Captain Sullivan Dice and the Silver Swarm
Captain Sullivan Dice bent his back as he rowed, sending his small rowboat sliding through the water at an incredible rate. Dice was no stranger to the tiny world of the rowboat, surrounding by the larger universe of bright blue ocean. He was an old salt, an Irishman turned corsair, who had survived all the terrors that mortal man and the wild sea could throw at him. But this new danger, which had reduced his ship to splinters and his crew to bone and blood in less time than it took to smoke a pipe, was something else. All Sullivan Dice knew was that he had to row away from the wreck of his ship and the beasts that had slaughtered his crew, and warn whatever ship or town was closest of the oncoming swarm of ribbed silver that was soon to be upon them.
Dice was a tall man, his face tanned and weathered by his year at sea. A large black beard bedecked his face, a dented tricorne rested on his head, and a scarlet redingote draped his broad shoulders. He carried a pair of volley pistols, deadly multi-barreled weapons, in leather thongs at his side and he wore a Snaphaunce-Revolver rifle of the Dutch design on his back and a sturdy cutlass at his waist.
He had stalked great beasts in darkest Africa and walked with the Red Men of North America. He had seen death on the battlefields of Europe, men blasted to splinters by cannon shot and trampled by horses. But when he looked up and saw the halo of seagulls, the telltale sign of nearby land, Dice shivered like a scared child. He knew he was saved, but he knew that the swarm would follow him and whoever dwelt on that island may be their newest victims.
"Damn," was all Dice muttered when he saw the island. He looked behind him. The water remained deceptively calm, no sign of the horrors that passed the under the waves. "Best get a grip on ye fears, old man," Sullivan told himself. "No need to piss yourself like a landlubber. If ye must suffer death, than make it a good one." He bent his back and pushed the paddles in again.
In time, Captain Dice arrived on the shore and looked around. "Where am I?" he asked himself, his internal compass and map adjusting themselves. "We were but a week or two out of port in San Domingo when the fiends took us." He stared up at the large fort, a well defended outpost of stone walls, with the flag of Spain waving proudly in the mid day sun. "I must be in…Las Cruces." He nodded.
Las Cruces, so named because the landmass looked like a lopsided cross, contained both a Spanish fort, full garrison and bustling town, and an encampment of buccaneers, those wild men of the sea and coast, that often warred. Dice looked up at the fort and then back at the sea. "It's as fine a place as any," he told himself, then marched towards the gates of the fortified structure.
He stepped out of the jungle and onto the cobblestone path that connected the fortress to the village below. Captain Dice strode along the road until he reached the sturdy gates of the castle, guarded by a pair of harsh-eyed guards in Morion helmets, crossed halberds baring any entrance.
"State your name and business in Las Cruces!" One of the guards, a tall Spaniard with curled mustachios, demanded.
Dice raised his arms. "I seek an audience with your lord," he declared in perfect Spanish. "Something bad is coming your way, killing all in its path. It nearly got me, but I lived to tell the tale, and ye must read yourselves if ye wish to survive it."
The two guards stared at each other. The halberds remained stationary. "What kind of army is about to descend on us?" the second guard asked, wiping the sweat from his brow.
"It ain't earthly, I'll tell ye that." Captain Dice looked over shoulder at the calm ocean. "They come from deep under the waves and they know only how to kill. They'll give no quarter and show no mercy, believe me." Captain Dice grimaced. "My own vessel, the good ship Rogue's Pleasure, was taken from the bottom, the crew massacred to a man. Only I escaped."
"The Rogue's Pleasure, you said?" The first halberdier asked, stroking his moustache. "But that's a pirate vessel! And if you captained it, then you must be —"
The second guard finished his companion's statement. "Captain Sullivan Dice!" Both guards lowered their halberds, the blades pointed at Dice's throat. "Quickly, Alfonso! We will become rich men for bringing this pirate before the Don!"
Dice wearily raised his arms. "Aye, bring me to your Don. And hope that time has yet to run out for the people of Las Cruces!"
Don Rodrigo de Montoya Y Capana was a tall, domineering caballero of direct descent from Queen Isabella. He had the famed Hapsburg brow, wore a dark curled wig that sank down to his waist, and was dressed in an elegant suit of pearl-white satin with silver buckles and a red sash. When the two guards arrived, Captain Dice walking before them with his hands raised, Don Rodrigo stood in his gardens accompanied by a small army of hangers-on, fellow nobles, and his aids, servants and bodyguards. He was hunting for the tropical birds that frequented his artfully arranged gardens, and was armed with a silver-embossed blunderbuss, the flaring edge of the muzzle decorated to look a roaring lion's mouth.
