-and-slash-and-run and got past his immediate attackers, Shandy risked a quick glance back.


Benjamin Hurwood hung unsupported in midair a dozen feet above the ship's rail and a few yards out from it, and through the white hair that was blowing around his face he was smiling almost affectionately at Friend. "I brought you along," the old man said, and, though he spoke quietly, the clanging, thumping racket of the fighting ghost-crews was muted when he spoke, so that the words carried clearly; "I showed you the way past the impasse you had reached, showed you the place you had failed to discover by yourself." The smile grew wider, beginning to look skull-like. "Did you really think you were superior to me, that you could advance so far that I could not follow you? Hah. I'm glad you revealed your treacherous nature now - eventually you might have become powerful enough to do me harm." He closed his eyes.


Other pirates had clambered aboard now, and, after the initial astonishment, were doggedly trading sword-strokes with the cadaverous mariners, quickly catching on that the things had to be dismembered, and fairly thoroughly, to be put out of the fight. The things were quick, too, in a spasmodic, insectlike way, and several of Davies' men were bloodily down in the first few minutes.


Shandy could hear someone banging behind a door below the deck Friend was on, and he guessed it was Beth who was locked in there, but he was finding it more and more difficult to make any headway across the deck. His sword arm was getting tired, and it was all he could do to parry the cutlass chops now - he was just too exhausted to lunge forward and swing his own sword in any effective riposte.


Then one of the lively corpses danced ponderously up to him and whirled a green cutlass at his head - Shandy heaved his saber up and caught the blow on his forte, but the force of it knocked the sword out of his hand. It clattered away, out of reach. The dead thing, too close to run from, drew back its arm for a killing stroke, and Shandy had no choice but to scramble inside its guard and grapple with it.


Its body smelled like unfresh fish and felt like chains and jelly in a wet leather bag, and Shandy actually had to fight to keep himself from fainting at the horror of its proximity. The creature was hissing and thrashing and pounding Shandy's back with the brass guard of its cutlass, but Shandy managed to hobble to the starboard rail and roll the dead sailor over it. The gray hands clung to the lapels of Shandy's jacket, and for several seconds Shandy was bent over the rail staring down into the curdled eyes of the pendulous dead man; then one elbow, and a moment later the other, parted inside the thing's sleeves, and the body plummeted away to splash into the sea, leaving its hands and forearms locked onto Shandy's lapels.


Weaponless now, he stared around wildly for his dropped sword, but even in this panic his attention was caught by what was happening to Leo Friend. The fat young magician had risen from the poop deck up into the air, and flames were licking brightly around him, though his hair and clothing so far remained unscorched. Shandy glanced out beyond the starboard bow at Hurwood and saw flames around him too, though not as much, and he realized he was in the presence of a to-the-death duel between two supremely powerful sorcerors.


"Behind you, Jack!" came a yell from Davies, and Shandy leaped forward, the gray arms on his jacket swinging wildly, an instant before a cutlass blade whistled through the space his head had just been occupying. This put him dangerously close to another of the Charlotte Bailey's crew, who expressionlessly cocked a rubbery arm for a sword swing, but before it could deliver the blow its head sprang tumbling from its shoulders as Davies' blade clunked through its neck.


"Look around you!" Davies snapped, kicking the doubly-dead man's weapon to Shandy. "Didn't I tell you that?"


"Yeah, Phil," Shandy gasped, stooping to pick up the discouragingly heavy cutlass.


None of the Charlotte Bailey's crew were right nearby, and Davies took hold of his own sword with his left hand and then flexed his free right hand; Shandy saw the pirate's eyes narrow as he did it, and he remembered that Davies had apparently burned that hand in the jungle.


"Is your hand - " he began, then yelled, "Look out yourself!" and hopped past Davies to knock away an in-thrusting blade and split the jellyfish face of the figure wielding it. "Is your hand workable?"


"It's got no choice," said Davies tightly, gripping his sword again and looking around the littered deck. "Listen, we've got to make sure Friend loses this fight; try to - "


From behind Shandy came a screeching of overstressed wood, followed by loud cracking and snapping, and looking aft he saw that Friend had stretched his hand down, and though Friend was hovering a dozen yards above the deck and his pudgy hand scarcely extended down past his belt, most of the overdeck and bulkhead had been torn away from the cabin; the ripped up planks and beams hung in midair for a moment, then were dropped carelessly into the waist, and Shandy heard screams through the clattering and thudding, and he knew that some of the men from the Jenny had been under the dumped lumber.


Then Friend raised his cupped hand, and up into the sunlight from the now roofless cabin floated Beth Hurwood, struggling against something invisible that held her arms pinned to her sides.


