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Short Story • 51 Minute Read

Shadow and Fortune: Chapter Two

By Graham McNeill

Something Stupid, The Red Shroud, The Shadow of War

Miss Fortune snapped the barrels of her pistols shut and laid them down on the table next to her short-bladed sword. Scores of frantic bells and shouts of alarm echoed from the panicked city below; she knew well what they signified.

The Harrowing.

In defiance of the incoming storm, she’d kept the shuttered windows of her newly acquired villa open, daring the dead to come for her. Muttering winds carried their hunger and a cold that settled bone-deep.

Perched high on Bilgewater’s eastern cliffs, the villa had once belonged to a hated gang leader. In the chaos of Gangplank’s fall, he’d been dragged from his bed and had his brains bashed out on the cobbles.

Now it belonged to Miss Fortune, and she’d be damned if she’d go the same way. She reached up and ran a fingertip around the curves of the pendant Illaoi had given her at Byrne’s sinking. The coral was warm to the touch, and though she didn’t truly believe in what it represented, it was a pretty enough bauble.

The door to her chamber opened and she let the pendant drop.

She knew who was behind her without turning. Only one man would dare enter without knocking.

“What are you doing?” asked Rafen.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

“Like you’re about to do something damned stupid.”

“Stupid?” said Miss Fortune, placing her hands on the table. “We shed blood and lost good people to bring down Gangplank. I’m not going to let the Harrowing just-”

“Just what?”

“Take this place from me,” she snapped lifting her pistols and jamming them into their custom tooled hip-scabbards. “And you’re not going to stop me.”

“We’re not here to stop you.”

Miss Fortune turned to see Rafen at the threshold of her chambers. A score of her best fighters waited in the vestibule beyond, armed to the teeth with a mixture of muskets, wheel-lock pistols, clanking bundles of clay splinter-bombs and cutlasses that looked like they’d been looted from a museum.

“Looks like you’re about to do something damned stupid as well,” she said.

“Aye,” agreed Rafen, walking over to the open window and slamming the shutters closed. “You really think we’d let our captain go out to face that alone?”

“I almost died bringing Gangplank down, and I’m not done yet. I don’t expect you to go with me, not tonight,” said Miss Fortune coming to stand before her men and resting her hands on the carved walnut grips of her guns. “This isn’t your fight.”

“Course it bloody is,” said Rafen.

Miss Fortune took a breath and nodded.

“There’s every chance we won’t live to see morning,” she said, unable to keep the hint of a smile tugging at her lip.

“This ain’t our first Harrowing together, Captain,” said Rafen, tapping the skull pommel of his sword. “And I’ll be damned if it’s our last.”

Olaf was in sight of the Winter’s Kiss when he heard the screams. He ignored them at first – screams were nothing new in Bilgewater – but then he saw men and women running from the quayside in terror, and his interest was piqued.

They scrambled from their boats and fled for the crooked streets as fast as they could. They didn’t look back and they didn’t stop, not even when a shipmate tripped or fell into the water.

Olaf had seen men run from battle, but this was something else. This was naked terror, the kind he’d only ever seen etched on the frozen corpses spat out by glaciers where the Ice Witch was said to dwell.

Shutters were slamming shut all across the wharf and the strange symbols he’d seen on every door were frantically being dusted with white powder. Enormous winches were lifting timber structures formed from bolted-together hulls of ships high up the cliffs.

He recognized a tavern-keeper who ran a drinking den where the beer was only slightly stronger than troll piss and waved to him.

“What’s going on?” shouted Olaf.

The tavern-keeper shook his head and pointed to the ocean before slamming his door. Olaf set the Krakenwyrm’s tooth on the stone wharf and turned to see what all the fuss was about.

At first he thought a storm was coming in, but it was just thick black sea fog, albeit fog that approached with unnatural speed and fluid motion.

“Ah, now,” he said, unhooking his axe from his belt. “This looks promising.”

The feel of the weapon’s battle-worn leather grip was pleasing in his callused palm as he passed it from hand to hand, rolling his shoulders to loosen the muscles.

The black mist swept over the farthest ships and Olaf’s eyes widened as he saw spirits plucked from the blackest nightmares writhing in the mist. A towering dreadknight, a monstrous chimera of warhorse and man, led them alongside a black-clad reaper limned in green fire. These lords of the dead left the spirit host to their sport on the quayside as they flew into Bilgewater proper with predatory speed.

Olaf had heard the natives speak in hushed whispers of something called the Harrowing, a time of doom and darkness, but hadn’t expected to be lucky enough to face it axe in hand.

The host of the dead tore into the wallowing galleys, merchantmen, and corsair ships with claw and fang, ripping them apart like an ursine with its snout in a fresh kill. Sailcloth tore and rigging lines snapped as easily as rotten sinew. Heavy masts splintered as boats were tossed into one another and smashed to kindling.