The Spanish nobleman turned to stare at the two guards and their captive. With a groan, he handed his blunderbuss to two servants and approached Dice, one hand on the hilt of his silver-handle straight sword of Toledo steel. "For what have you interrupted my hunt?" he asked.
"My lord, we have captured Captain Sullivan Dice, the notorious pirate!" Alfonso pushed Dice forward. The pirate stepped towards Don Rodrigo and looked into his eyes. He did not quake or kneel and his step did not falter. The sensation of being regarded as an equal was unnerving for Don Rodrigo de Montoya.
"I'll not deny my name," Dice said. "But I was not captured. I come freely, on the belief that our bonds as men is stronger than our bonds as corsair and Spaniard."
"And yet you come armed." Don Rodrigo gestured to Dice's weapons. "That is a superb rifle on your shoulder. And are those volley guns? By Santiago, rarely have I seen a captain's weapons so powerful." He drew his sword and admired his reflection in the polished blade. "Weaponry is my main interest."
"That may be, sir. And you'll have need of all that weaponry soon enough. An inhuman army is heading for Las Cruces and they won't leave a squalling babe alive. You must pull all your citizens in this fort, lock it down, and load the cannons. If ye keep a good fire at them, I think we may pull through."
"Are you give me orders, Irishman?" Don Rodrigo sneered. "I am linked by blood to Her Most Catholic Majesty, Queen Isabella! I am sixteenth in line for the throne of Spain. You are no more than a —"
"I don't give a fish's spit for your birth, ye bloody idiot!" Dice cried. "If ye don't do as I say, every man, woman and child on this island is doomed!"
Don Rodrigo raised his eyes. "Pray tell, pirate. What manner of army stands a chance against the cannons of Spain, the steel of Toledo?"
"Not a human army, sir." Captain Dice looked back at the water. "I do not know where in hell they were spawned. Isopods, I've heard learned men call them. Sea lice, is what I say. They reside in cold water, grotesque creatures, rounded like beetles, but of a silver color and related to lobsters and crabs, but with a segmented shell."
"You are quite the naturalist, Captain Dice." Rodrigo clapped his hands and a servant provided a snuff box. The Don grabbed a pinch of the purple powder and inhaled it. "But you have to provide a reason why I should care."
"I'm getting to that," Dice snarled. "You see, most of the isopods are no bigger than a wee bug. But there is a strain, a species that dwells far under the waves in a darkened world that no man has witnessed, which grows to tremendous size. Bigger than a horse, bigger than carriage they are. There are even some specimens bigger than a ship-of-the-line. I suspect they feed on whales, sea serpents and kraken." Sullivan took off his hat. "Well, a whole pack of the slimy silvery beasties arose from the water around my ship, just two weeks out of port. They came upon us from under the waterline, and clambered up to the deck. My crew fought bravely, but fell." Captain Dice shook his head. "A fine bunch of lads, they were. I managed to escape, and I fled ahead of the swarm. They'll be here soon, and we must do all in our power to stop them."
Don Rodrigo stared at Captain Dice, the snuff still in his nostril. Slowly, he began to clap his hands. "Bravo, Captain Dice, bravo!" The courtiers and servants clapped as well. Rodrigo threw back his head and laughed. The courtiers did the same and Dice stared in horror at their merriment. "Bravo! Giant monstrous sea-insects! About to attack my island! Did you make up that yarn on the way here, or did you think of before, when you were filled with rum perhaps?"
"Don't laugh, damn ye!" Dice drew his cutlass and stepped forward, his temper getting the best of him. "I'll hack ye in twain if you laugh at my crew!" He swung his sword, and Don Rodrigo's wig fell away, caught in the sword. The Don drew his own blade, and one of the halberdiers crashed the wooden handle of his weapon into Dice's back.
The pirate fell to his knees, where Rodrigo pulled away Dice's cutlass. His guards stepped forward and pulled away Dice's pistols and rifle, then gripped his arms. Dice snarled in rage and cracked his fist against a guard's face, but they restrained him and held him back.