Chapter Eighteen


Oh my God, thought Shandy in sudden panic, he's using her as a diversion; he's probably already raped her, and now he's going to set her on fire or something just to distract Hurwood.


Shandy started toward her across the blood-slippery deck, and he didn't even notice that one of the dead men between himself and the unroofed cabin had focused its attention on him and was ; now crouched, holding its green cutlass low and ready.


Davies saw it, though. "Goddammit, Jack," he burst out wearily, sprinting forward to get to the necrotic sailor before Shandy did.


Venner, his shirt torn and his red hair made even redder by a long scalp wound, and his habitual ingratiating grin replaced by a snarl of desperate effort, took in the situation at a glance - and he deliberately stepped in Davies' way and drove his burly shoulder into the older man's chest.


Half-winded by the impact, Davies reeled but nevertheless forced himself onward after casting back at Venner one quick glance full of anger and promise.


Shandy had had to duck around a knot of gasping, clanging combat, but now he was running straight toward the ascending figure of Beth Hurwood - and toward the patient, still-unnoticed dead mariner.


Davies had no time for a deceptive attack; he ran the last few


steps to the undead sailor and simply swung his sword at the thing's neck.


The blade struck deep, but with his bad hand and lack of breath Davies hadn't been able to put enough force behind the blow to cut the head entirely off, and the dead eyes rolled toward him - and before he could pull his sword free, the thing's corroded cutlass was driven horrifyingly far up into his abdomen.


Suddenly ashen, Davies hitchingly breathed a curse, then tightened his burned hand around the grip of his sword, and with a convulsive heave that was as much a violent shudder of disgust as it was an attacking move, shoved his blade across the gray neck with his last strength, sawing the head free.


The two dead bodies tumbled away across the deck.


Shandy hadn't even noticed the encounter. Near Beth now, he dropped his sword and strained every muscle and tendon in a high jump for her, but his upstretched fingers brushed against an invisible resistance a foot short of her - though for a moment her downward staring eyes met his imploringly, and her lips formed words he couldn't hear.


Then he fell, rebounding painfully from the splintered cabin bulkhead to sprawl breathless on the sun-hot deck and wait, completely exhausted now, for a green blade or two to nail him to the planks.


But suddenly all the lich combatants were paler, translucent against the bright sky. The weight of the dead man's forearms on his chest all but disappeared.


At the same moment Shandy became aware that he was lying on the well-remembered quarterdeck of the Vociferous Carmichael, staring at armored planks he remembered having bolted in place himself - and he guessed that Friend was too busy defending himself against Hurwood to maintain the spell that had provided him with a crew.


"I could kill her," Friend said, relaxing his frown of concentration and baring bloody teeth in a smile.


It was Hurwood who wavered now, and Friend pointed his free hand at the older sorceror - and a ball of fire, white-bright even in the cloudless noon, rushed through yielding rigging straight at Hurwood.


The one-armed man parried it with a flailing gesture and it rebounded down into the Jenny where it was greeted with alarmed yells; but Hurwood fell a couple of feet and then caught himself jokingly, and he whimpered and reached out his hand toward his daughter, on the other side of the waist, who was slowly rising toward his adversary. There was no fire at all now flickering around Friend, who, grinning and swollen with triumph, looked like some grotesque, beribboned hot-air balloon.


The young magician inhaled deeply, leaned back and stretched his arms out to either side.


Then in spite of the strong breeze the air was foul with the smell of an empty iron skillet on a fire, and the ship was the squat, multi-decked Charlotte Bailey again, and the English and Spanish sailors were not only substantial again but alive-looking - ruddy cheeks, tanned arms, brightly flashing eyes - and Friend was actually glowing in the sky, brightly, like a man-shaped sun ...


Leo Friend knew he was close to understanding it all now; he was on the very threshold of godhood - and without any external help, without drawing on anything but his own resources! He could see now that that was how it had to be. You did it for yourself or it didn't happen; and to overpower Benjamin Hurwood he would have to do it, and do it right now.


But to be God - which of course meant to have been God all along - he had to justify every event in his past, define every action in terms that made it consistent with godhood ... there could no longer be any incidents that were too uncomfortable to remember. With superhuman rapidity he held up for mental review year after year of remembered behavior - the torturing of pets, the malice toward playmates, the poisoned candy left near schoolyards and workhouses - and he was able to face, and incorporate into divinity, every bit of it, and he could feel himself growing incalculably more powerful as he bloomed closer and closer to the perfect self-satisfaction that would bring omnipotence ...

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