A host of screaming wraiths flew into the Winter’s Kiss and Olaf roared in anger as the Longreaver’s keel heaved and split, its timbers freezing solid in a heartbeat. The boat sank as swiftly as if its hold were filled with rocks, and Olaf saw his fellow Freljordians dragged below the water by creatures with cadaverous limbs and fish-hooked mouths.

“Olaf will make you wish you had stayed dead!” he yelled as he charged along the wharf.

Spirits boiled up from the ocean, icy claws slashing towards him. Olaf’s axe sang out, cleaving a glittering arc through the host. The dead screeched as his blade sundered them, its True Ice edge more lethal than any enchantment.

They howled as they died a second time and Olaf sang the song he’d written for the moment of his death with lusty vigor. The words were simple, but the equal of any saga told by the wandering poets of the ice. How long had he waited to sing these words? How often had he feared he might never get the chance?

A shimmering mist of snapping jaws swarmed him, specters and things of mist. Webs of frost patterned his hauberk and the deathly touch of voracious spirits burned his skin.

But Olaf’s heart was mighty and it fired his blood to heights of fury unknown to all but the berserker. He shrugged off the pain of the wraith touch, feeling reason recede and fury build.

Crimson froth built at the corners of his mouth as he bit the inside of his cheeks raw. He roared and swung his axe like a madman, caring nothing for pain, only that he slew his enemies.

That they were dead already meant nothing to him.

Olaf drew his axe back, ready to strike another blow, when a deafening crash of splintering columns and roof beams erupted behind him. He spun to face this new foe as a blizzard of smashed wood and stone cascaded onto the quayside. Bladed shards sliced his face and fist-sized chunks of stone pummeled his arms raw. Rendered fats and animal fluids fell in a rank drizzle as a horrendous groaning issued from the black mist.

Then he saw it.

The spirit of the Krakenwyrm arose from the remains of the Slaughter Dock. Titanic and filled with fury, its ghostly tentacles lifted into the air and smashed down like thunderbolts hurled by a wrathful god. An entire street was smashed to ruin in the blink of an eye and Olaf’s berserker fury surged as he finally beheld a foe worthy of claiming his life.

Olaf raised his axe in salute of his killer.

“Ya beauty!” he yelled and charged to his doom.

The woman was beautiful, with wide, almond shaped eyes, full lips and the high cheekbones common to Demacia. The portrait in the locket was a miniature masterpiece, but it failed to capture the depth of Senna's Senna's strength and determination.

He rarely looked at her picture, knowing that to carry his grief too close to his heart made him weak. Grief was a chink in his armor. Lucian could not allow himself to truly feel her loss, so he snapped the locket shut. He knew he should bury it in the sand of this cave beneath the cliffs, but could not put her memory below the earth as he had her body.

He would shut the grief away until Thresh Thresh was destroyed and Senna’s death avenged.

Then, and only then, would Lucian mourn his lost wife with tears and offerings to the Veiled Lady Veiled Lady.

How long had it been since that terrible night?

He felt the bottomless abyss of sorrow lurking in ambush and viciously suppressed it as he had so many times before. He drew on the teachings of his order, repeating the mantras he and Senna had been taught to close themselves off from emotion. Only then could he reach a place of equilibrium that would allow him to face deathly horrors beyond imagining.

The grief ebbed slowly, but it remained.

He’d opened the locket only reluctantly, feeling a growing distance between himself and Senna’s memory. He found he could no longer recall the exact sweep of her jawline, the smoothness of her skin or the precise color of her eyes.

The longer his hunt went on, the further away she felt.

Lucian lifted his head, letting the breath ease from his lungs, forcing his heartbeat to slow.

The walls of the cave were pale limestone, gouged from the cliffs upon which Bilgewater was built. The motion of water and the stone picks of the natives had crafted a labyrinth beneath the city few knew of or even suspected existed. The pale rock walls were etched with looping spirals, rippling waves and things that might have been unblinking eyes.

He’d learned these were symbols of the native religion, but whoever had carved them had not visited this place in many years. He’d found it by following the secret symbols of his own order, symbols that would guide him to places of refuge and succor in any city of Valoran.

Only dim reflections of light shimmered on the roof of the cave, but as his eyes followed the spiral of carvings, a shimmering radiance spread from his palm.

Let me be your shield.

Lucian looked down, the memory of her words as clear as though she stood next to him.

The locket glistened with lambent green flame.

He looped the chain of the locket around his neck and swept up his twin relic pistols.

“Thresh,” he whispered.

Bilgewater’s streets were deserted. The bells from the ocean were still ringing and cries of terror echoed from below. Rat Town was completely covered by the Black Mist, and howling storms raged over Port Mourn’s desolation. Fires burned all along Butcher’s Bridge and a shimmering fog clung to the cliffs above the Grey Harbor.