"Look at this cutlass." Don Rodrigo planted the blade in the dirt of his garden. "What an ugly weapon, not at all like your firearms." He shrugged. "Ah, well. I suppose you can't have everything." He
smiled slightly. "Take this sea-rat to the gallows at the docks. We will hang him near the ocean he loves so much. I will watch."
A hooded priest chanted in Latin as Captain Sullivan Dice stood atop the gallows, the noose draped around his neck. They offered a blindfold, but Dice turned them down. His eyes were on the calmness of the sea. His own death seemed miniscule compared to that fear of the beasts that were approaching under the waters. Dice looked around the docks, his eyes locking with Don Rodrigo de Montoya, who sat on a wooden litter carried by black slaves, his entourage about him.
A large audience had gathered to watch Captain Dice swing. Upper-class Spaniards in their powdered periwigs and lacy panniers dresses watched from under the shade of parasols, while their children looked on with wide eyes. The dock-workers and other folk of lower stature, hooted and pointed at the pirate as he stood resolute on his gibbet.
Dice looked up at Don Rodrigo. "Ye must listen to me!" Dice cried. "They'll be coming soon! Ye must evacuate to the fort!"
"By Santiago, you have a singular fixation!" Don Rodrigo stroked the curls of his new wig. "My good father!" he called to the priest. "His soul is beyond redemption! Hang him."
The hood priest abruptly ended his chanting as the execution, clad in darkened hood, stepped up and gripped the lever. Captain Sullivan Dice squared his shoulders and looked at the executioner. "You'll follow me to hell if ye don't heed my warnings! Come on, man, they'll be coming any second now!"
The execution shrugged and reached for the lever. Just as he gloved fingers tightened around the wooden handle, a young child pointed to the water and cried, "mother, what's that?" in a high frightened voice. The audience looked into the water and saw several ripples moving under the surface and vast, gray shapes below them. They were thousands upon thousands of the shapes, as if the water itself had changed color.
"Emilio!" Rodrigo called, his voice unbelieving. "Go and see what it is!"
Emilio, a staunch Tercio soldier in a leather vest and morion, walked to the seaside. He stabbed his halberd into the water and brought it out with an audible gasp. A grotesque, rounded creature, as big as a cat, lay skewered on the pike's end. It had ribbed silver skin, dozens of waving segmented legs, biting mandibles and waving antennae. Emilio kicked the isopod off of his halberd and it fell into the water with a splash. He grinned at Don Rodrigo.
The Spanish Don smiled. "You see? Nothing to fear. Continue the execution. There is nothing to— " And his words died in his mouth as a gigantic isopod, bigger than a double-masted caravel, arose with an anonymous hissing from the water.
It towered over Emilio and the Spaniard had but a second to scream as the mandibles reached down, piercing his chest and ripping his body in half. The great isopod thundered onto the land, hundreds of smaller isopods, some as big as oxen, others the size of monkeys, surged around their gigantic cousin and charged into the assembled crowd, their mandibles clicking hungrily.
For a few seconds, the crowd stood in terror, not believing the chittering silver swarm that descended on them. Then an isopod the size of an alley cat grabbed a noblewoman's fashionable hoopskirt and dragged her, screaming into the swarm. The poor woman shrieked in terror as the hideous isopods burrowed into her body, her screams finally ending as the silver creatures erupted from her mouth and chest, pouncing into the onlookers.
Panic gripped the people of Las Cruces, Don Rodrigo most amongst them. "Get me out of here!" he shouted to his litter bearers, but the slaves had already left, running for the safety of the hills. Rodrigo hopped out of his litter and drew his saber. He hacked an isopod in half and then chopped the head off a larger one, all while his guards poured down musket fire, killing isopods and townsfolk both. Soon, Rodrigo realized that no amount of steel and musket fire could halt the swarm. "Back to the fort!" he cried. "We'll take shelter there! To the fort!" He turned and ran, his soldiers close behind.
The isopods slaughtered the people of Las Cruces with a ferocity befitting their terrifying appearance. From his place on the gallows, Captain Dice could only watch. A wigged gentlemen stepped up to defend his screaming wife, and an isopod the size of a dray horse removed his head with a single snap of its pincer. His severed head landed with a plop at the feet of his wife, and her screams ended as she was impaled by the spiky foreleg of the isopod behind her. The isopods spared no one. Dice even saw an unfortunate dog yelping in pain as it died, an isopod the size of crab chewing into its hindquarters.
