The next morning Baltazar rang the ships bell to signal all hands on deck. Once everyone was assembled, Baltazar signaled the quartermaster to begin. The quartermaster nodded and helped guide a large wooden plank up on deck. In the middle of the plank, lay Papi’s body, wrapped in cloth.
Baltazar turned and knocked on the door of the cabin. He opened it to see Aralyn still in tears, “I’m sorry to bother you…”
She looked up as he walked in, “What is it?”
“We’re conducting funeral rites for Mr. Clement,” Baltazar replied, “I thought you might wish to partake?”
Aralyn nodded, “Yes, thank you.”
She took his hand and walked out on deck next to the plank. Aralyn put on as much of a brave face as she could handle, but seeing the man she loved as a child bundled up, knowing that she would never see him again, made it impossible for her to fight back the tears.
Baltazar stroked her hand with his finger for a few moments to try to comfort her before stepping forward. He placed a hand on the plant, took a deep breath and looked out at his crew, “Men… and ladies, we are gathered here today to bid farewell to a close friend, a confidant, and when necessary, a smuggler of booze.”
A faint chuckle went up from the men. Baltazar nodded, “I’m sure we’re all grateful for that… Mr. Clement, or Papi as he was known to some, was a good man. I remember when I first met him, I was barely in my adolescent years and anxious to start my adventure. Papi took me under his wing, taught me everything, and was one of the few crewmen to remain with me after I took command of the Specter.”
Baltazar smiled, “The moment I stepped behind the wheel and was referred to as captain, I thought for certain that my eyes had been bigger then my head, but he helped me through.”
Baltazar crossed himself, signaling every man onboard to remove their headwear. The crew bowed their heads and placed their hands together.
Once everyone was ready, Baltazar then began speaking softly, “The Lord is my Captain: I shall never want. He maketh me lie down in deep blue seas…”
Lailah looked up with an odd expression. She recognized the Twenty Third Psalm, but this appeared to be a version Baltazar had created for seamen, “He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me on the sea of righteousness for his name’s sake, Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death and the harshest seas, I will fear no evil: for thou art forever with me, thy glass and map they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen…”
The men repeated the ‘amen’ as Baltazar turned to Papi’s body and placed a hand on its shoulder, “You were more of a father to me that bastard who dared to call himself such. May you find calm seas on your new journey, old friend.”
Aralyn leaned over and kissed Papi’s hand, “Goodbye… Papi…”
Baltazar turned and walked to the head of the plank, “Mr. ‘Papi’ Clement… we not commit your body to the deep.”
The men pushed the plank overboard and allowed Papi’s body to slide gently into the water. Baltazar crossed himself and turned to Aralyn. She did everything she could to fight back tears, not wanting to show anymore weakness. Baltazar turned to his men, “Okay, dismissed.”
The crew dispersed and continued their duties while Baltazar walked Aralyn back to the cabin. Once the door was closed, he turned to her, “Are you okay?”
Aralyn’s eyes never left the ground, “Everyone I considered family is gone… I have powers I didn’t ask for, and there is a creature out there who wants to kill me for no reason. No, no I am not okay.”
Baltazar put his arms around her, “I’m sorry, I knew it was a stupid question, but I had to ask.”
“I know,” Aralyn replied with a sad look, “What am I going to do now?”
“What do you mean,” Baltazar demanded in an insulted tone, “You’re one of us. The crew views you as a member of our family, we don’t want you going anywhere… and…. and…”
Baltazar stuttered, he couldn’t find the words to continue his train of thought. He knew what he wanted to say, but it didn’t come easy to him. He’d said it before, but it was usually following her saying it. Aralyn looked at him, her eyes pleading for him to finish, “You what?”
He shook his head, “I…”
“What Baltazar,” she insisted.
He finally sighed, “I love you, okay?”
Those words were enough to put a small smile on her face, “Okay…”
She jumped up and kissed him. The two embraced for only a few moment before Aralyn let him go and sat down, tears still in her eyes. Baltazar stood in front of her, “What’s wrong?”
“They’ve come for everyone I love,” Aralyn replied, “Everyone… now they will be coming for you.”
“I’ve survived thus far,” Baltazar replied, “I think I can handle myself.”
