Red Cross’d Bones – by Kyt Dotson

Kyt was kind enough to let Nexus have some flash fiction from an ongoing piece of work… you can see some more of Kyt’s Burning Sails stories on his Helljammer website. Other serial stories from Kyt can be seen at Mill Avenue Vexations. When not worldbuilding Kyt can be found at the Better Than Faith atheist website and forum.

It were nine-bells when the winds shifted, bringing with them the scent of roast mackerel from the galley. Most of the sailors on deck had been roused and stomachs rumbled in anticipation of the meal, but a different fate clutched our bellies that morning.

A shout came up from the crow’s nest, “Un bateau! Un bateau! Away starboard!”

As many hands as feet clattered across the deck to the starboard and leaned hard against the rail. I’ll ne’re forget that image so long as I live of that black prow’d boat cutting a feather against the deep azure sea. Not a man aboard needed the smell of sulfur and burning canvas to know what fate had us in its jaws–as the flames licked from those masts, whipping hungrily in the wind.

A chill went through the crew as the boatswain’s whistle shrilled. “Man the guns! Man the rigging! Powder shots and charges full, we may have only one shot! Get a move on! Do you want to be dead or worse!”

For it were the Burning Sails and there, high on her highest mast, the Red Jack flew, a’blazoned skull and crossbones over the flapping joli rouge. We couldn’t yet see the silhouettes of the men on that demon vessel, but surely if we could see their whites there’d be murder in their eyes. Some said the captain had insulted Connie Bluelark in another life and now she came asking her revenge.

My rifle slung easily from my shoulder as I took station behind Johnny Edgar, a bright boy of sixteen. Too bad that the lad will never see his seventeenth. I tried not to think as I bit the bullet and poured the powder down the barrel, belowdecks the toms were being set, but I knew it was for naught–not a boat has ever suffered the Burning Sails and lived to tell the tale. I stamped the bullet deep into the throat of my gun and affixed the ramrod to the stock.

With death in my sights and cold stones in my gut, I held my peace and prayed to the Good Lord to keep my aim true.

“All cannon! Give ’em a broadside!”

The roar of the guns split the day and the ship rocked as if a great hand had smacked us. Billows of ghost-white smoke belched across the blue. “Reload the guns!” shouted the quartermaster. I could hear his voice rough and booming in my ears even though the man were a deck below me and the thunder of the cannons still rang in my ears. Blood trickled down my neck. I had gone deaf in one ear.

When the clouds of white cleared, the helljammer were still there–unscathed and untouched, she swung and her cannon ports opened, bearing free the silver maws of ten and twenty iron barrels.

The Burning Sails returned the gesture–her flaming cannon tore through our hull, and smashed our mainmast to smithereens. Splinters flew, screams abounded, and the weeping of men caught my ears as I watched Johnny Edgar die at his post. He would be one of the lucky ones, I told myself as I held steady.

Only a knife in my hands, I stood no chance against these hellsmen; I’d blown my wad into the chest of the first boarder and it hadn’t slowed him a bit. The fight abovedecks was a quick one, our crew had been gutted like our boat, and there was little fight left in us. Beaten and bloodied, I bowed my head under the rapier of a rough jowled man with eyes that burned like irons from a fire. He stayed his blade after I dropped my knife.

Waiting.

And there she was, larger than life and full of it. The demon, Captain Connie Bluelark, wearing a dress of black sackcloth, with the crush of gold and jewels glittering from her throat. She made pause for every survivor and made the same offer:

“Death or eternal servitude,” ‘ole Connie said, her pistol leveled at my skull, and her eyes pierced through me like an awl.

“I pray the Good Lord my soul to take,” I said trying to recall my vespers, “…forfend me from evil.”

I closed my eyes and wondered if I’d hear the gunshot when Connie pulled the trigger.

“Amen.”

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