The people in the upper reaches of the city hid in their homes and prayed to the Bearded Lady that the Harrowing would pass them by, that grief would fall upon some other poor unfortunate.

Warding candles of ambergris burned in every window, shimmering through bottle green sea-glass. Burning roots of Empress of the Dark Forest hung from doors, shutters and nailed up planks.

“People really believe in the Empress?” asked Miss Fortune.

Rafen shrugged, his mouth a thin line and the creases around his eyes pulled tight as he searched the gathering mist for threats. He pulled out a smoldering length of identical root from beneath his shirt.

“It’s all about where you place your faith, isn’t it?”

Miss Fortune drew her pistols.

“I have faith in these and in us,” she said. “What else are you carrying?”

“This cutlass has kept me safe through six Harrowings,” he said, tapping its pommel again. “I offered up a bottle of ten year old rum to the Bearded Lady and this knife here was sold to me by a man who swore its edge was purest sunsteel.”

Miss Fortune glanced at the scabbarded knife, certain without even seeing the blade that Rafen had been swindled. The workmanship around the quillons was too poor to be Demacian, but she wasn’t about to tell him that.

“What about you?” he asked.

Miss Fortune patted her pouch of pistol shot.

“Every one’s been dipped in Myron’s Dark,” she said, loud enough for every one of her thirty-strong company to hear. “If the dead want a fight, we’ll meet them with spirits of our own.”

The oppressive gloom made it hard to laugh, but she saw a few smiles and that was about as much as she could expect on a night like this.

She turned and pushed down into Bilgewater, descending crooked stairs cut into the rock of the cliffs, crossing secret bridges of half-rotted rope and threading forgotten alleys that hadn’t known the tread of feet in years.

She brought them out into a wide square on one of the floating wharf-shanties, where swaying dwellings leaned together as though their twisted eaves whispered to one another. Every façade was a mishmash of driftwood, and patterns of frost clung to the skewed timbers. Frozen winds blew through the patchwork dwellings, freighted with sobs and screams from afar. Flaming braziers hung from hundreds of mast-lines strung between buildings, smoking with strange herbs. Pools of water rippled with reflections of things that weren’t there.

Most days this was a thriving marketplace, packed to the gunwales with stalls, rattling meat-vendors, drink-hawkers, merchants, pirates, bounty hunters and surly flotsam washed in from every corner of the world. Just about everywhere in Bilgewater had a view of this place, which was just how Miss Fortune wanted it.

Mist clung to every outcropping of timber.

Discarded figureheads wept frozen tears.

Mist and shadows gathered.

“Cutpurse Square?” said Rafen. “How did we get here? I ran this place as a wharf-snipe. Thought I knew every way in and out like any good little thief.”

“Not every way,” said Miss Fortune.

The counting houses on either side were silent and dark, and she resisted the impulse to look through the torn sheets of flapping canvas nailed over porthole windows.

“How do you know these routes and I don’t?”

“Lady Bilgewater and I are two of a kind,” said Miss Fortune, her gaze narrowing as black mist seeped into the square. “She whispers her secrets to me like an old friend, so I know her every hidden wynd and jitty like you never will.”

Rafen grunted as they spread into the empty square.

“What next?”

“We wait,” said Miss Fortune as they reached the center of the square, feeling terribly exposed.

The black mist twitched with things moving in its depths.

A disembodied skull of ghostly light stretched from the darkness, empty-eyed and with sharpened teeth. Its jaw stretched wider than any natural bone structure would allow and a keening wail built in its gullet.

Miss Fortune’s bullets punched through each of its eye-sockets and the skull vanished with a shriek of frustration. She twisted the wheel-lock on each pistol and ingenious mechanisms within reloaded each one.

For a moment, all was silent.

Then the black mist erupted in a screeching howl as the spirits of the dead surged into the square.

For the second time this evening, Olaf cut his way inside the dead Krakenwyrm. He wielded his axe like a crazed woodsman, hewing left and right with gleeful abandon. The beast’s vast limbs were insubstantial as mist, yet the ice of his blade clove them like flesh.

Tentacles flailed and slammed down on the stone of the wharf, but Olaf was fast for a big man. Slow warriors didn’t survive in the Freljord. He rolled and slashed with his axe, severing a suckered length of limb that faded from existence as it was parted from the monster’s body.

Even in the grip of the red shroud, Olaf saw the creature’s skull in the thrashing chaos of phantom limbs surrounding him.

Its eyes were afire with the enraged spirit of its life.

A moment of sublime connection passed between them.

The beast’s soul knew him.

Olaf laughed with joy.

“You see the taker of your life and we are now bonded in death!” he roared. “Mayhap if you kill me, we shall battle forever in the realms beyond mortal ken.”