Aralyn shook her head, “I’m certain that’s what my father and Papi thought when they first realized what they were getting themselves into. I…”
“Land Ho!” called a voice from the deck.
Baltazar smiled, “We’ll soon find out.”
The two of them ran out on deck. Baltazar climbed to the aft castle and checked out the land through his spyglass. Off in the distance, he could see the port city of Tyre. There didn’t appear to be much activity at the port, other than some scattered single person and fishing craft. Baltazar closed up his spyglass and put it down. He turned to Lailah, “I hope you don’t expect us to make port here.”
“Why not,” Lailah asked.
“This land be dominated by the Ottomans,” Morgan replied, “And they not be taking too kindly to a boat of Christian folk darkening their doorstep.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Baltazar added, “It’s not safe at all.”
Lailah nodded, “Very well then, sail south, past the city. We will need to reach the ancient ruins of Paeles.”
Morgan turned to her with an odd look, “I’ve not heard of a place called Paeles.”
“That is no accident,” Lailah replied, “Paeles is the ruins of a wicked city from the time of Abraham. They were more advanced than the people around them, even the Egyptians couldn’t match their abilities.”
“What happened to them,” Aralyn asked.
Lailah shook her head, “With power comes corruption. Over time, they became so sinful that the Most High destroyed them as he did Sodom and Gomorrah.”
“But why do we know about those cities and not this one?” Baltazar asked in a confused tone.
“Because knowledge of this civilization was dangerous,” Lailah replied, “These people learned and evolved faster than all others, even faster than the Most High intended. When things started shifting out of control, the Most High destroyed them for the good of the rest of his children. I can’t give you specifics because such knowledge is forbidden, but the ruins of their city are encased so that no one can get there unless they know where to look.”
Baltazar shuddered from her words, “What can we expect when we arrive there?”
“Evil, Baltazar,” she replied, “That city is the purest of evil. There will be temptations and perversions beyond which your mind can possibly fathom. Aralyn and I have to go on this journey, the rest of you do not.”
Lailah turned to Aralyn, “If you insist on bringing these people, I would recommend that only a few come with us. The more we take, the greater the risk.”
Aralyn looked at the group, “You are all like family to me and I love each of you… but this is something that Baltazar must accompany me on. I can’t take anyone else, I won’t.”
Morgan stepped forward, “I object to this milady!”
Aralyn smiled, “I thought you might, but I this is my decision. Baltazar may be captain, but this mission is mine. I need all of you to stay here and keep this ship going while we finish what we started.”
“But how do we find what cannot be found?” Morgan asked.
“Leave that to me,” Lailah replied, “Sail straight on, I will guide us there.”
Baltazar turned to and called to Gilles on the aft deck, “You heard the lady, steady as she goes.”
Gilles nodded, “Aye sir!”
Lailah walked slowly to the forecastle, placed her fingertips on the forward railing, and closed her eyes. The water around the ship began to churn as the ship proceeded forward. Baltazar watched as the clouds slowly became darker and more numerous.
The Black Vengeance sailed on for another hour. The clouds had become so numerous that the sunlight had been choked out of view. The sky was now heavily overcast and the sea was extremely choppy. Gilles held the ship’s course, but it became more difficult as wind began to blow in several directions. The Black Vengeance slowed to a near halt as the sails pushed in different directions.
On the forecastle, Lailah winced as she struggled to direct the wind. Her face muscles clenched as she continued to push. Morgan joined her on the bow, “Are ye okay?”
Lailah nodded, “Morgan, I can’t talk to you right now. I’m sorry, please don’t think I’m intentionally being rude to you, but I need to concentrate or we will be blow off course.”
Morgan nodded glumly, “Aye…”
Lailah pushed harder and harder, but the wind kept fighting her. She drew in a deep breath and held it from a few moments as though fighting an unseen force pushing against her. Suddenly, the air flew from her lungs and she collapsed on the deck. Morgan was there to grab her and hold her up. Lailah shook her head, “I can’t do it… he’s too strong.”
Morgan was about to respond when he heard a voice from the lookout position, “Target in sight!”
