|Raingun Chapter One|
|GRAVITE, Goodmonth 1498|
Rescuing the hostages had failed. It was time to try something else.
Rick crept down the cliff overlooking the moonlit bay. Flasks of oil clinked in his pack. He extended his right arm for balance and tucked a ceramic jug under his left.
The pirates surely intended escape by sea, which suggested a hidden boat. Bending his knees at a crablike angle, he stayed hidden from the shore below using all the familiar dips and crannies he'd explored as a boy. Rick kept descending. Waves lapped and breezes whistled against the stone surface.
A felucca was beached in the cliffside's shadow, awaiting the midnight tide. A stout, solitary lookout in tar-soaked leather and a dented iron helmet leaned on the tiller. He faced the water and didn't react until Rick's feet thudded on the wet sand. Rick broke into a lumbering run.
"I've got the money!" Rick blurted, waving the jug. "And wine!"
The lookout hesitated.
"By the elements, I drown you in Water." Rick muttered the incant, then repeated it, casting two Water spells; both struck home. The first broke his target's Spell-shield with a fizzle of aquamarine.
The lookout prepared a spell of his own. "By Ullon, your--- aagh!"
Rick's second Water had ruined the pirate's Sting spell. Rick grunted with disgusted outrage at his enemy's invocation of the god of murder. The lookout fell. Rick ran splashing through the shallows and clambered over the net-covered gunwale, wary of whether the man was faking.
A second pirate rose from a blanket in bleary alarm. His drawn cutlass didn't shine. He too cast a Sting spell by Ullon, striking Rick full in the chest. Now Rick's own Spell-shield came into play, absorbing the attack.
Rick charged. Both men tumbled. Rick slammed the pirate's wrist to the deck, dislodging the cutlass. He lost track of the weapon's location as they grappled. Rick raised the jug over his own head and bashed it into the bridge of the pirate's nose.
The second pirate went limp. Rick grabbed the cutlass. He faced each fallen foe, bracing for more attacks. But both opponents lay still, one in a growing puddle of blood. Neither one was panting. Rick's thighs and back ached with tension. His pulse had yet to slacken when their bodies faded, leaving only tar-hardened, weatherbeaten garb.
"That's what hitting this town will get you." Rick spat at the departed, evaluating the cutlass. It was covered with an ominous film. "Killing our people. Burning our boats. Tell your shipmates how I killed you both when you raise. Then talk about finding a new place to hit. Because hitting us won't get you rich. It'll get you dead. And keep getting you dead till your lives are all gone." He shivered with nervous triumph.
Rick emptied his flasks. He hauled out bundles of dry sailcloth, spreading them out. He noticed a saddlebag in the compartments, which jingled when he grabbed it. He tossed it off the boat. Rick couldn't propel its metallic contents very far, but it made the tide's edge. Swearing at his land legs and shaky hands, he flinted the oil-soaked deck. It wasn't easy, so when the flame caught he made sure to catch a sail.
Rick leapt overboard into knee-deep, rocky-bottomed brine. Fire roared up. He unfastened the mooring and hid the saddlebag in a gap between the two rocks that had always reminded him of a she-wolf and her cub.
On the climb back up, Rick reviewed his plan. He'd spied other pirates hunkered in the mayor's barn up top. With their escape boat gone, the gang might free their prisoners in exchange for opportunity to flee overland. This was a slim chance for them, but doubtless the best they'd get: once arrested, Ullonites never escaped execution.
In front of the barn again, Rick looked across the lawn to the subdued crowd gathered outside the mayor's mansion. The lawn was bordered by mansion and cliff on opposite sides, with forest on the remaining two points of the compass.
The mayor's daughter Vivienne was seventeen. Eight years older than she, Rick had arrived in town at age eleven and watched her grow up. Front and center in a plain, spotless white dress, she advanced by cautious inches. He stopped her with a hand.
"Anything happen while I was gone?" Rick asked.
"They'll kill everyone inside if they don't get the gold."
"And nobody knows where the gold is?" His question went unanswered. A fragile frown broke through Vivienne's steady composure. "Any sign of your father?"
"He's missing," she despaired. "They must have him in the barn!"
"Wherever he is, I'm through waiting for him. Get back!" He waved his hand toward her in an arc, dismissing her to the relative safety of the crowd. He whirled to face the barn doors and spoke in his strongest voice.