The prospect of eternal war against so mighty a foe poured fresh strength into Olaf’s aching muscles. He charged towards the creature’s maw, caring nothing for his pain as each brush with the Krakenwyrm’s tentacles burned his skin worse than the splinter-winds of the Lokfar coast.

He leapt into the air, axe aloft.

He looked glorious death in the face.

A tentacle whipped out and lashed around his thigh.

It swung him around in a dizzying arc, lifting him high into the air.

“Come then!” bellowed Olaf, punching his axe skyward in salute of their shared destiny. “Unto death!”

A wraith-creature with grasping talons and a mouth of icy fangs lunged from the swirling mass of spirits. Miss Fortune put a bullet through its face and it vanished like smoke in a gale.

A second shot and another spirit vanished.

She grinned through her fear as she spun into cover behind a weather-worn stone bollard of the River King River King to reload. On impulse, she leaned over and gave his toothy grin a kiss.

It’s all about where you place your faith.

Gods, bullets or her own skill?

The grin fell from her face as one of the pistols jammed with a grinding crunch of metal. Her mother’s admonishing words arose from the dark recesses of memory.

“That’s what you get when someone else mixes your powder, Sarah,” she said, holstering the gun and sliding her sword from its sheath. She’d looted it from the captain of a Demacian galiot running north up the Shuriman rust-coast, and it was as fine an example of the artificer’s art as any she’d seen.

Miss Fortune spun from cover, firing her loaded pistol and slashing her sword through the mist creatures. Her shot plucked another specter from the air and her sword’s edge bit as if cutting flesh and bone. Did the spirits of the dead have a physical component to them that could be hurt? It seemed unlikely, but she was wounding something inside them.

She didn’t have time to think too hard on the matter and suspected that whatever power she’d tapped into would be undone if she did.

Men and women screamed as the howling storm of dead spirits filled Cutpurse Square, slashing with claws that froze their blood or reached into chests and sundered hearts with terror. Seven were dead, maybe more, their souls wrenched from their fallen corpses to turn on their comrades. Her heroic band fought with blades and muskets, shouting the name of the Bearded Lady, their loved ones, and even heathen gods of faraway lands.

Whatever works, thought Miss Fortune.

Rafen was down on one knee, his face ashen, breathing like a wharfside doxy after a long shift. Scraps of mist clung to him like cobwebs and the smoldering root around his neck burned with a fierce cherry red glow.

“On your feet, this fight isn’t done!” she said.

“Don’t tell me the fight’s not done,” he snapped, pushing himself to his feet. “I’ve been through more Harrowings than you could wrap a dead rat’s tail around.”

Before Miss Fortune could ask exactly what that meant, he leaned to the side and fired his pistol at something behind her. A conjoined spirit of wolf and bat screeched as it was banished, and Miss Fortune returned the favor as a spirit form of grasping hooks and snapping fangs lunged at her second in command.

“Everyone down!” shouted Miss Fortune, plucking a pair of splinter bombs from her belt and lobbing them into the howling mist.

They detonated in a deafening explosion of fire and smoke. Wood splinters and fragments of stone ricocheted. Broken glass fell in a glittering rain of daggers. Acrid fog filled the square, but it was man-made and entirely bereft of spirits.

Rafen shook his head and worked a finger in his ear.

“What was in that bomb?”

“Black Powder mixed with essence of copal and rue,” said Miss Fortune. “One from my special stash.”

“And stuff like that works against the dead?”

“My mother believed in it,” she said.

“Good enough for me,” said Rafen. “You know, we might just make it through-”

“Don’t say it,” warned Miss Fortune.

The mist began coalescing throughout the square, first in thin tendrils and wisps, then in glowing outlines of monsters; things with conjoined legs, fang-filled jaws, and arms that ended in hooks or pincers. The spirits they thought they’d killed.

Reforming, returning.

What was it folk said about plans and the contents of a privy?

“Turns out the dead are pretty hard to kill,” said Miss Fortune, trying not to let her fear show.

She’d been naïve to think petty trinkets and blind faith were enough to face the spirits of the dead. She’d wanted to show the people of Bilgewater they didn’t need Gangplank, that they could forge their own destiny.

Instead, she was going to get herself killed and leave the city to be torn apart.

A bass rumble rolled through the square. Then another.

Percussive thunder strikes, rising in a stalking storm.

It grew to become pounding hammerblows upon an anvil. Faster and louder until the ground shook with its violence.

“What in the nine deeps is that?” said Rafen.

“I don’t know,” said Miss Fortune as the outline of a spectral horseman in midnight plate emerged from the mist. He sat atop a strangely proportioned warhorse and his helm was worked in the form of a snarling demon.

“A dread knight,” said Miss Fortune.

Rafen shook his head, his face drained of color.

“That’s no knight,” he said. “That’s the Shadow of War Shadow of War…”