Baltazar ran to the forecastle with his spyglass and examined the shoreline. At first, he could only see a black blur off in the distance, but as it drew closer, he could see the smashed ruins of a city, surrounding a massive whirlwind that reached from the ground into the sky. It remained stationary at the center of the city. Even stranger, was a thick black cloud that seemed to surround the vortex.
Lailah stood back up and examined it, “That would be Legion’s defense against attack. Such a whirlwind would prevent us from attacking from the sky, so we’d have to land and proceed in on foot.”
Aralyn shrugged, “So what’s the problem with that?”
Lailah frowned, “Unfortunately, when angels are forced to the ground, a lot of our advantage disappears. We are trained in ground combat, but because we don’t spend much time using our feet, it puts us at a massive disadvantage.”
Baltazar looked through the spyglass again, “And Legion most likely has some sort of traps set up to protect against ground assault.”
“That is correct,” Lailah replied, “Somehow he has set up a similar spirit drain to the one you would encounter in Hell. It makes the road in very treacherous.”
Baltazar squinted as he looked, “What is that massive cloud… there is something very odd about it.”
Lailah looked at it carefully for a few moments, “That is no cloud…”
“What is it then?” Baltazar asked.
“Imps,” a voice came from behind, “Hordes of them, which would be Legion’s forces.”
The group turned around to see a familiar angel with black hair. Lailah smiled, “Hello General Xaphine.”
Xaphine nodded, “Glad to see you made it this far.”
Aralyn turned to her cautiously, “What are we going to do now? We can’t fight through what looks like thousands of imps and the whirlwind…”
“Don’t worry,” Xaphine interrupted, “Leave the imps to the Choirs, we’re assembled and ready to go. Those imps won’t stand a chance against the army of the Most High.”
Lailah frowned, “But General, they outnumber us…”
“I know,” Xaphine replied, “But they are only imps, our people are far superior. In all things, quality wins out over quantity. I thought you’d understand that.”
Lailah nodded, “I hope so, in this case, we may have a hard time.”
“Have faith,” Xaphine replied smiling, “We will win the day… I won’t let my mistakes destroy this world.”
“Your mistakes?” Aralyn asked, surprised.
“Yes…” Xaphine replied as she lowered her eyes, “I am partially responsible for the desecration of Sheol… I was the one whose power he stole when I entered his lair in an attempt to escape Hell. It’s my fault this happened… that you and your family have been thrust into the middle of this.”
Aralyn shook her head, “You can’t blame yourself for this creature’s actions. You didn’t even know he existed.”
“Still it was my arrogance that caused this,” she replied, “I have committed a terrible sin that others are now suffering for. I have to make that right. Once I have, I will ask for your forgiveness, not before.”
Aralyn shrugged, “If you insist… what is the plan?”
Xaphine turned and looked at Paeles, “My forces will create a diversion and attack the imps. While we have them tied up, you will need to move through the city and attack Legion head on.”
Lailah’s eyes widened, “Attack Legion… General with all due respect, Aralyn is not a full angel. She may have our powers, but she is still mortal! You expect her to attack alone?”
“No, not alone.” Xaphine replied, “Don’t be ridiculous, she’ll have you and Baltazar there to protect her.”
Baltazar nodded, “That much is true.”
“But general,” Lailah protested, “She’s still a child and unlike us, she can die!”
“We don’t have another option,” Xaphine said slowly, “I know we’re putting her at great risk, but she is the only being powerful enough to take him down.”
Lailah looked away, “This isn’t right…”
Xaphine nodded in agreement, “No, it’s not right and I won’t order someone to their deaths, especially not if I’m the reason that it’s happening.”
Xaphine turned and looked directly at Aralyn, “I won’t order you unto the breach, and you must not feel obligated to do this just because others want you to. This has to be something you do of your own choosing. If you decide to refuse, I will go in your place.”
Baltazar stepped in front of Aralyn before she could respond, “Would you have any hope of succeeding?”
Xaphine shook her head, “No probably not… it would most likely cost me my life, but that is a small price to pay for what has been done and I may be able to weaken him enough for someone else to bring him down.”
“Resulting in the angels being leaderless, “Aralyn added, “That’s a poor plan if ever there was one.”
She placed a hand on Baltazar’s side and gently pushed him so that he was standing next to her instead of in front, “I’ve made up my mind, I’ll do this.”