An isopod like an oxen came skittering to the gallows. The priest made the sign of the cross at the monstrosity, and the isopod snipped his arm off. "Christ!" he cursed, as blood spurted from his wound. The executioner grabbed a spear and stabbed it into the back armor of the isopod, but it slashed his chest with a spiky leg, gutting him. As the masked executioner fell, his hand tilted the lever. The trapdoor opened below Captain Dice, and he plunged downwards.
With a gurgle, Sullivan Dice gritted his teeth and tightened his neck. He dangled there, feeling the harsh rope cutting into his chin and neck and slowly tightening as chaos erupted around him. Dice looked up at the big isopod and saw one of its legs lashing out. He knew he had once chance. Captain Dice swung his body towards the leg, and the sharpened point of the limb cut through the rope. Dice fell heavily to the ground.
He came to his feet in seconds, leaping out of the way of the isopods mandibles. "Ten thousand hells!" Dice muttered. He spotted the pike, still planted into the isopod's back and nodded. "Either I succeed or the devil claims me. Simple as that." He ran towards the isopods and planted his boot right onto of its face. Dice climbed onto the beast's back and grabbed the pike. He pulled it out, then used the point to cut the ropes binding his hands, while the isopod rocked under him. Then, Dice hefted the pike and plunged it into the head of the isopod. It let out a single hiss and fell downwards.
"Hah!" Sullivan Dice jumped off of the isopod's back. He hurled the pike, impaling two smaller isopods, and then ran towards the fallen litter of Don Rodrigo. Just as he expected, the pirate's weapons lay next to Rodrigo's throne. Captain Dice swung his rifle onto his back, sheathed his cutlass and drew both of his pistols. He looked at the swarm of the isopods approaching. "All right, ye fiends!" Dice cried. "You'll not find me easy prey! I'll blast ye to smithereens!"
An isopod pounced for him and the corsair's volley gun thundered. The isopod fell to the ground, a bullet placed between his eyes. The isopods swarmed over its body, running for Captain Dice. He stood his ground and squeezed the triggers again and again. Eight shots flew from each pistol and sixteen isopods died under the salvo, hissing as their bodies twisted and snapped. Then, Captain Dice
holstered both volley guns and drew his cutlass. With a roar of rage he hacked at the isopods, cleaving the legs off of one, burying his blade into the fleshy chest of another, and driving the cutlass between the mandibles of a third.
But more isopods came, and hundreds more crawled on the docks with their fellows joining them from the water. Captain Dice cursed as he realized he was outnumbered. He looked back at the fort and sheathed his sword, then began to run.
Captain Sullivan Dice pounded down the cobblestone path, turning his shoulder to look at the isopods behind him. When he reached the gates of the fort, he found the same two guards who had apprehend him. The gates had been closed, and a number of terrified townsfolk were trying to force their way in. Dice stood next to them and looked at the isopods. They were finishing the slaughter in the town, but they'd be upon the fort soon enough.
"Let us in, damn ye!" Dice cried. "There are women-folk and wee children out here! You will leave us to die!"
Don Rodrigo de Montoya Y Cavana appeared on the battlements. He looked down at the townspeople and slowly shook his head. "I am sorry," he said. "The monsters will enter."
"Then fight them off, ye damned coward!" Dice drew his rifle and aimed it Rodrigo. "Open or I'll have your head off!"
The Spaniards stopped pounding at the door and looked up at Don Rodrigo. He looked down at the snaphaunce-revolver rifle. "Y-you must jest!" he said, shaking his head. "I am a descendent of her Most Catholic Majesty, Queen Isabella of Spain! I am sixteenth in line to the throne!"
"And your royal brains will be mixed with your damned curled wig if you don't open this bloody door!" Dice cried, his finger fastening around the handle of his rifle. The chittering of the isopods filled the air behind them.
"You couldn't make the shot, pirate." Rodrigo sniffed.
The snaphaunce-revolver rifle fired. Rodrigo's wig fell away, revealing his balding head. The Don looked down at the rifle as Dice clicked in a fresh round. "Open the door," he commanded.
The two guards pushed aside the door and Dice and the refugees ran inside, the terrified townsfolk praising Captain Dice as he walked inside. The corsair captain looked around the fort and nodded. "Yes, this is a fine place. We can hold here for some time." He looked up at the walls as Don Rodrigo walked down from the walls. Spaniards were already running to the cannons, loading and priming the big guns and setting their muskets through firing slits.
