|Raingun Chapter One|
"Pirates! Release your prisoners at once. In exchange, we'll allow you an hour's head start before our soldiers start to track you. Whatever your plan was, it failed. Your boat is burning! Check for yourself. Anyone standing at the cliff's edge can see."
The crowd fell silent behind him. Rick's mind teemed with countless imminent disasters. He had no soldiers to command, nor did he know where any were. He whispered a prayer to Artifice to make the pirates believe his bluff.
Rick stood riveted at the opening of the barn doors.
Odor of incense drifted out. Rick beheld fourteen silhouettes of figures bristling with blades, jewelry, and spiked piecemeal armor. The pirate crew was backlit by lanterns shedding an eerie crimson glow. Brightness flashed on the straw-covered barn floor, then flit like a miniature bolt of lightning to the brandished knife of a statuesque lady. Her thin-strapped evening gown of pink silk struck Rick as decidedly unpiratical.
Rick scrutinized the pirates. Then he faced the torchlit gathering behind him, of people who had been his neighbors for half his life. Rick read passive, horrified expectation on every face. He could feel the people wanting action, relying on him.
Vivienne cried: "Rick! Run!"
No one else spoke or moved.
Rick scowled and faced the pirates' sinister snickering. He didn't know which pirates had laughed, so he addressed the largest: a bald, shirtless man with a wild black beard and an enormous saber. Rick made out the winding coils of an octopus on the huge torso. The man threw back his head to laugh, but instead erupted in a coughing dribble of tobacco juice.
Rick thrust an angry finger at this new target, before fear could gel his motion again. He angled his face to display his boyhood scar, which twisted away from his mouth like a gutted viper. "That tattoo is ridiculous! You look like a clown at carnival. Let our people walk out of there, right now. This is your last chance to survive the night."
The lady in the crew's midst cackled praise to the name of Ullon. Rick threw Wind spells at the man he'd taunted. The first fizzled on a Spell-shield as expected, but the pirate had the endurance to withstand two more. Rick backpedaled as the pirates surged out from the barn. Once his target was moving too fast to dodge his aim, Rick switched to his mightiest spells: "By the elements I burn you with fire . . . by the elements I crush you with earth."
The thug crashed to the ground mid-stride, but by then the whole crew was swarming the lawn. The pirate leader watched Rick's movement as if preparing to target him. The determined hatred in her gaze roused Rick to cast a Spell-shield on himself.
"By Ullon I cause you agony!" she keened. This fizzled on the Spell-shield, banishing it a moment after he'd erected it. Rick evaded her next spell with a slapdash roll. "By Ullon I grant you death!"
That got her Rick's full attention. Three times, she cast Death spells at him, each one fizzling seconds after he'd replaced a Spell-shield. She edged closer with each casting. Halfway through the incant of his fourth Spell-shield, Rick noted she was now less than twenty feet off. She rushed him with the glowing dagger.
Rick turned and ran.
She called after him: "Run, mouse! I'll chase you anywhere."
Incensed at the glee in her taunt, Rick made a tight circle that could have almost passed for a clumsy pirouette. He rounded on her fast enough to give her a solid cut across the ribs with the cutlass he'd lifted off the boat.
Horsemen charged out from the darkness of the tree line, the battle-cry of their riders startling everyone. Pirates pointed, shouting bewildered warnings to each other.
The horses made no noise, but their riders did, for they all cast elemental spells like Rick. Telltale colorful tinklings of bursting Spell-shields illuminated the onslaught. A few Ullonite pirates fell, but most fought on. Pirates rolled off their Sting and Pain spells, most hitting the riders' mounts to no effect. This puzzled Rick --- those spells harmed all living creatures. He'd never seen horses or horsemen like this.