Baltazar shook his head, “I don’t know if I agree with this. It’s a lot being put on your shoulders unfairly.”
“I know, my love,” she replied, “But there is no other way.”
Baltazar still didn’t look convinced, so Aralyn grabbed his hand and looked at him in the eye, “As long as I have you at my side, I know nothing will hurt me.”
Baltazar leaned against the railing and looked out at the hellish city. Every eye on the deck focused on Baltazar. Aralyn raised her hand to his face and turned it back to look into her eyes. There was a great deal of fear in her eyes as for a moment it looked like Baltazar might not be willing to go, “Won’t you come with me, please?”
Baltazar nodded, “Of course I will. I will stand with you until the end.”
Aralyn smiled, “Thank you, my love. With you there, I can rest easy. I know that no harm will come to me.”
“Hey what about us?” Morgan called out from behind.
Baltazar, Xaphine, and Lailah turned to see Morgan standing in front of a large portion of the crew, “What are we supposed to do while all these heroics be taking place?”
“Lay to,” Baltazar replied, “Bring the Black Vengeance out to a safe distance and await my signal.”
Morgan had a surprised look on his face, “Run away and hide? That wouldn’t be the job we signed on for when we agreed to go on this here journey.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Xaphine replied, “Imps may be pathetic, mindless creatures, but against mortals, they are quite effective. You don’t have any weapons that can defend you.”
Aralyn quickly disappeared below deck and returned with her family’s swords, “What about these?”
Xaphine turned and looked at the swords. Her eyes widened as she inspected the blades, “Has it been so long…? I’m glad to see that they made it back to their owners. Sadly two swords aren’t enough.”
Morgan looked back at the men, and then at Baltazar, “Captain del la Fuente, we have followed ye this far. But the men and I had a feeling this would happen at some point, and we be putting ye on notice. We have spoken in open council as be our right.”
Baltazar nodded, “I understand, what have you decided?”
Morgan smiled, “If ye be dumb enough to be ordering us away, then we be forced to take the ship from ye and stay and fight on our own accord.”
“I see,” Baltazar replied in a slightly annoyed tone, “and how do you intend to fight without anything that can kill a demonic creature?”
Morgan shrugged, “We’d do what we could to draw them off. Then we’d improvise. We be very good at that.”
“Yes you are,” Baltazar agreed, “But I don’t think that will save you here.”
“There may be another way,” Lailah replied, “If you brave men are certain you wish to stay here and fight?”
“We are,” Morgan replied.
The men all responded with nods and a resounding, “Aye!”
Lailah smiled, “Well then maybe we can help make your weapons more effective against these imps.”
Xaphine turned to face her, “You really think this is a good idea?”
“If we don’t,” Lailah replied, “Baltazar losses him ship. It’s the least we can do.”
Xaphine pulled a knife out of her belt, “Very well…”
Lailah turned to the crew, “Bring out all your weapons and pile them up on deck.”
Several men ran below deck and grabbed everything they could carry out of the armory while others dropped their swords and pistols. Once the Black Vengeance’s entire weapons cache was placed on the deck, Xaphine turned to Lailah and held out the knife. Lailah took the knife from her and closed her right hand around it. She squeezed hard and slid the blade out of her grip. Lailah winced in pain as blood appeared in her palm.
Once she was done, Lailah handed the blade back to Xaphine who did the same thing. Lailah went to each cannon and allowed a drop of her blood to fall on the breach of each one while saying a short incantation. She then went below decks to anoint the cannons on the main gun deck.
Meanwhile Xaphine allowed her blood to drip over the weapons on deck, “Lord Most High, bless these weapons that they may protect thy children against the Legions of Hell. Watch over them as a shepherd tends to his flock. Help them, that they might carry out your will and help lead us to victory… amen.”
The weapons miraculously began to glow dimly for a few seconds before returning to their original state. Xaphine nodded, “Okay, you should be ready, these weapons will protect you against the imps.”
Lailah came back up on deck, “One last thing…”
She allowed a few drops of her blood to hit the deck of the ship, “Lord bless this, thy chariot of your beloved. Keep it strong throughout the trials to come.”