Dice looked at the townspeople and then up at the wall. "Listen here, Rodrigo. You'll need to give everyone here, from spindly youth to wizened grandmother, a musket and a place on the wall. There's simply too many isopods to be held off with your Tercios alone."
"Don't presume to tell me my duties." Don Rodrigo motioned for more snuff and his servant obliged him. As he inhaled the dark powder, Rodrigo gestured to the side of the fort, where a small dock
extended into the sea, a pair of warships docked there. "My plans are simple. These soldiers will hold back the silver tide. I and my most trusted men will sail to safety."
"You're mad!" Dice cried. "Those isopods rule the sea! They'll chew through the wood and send ye to the bottom before ye could clear the docks!"
"If they could, then why haven't they already done it?" Don Rodrigo smiled. "I have you there, Captain. Also, there is no way we could hold the fort alone. Even with every musket distributed, the isopods number too many."
"Then send word to the buccaneers into the neighboring jungle!" Dice cried. "I know their leader, a wily Frenchman named Jacques the Fox. The Brethren of the Coast will aid us and together we could make a fair stand!"
"Fight alongside buccaneers?" Don Rodrigo nearly snorted up his snuff. "You are mad." He tapped his sword on the ground. "Sergeant Ernesto? Are the ships loaded yet?"
"No, my lord, we need more time!" Ernesto cried.
The chittering of the isopods increased in volume. "They've reached the walls!" a soldier cried. All eyes turned to Don Rodrigo. "What do we do, my lord?" was the question on everyone's lips.
Rodrigo yawned and motioned for his gilded blunderbuss. He wiped a cloth around the gilded lion's face on the muzzle. "We'll fight," he said. "But hurry up and load that ship. And send no word to the buccaneers. I am sixteenth in line for the throne and can fight my battles myself!"
Both Captain Dice and Don Rodrigo ran to the walls, where the isopods were skittering towards the defenders. "Give them a whiff of grapeshot!" Rodrigo commanded and the cannons thundered in echo of his words. The volley of cannon shot crashed into the frost lines of the isopod swarm. The multi-legged monstrosities were blasted to pieces, their ichor splattering as they were torn apart. But as the cannons fell silent in the frenzy of reloading, the swarm continued to charge the walls.
"Muskets!" Captain Dice cried. "Everyone who can fire, lay on! Drive them back!"
The war cry of 'Santiago!' resounded through the fortress as the muskets clattered at the isopods. Several tercios opened the weapon storage and handed muskets out to all who would take them. Mere children and wizened elders, as well as everyone in between, carried the guns to the battlements. They sent volley after volley into the gray ranks of the isopods. The massive sea lice were shot to pieces, pierced by bullets, and died squirming at the gates of the fortress. But there were always more to take their place.
When the isopods reached the wall of the fort, the true battle began in earnest. The lower sea lice became stepping stones for the their followers, which clambered onto their backs. More isopods followed, until great mounds of the beasts towered nearly as high as the walls. Captain Dice realized what was happening and shouted to the defenders.
"Cut them down, lads! Don't let them breach these walls!" He fired the remaining shots of his rifle at the isopods below him, then drew his cutlass and climbed onto the battlement, hacking off the probing limbs of the climbing isopods. The soldiers and townsfolk of Las Cruces fought the isopods all along the walls, slashing at them with swords, swinging heavy clubs and cudgels, and stabbing down with halberds and pike. Bayonets proved themselves nearly useless, so the tercios grabbed their
muskets by the handle and cracked open the armored shells of the isopods, until thick purplish ichor stained the walls. And still the isopods came.
Captain Dice realized they could not defeat the fiends this way. He recalled many a hard fought naval battle and an idea came to mine. He grabbed a Tercio and looked into his ichor-stained face. "Tell me, lad, have ye grenadoes in this place?"
"Bombs, lad, bombs! The kind used for boarding by freebooter and pirate hunter alike?" Dice shook the surprised Tercio until the soldier nodded.
"Yes, sir. We have in the powder storage."
"Good man!" Dice waved his cutlass, purple to the hilt in isopod gore, at the battlements. "Run there and grab them, then distribute them to the defenders of this place! We'll rain down the explosives upon these isopods and all their number will be for naught!"
