It all happened very quickly, and was all over in a terrible hurry.
As the muzzle flash lit up the space below the deck in a light that came as sudden as the lightning, the Swordsman and Rayna regained their vision for the briefest of moments, and the creatures lost theirs as their receptors were suddenly overloaded with stimuli.
The two adventurers saw, in startling and horrific clarity, the grotesque visage of the creatures that were hunched all around them, one blackened, bony knuckle shielding their eyes from the light, the skinny, gaunt jaw with yellowed fangs revealed behind the lipless mouths just visible through the gaps in the creatures’ impossibly thin fingers.
Then the light was lost, and once again they were plunged into darkness.
With a collective shriek of agony and a hiss of outrage, the creatures made their resolve. Unfortunately for them, the Swordsman and Rayna had already made theirs.
The Swordsman’s blade moved with masterful grace in his hands, and the sound of snapping bones and dismembered body parts striking the floor was heard. With her back pressed firmly against the Swordsman’s, Rayna had her dagger up and ready, and the edges of the blade seemed to glow with an increasingly intense blue light, accompanied by a sharp whine that was steadily rising to a shrill note.
To the average human ear, this whine that came ringing out of Rayna’s dagger was only a little more than the annoying ringing one might hear in one’s ear from time to time; but the creatures, who were as sensitive to sound as they were to light, the sound resonated within their skulls like a bullet ricocheting here and there, overwhelming their senses, turning their brains to mush. Their eyes might have watered if they had tear ducts left; but most of them simply fell over as they lost their balance, and then their sight to the bright noise.
There was a loud growl that came from directly ahead of her, and Rayna heard the sound of claws scraping against dry wood just in time to do an instinctive wide slash into the air before her. Any sooner, she might completely miss the lunging creature; and any later, the creature might have sunk its fangs into her throat; but her instincts did not fail her this time, and her blade cut the creature nearly in half across its middle.
A wet thumping sound was heard as the disemboweled thing fell to the ground.
The Swordsman continued to slash away in swift, powerful strokes, finding his targets within the confined space every time he did. His feet weaved their way across the floor, always keeping him on the move, and always keeping his balance and posture right.
I am a swordsman. I live by the sword.
Something came crawling towards him. He could feel it in the floorboards. In one fluid motion, he spun his blade around and brought it down in a downwards stab, impaling the creature by his feet through its brittle head. The tip of his sword, guided by the strength of his arms, broke through the creature’s skull and sank easily for another five centimeters or so; and then the Swordsman pulled it back up, and continued with the slashes that he had practiced ten thousand times before.
I will not hold back in a fight.
His next blow was swung with a deliberate increase in strength, and through the blade, he knew that three of these creatures have just lost their heads. He spun, giving another low slash, and his sword struck something new.
By the light of the muzzle flash some ten seconds ago, the Swordsman saw all he needed to see: the positions of the impish creatures, their heights, the space that surrounded them; and most importantly, the way out of the room that they were caught in. Step by step, he had been maneuvering both him and Rayna towards a particularly weak spot in the wall.
With his sword finally resting for a moment, the Swordsman drew his leg up and inwards, and then delivered a strong sideways kick to the wall–
CRACK! The wood gave way, but not nearly enough. A tiny crack of light was visible through the damage in the wood. Behind him, Rayna swung her blade again, and its tip caught a lunging creature right underneath its jaw, tearing its throat wide open and sending it into a spin as it fell.
CRUNCH! The Swordsman’s second kick, off to the side of the first, tore a new exit out of the lower deck. Dust motes danced in the light that filtered in. The opening was small, not likely to be large enough for either of them to fit through. The Swordsman raised his sword, but this time not to use its blade.
He hammered the butt of the tough wooden hilt against the wooden boards on top of the opening, and when it did not budge, he hit it again harder. Harder. Harder still; and even the millennium-old wood had to give way.
Rayna had her dagger sticking into a creature’s face when the order came; and before she could be ready for it, the Swordsman’s hand came wrapping around her middle, and she was pulled with him as he plowed through the weakened boards.
They came tumbling out into the light of the late afternoon sun, and the hot sand burned their skin where they were exposed.
Rayna was the first between them to get to her feet, choosing to dust the sand off herself before picking her dagger up off the ground. She began to laugh a little – a giddy, incredulous laugh.
‘What can I say?’ she said, breathing heavily. ‘Except that I’ll never want to–’
The inhuman howl came as suddenly as the creature’s appearance. Before Rayna had time to turn, her assailant had already crossed the distance between them, having braved the sunlight, and latched itself onto her shoulder, its claws sinking into her, tearing through the bandages and into her skin. Its mouth opened wide, baring razor-sharp sets of teeth against her face.
The Swordsman’s revolver was up in a flash–
The gunshot could be heard echoing through the graveyard of sunken ships long after the creature laid dead in the sand with a bullet hole in its forehead. Rayna stared dumbly down at the Swordsman, who had his revolver up and pointed at the space beside her head, its barrel smoking.
‘Holy Christ,’ was all she could say.
The Swordsman picked himself off the ground and kept his weapons away, his senses still ringing with alarm.
‘Time to go,’ he said.
Rayna nodded quickly; and before long, they were back on their dust scooters, riding out of the place and back to the HMS Clarent at top speed, both retreating into the inner world of their thoughts, pondering over what had just happened. Rayna considered her luck, only beginning to digest the number of times she had been close to death within the last few minutes. The Swordsman, on the other hand, had his mind on his weapons, and their performance in that final battle just outside Zheng He’s ship earlier. There was one thing that was deeply troubling about it all.
For the bullet which struck the creature earlier was not fired from his weapon.