Xaphine turned to the men, “Do not show any mercy, do not believe anything one of these imps tries to show you, and do not be lured in, or you will only add to their numbers.”
Each of the men acknowledged. Baltazar smiled, “You men have been with me since the beginning and I am very proud to have served with all of you. I doubt the seas have ever seen a ship with a finer crew.”
“Stop talking like this be our last time together!” One of the men shouted.
“Aye,” Morgan agreed, “We stand ready to give them what for! “
Baltazar nodded as he turned to Morgan, “Thank you men, Morgan, on the cannons!”
Morgan saluted as Baltazar turned to Gilles, “You’re in command now, Mr. Gilles. Take good care of her. I want a ship to come back to when this is all over.”
“Aye sir,” Gilles replied, “Don’t ye be worrying about a thing, we’ll all be sailing on her again without a doubt.”
The men laughed as they picked up their weapons. Baltazar turned to Xaphine, “Now that this matter has been settled, pray tell what the plan is?”
Xaphine nodded, “Okay, Aralyn, either you or Lailah will carry Baltazar to the shore. Once there, you will proceed into the city and confront Legion. I can’t tell you what you will come across in Paeles, but I can say without pause that your journey will be difficult.”
Aralyn nodded, “I figured it would be…”
“Right,” Xaphine replied as she turned to the crew, “Since you insist on being involved, I want you to be the first into the fight. Let loose with every cannon you’ve got. That should divert Legion’s attention, giving Aralyn enough time to land undetected.”
Gilles nodded, “We be ready to do our part, but won’t that bring Legion’s entire force down on us?”
“That’s the idea,” Xaphine said with a smile, “Once their forces move in to attack you, the Choirs will move in and strike. With any luck, we should be able to catch them by surprise and inflict heavy losses within a short amount of time.”
Baltazar smiled, “So my ship will be used as bait for a trap… I like it.”
“Good,” Xaphine nodded, “Do not worry about your safety, we will be watching the entire time. I promise that the majority of their forces will turn to deal with us once we move in.”
Aralyn looked at everyone on deck, “Are we all ready?”
Gilles nodded, “Let’s do this, for the good of all.”
“For Papi, for Melchior,” Morgan added.
Baltazar smiled, “For you Aralyn.”
“For you Baltazar, and for my family,” Aralyn replied.
“For Piero…” Xaphine whispered softly.
“Okay,” Lailah spoke up, “Don’t any of you go getting yourselves killed.”
Aralyn nodded, “Right, I intend to see you all again once this is all said and done with, we’re going back to raid Spanish shipping and earn ourselves a nice plunder!”
Xaphine and Lailah exchanged nervous glances as Aralyn turned to Baltazar, “My love, I have a request…”
“Anything for you,” He replied.
Aralyn smiled and whispered something into his ear. His eyes widened as he looked back at her, “Really?”
She nodded with a bright twinkle in her eyes. Baltazar shook his head, “Oh very well…”
Aralyn smiled and kissed him on the cheek, “Thank you, my love.”
She turned back to face the crew, “All of you scurvy dogs on deck, set the sails, run up the guns…”
She then climbed on to the aft castle and raised her sword high in the air and let out a shrill war cry, “Men, raise the colors!”
The crew scattered quickly to follow her orders. The red sails dropped and the ship began to pick up speed. Aralyn turned to Lailah and nodded, “Let’s go!”
The two of them ran towards the railing, jumped and used the railing to push off with their feet and took to the air. Xaphine smiled and bowed, “Good luck to you, Captain del la Fuente.”
Baltazar nodded, “And you also, General.”
Xaphine ran to the opposite side, spread her wings, and quickly ascended into the clouds. Baltazar looked back over the side in the direction Aralyn took off from and suddenly realized that he had been left behind. He frantically searched the air for her, but couldn’t make her out amongst their surroundings.
Suddenly, Baltazar felt a gripping sensation under his arms as he became weightless. The ship disappeared out from under his feet and he water began to grow smaller beneath him. Baltazar looked back to see that Aralyn had flown up behind and grabbed him. A look of relief came over his face. Aralyn laughed, “What did you think I left you behind?”
“Uh… of course not,” Baltazar insisted, “I would never think such a thing.”
“Right…” Aralyn said, not believing a single word he said.
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