The Spaniard ran off, his morion bouncing on his head. Captain Dice turned to the battlements just in time to see a massive isopod land with an audible thud on top of the wall. It ran through three soldiers with its spiky les, and toppled a cannon down into the fort. Captain Dice ran towards the isopods, cutlass held high. He hacked off one of its legs, but the great beast blocked the second bow, and deeply cut Dice's shoulder with its chomping mandibles. Sullivan Dice fell and the isopod reared above him, about to crush the pirate with its sheer bulk.
Then a lit grenade crashed into a isopod's back. It emitted an ear-straining squeal as the bomb blew silver chunks of flesh across the wall. It toppled backwards. Captain Dice stood up and saw the Spaniard and several of his fellows, all carrying baskets loaded with grenadoes, round bombs topped with a short fuse.
"By every shark's pointed tooth!" Dice cried. "Ye did it! Now pass round the bombs and a torch and we'll blow these blackguards to hell!"
The Spaniards soon distributed the grenadoes, followed by a torch. One by one the fuses were lit, and then the small spheres were hurled down onto the massed isopods. There was a period of tense silence, broken only by the chittering of the isopods, and then the first of many explosions ripped through their silver ranks. The isopods fell away from the walls, limping away from the bombs. Cannonballs flew after them, killing even more as they ran back to the village.
The defenders of the fort raised their weapons in the air and let out a ragged cheer. They had won. Captain Dice doffed his tricorne, but there was a darkness in his eye. He turned back along the wall and saw Don Rodrigo, the Spanish nobleman's white suit stained the color of crushed cranberry.
"Don't start celebrating yet, sir," Dice said. "They'll be back and hungry for more. We must invite in the buccaneers and then we'll stand a chance."
"It matters not." Don Rodrigo sheathed his sword. He looked back at his chosen few soldiers, servants and fellow nobles. "My boat is loaded. I will leave this place."
"Ye would run from your own people?" The captain demanded.
"I am sixteenth in line for the throne, my good captain. I am far too important to be slain on this island. My people know that." Rodrigo doffed his hat and bowed low. "I bid you a good day, Sullivan Dice, and I do hope that you survive it." He clapped his hands and walked away, followed by his entourage.
Captain Dice shook his head. "Poor bastard. Ye don't know that water is the chosen domain of the sea lice. They'll be waiting for you."
Don Rodrigo de Montoya Y Cavana looked back at the shore of Las Cruces. His fellow nobles would not be happy of the destruction which had befallen the island, but they could not blame him, and after a detachment of heavily armed Tercios was dispatched to rid the island of isopods, it could easily be reclaimed for glorious Spain. But for now, Don Rodrigo was safe and that was all that mattered. He stood on the deck of his ship, a two-masted galleon, as it sailed away. The winds were good and he would be away from the isopods soon enough.
"Snuff, sir?" his servant asked.
"Please." Rodrigo grabbed a pinch of the stuff and inhaled heartily. "Most refreshing as always." He shaded his eyes from the sun and looked back at the beach. It seemed Sullivan Dice, that ridiculous pirate, was on the sand, waving his hat and shouting something. "Hmmm. Does he wish us to go back for him?" The Don asked. He saw that Captain Dice was pointed at the water. Rodrigo looked down.
A great silver ovoid shape, twice as big as the galleon, rested just under the surface. It erupted from the sea, revealing an isopod as big as the tallest mountain of Spain. Thousands of smaller isopods flowed off of its slick back, landing on the deck. In one motion, the great isopod struck downward.
"By Santiago…" was all Don Rodrigo had to say before his ship was dragged under.
"The Don is in trouble!" The Spaniard called Alfonso and several other Tercio soldiers ran to the beach, carrying a rowboat armed with a falconet. "We must help him!"
Captain Dice looked at the two rowboats, full of willing Spaniards. "Are ye daft?" Dice asked. "If ever a man deserved his fate, it was Don Rodrigo! Let the bloody idiot have his place in Davy Jones and don't waste precious powder trying to save him!"
"B-but he is sixteenth in line to the throne!" Alfonso cried. "And is descended directly from Queen Isabella, her Most Catholic Majesty of —"
"I know, I know!" Sullivan nearly yelled his rage. He pulled Alonzo away. "I'm tired of arguing with ye. I'll lead these boats to rescue your precious Don, if you take a horse into the jungle and ask the buccaneers that dwell there for help."
Alfonso nodded. "As you say, captain. I suppose we cannot hold out alone."
"Good to hear you understand." Dice patted Alfonso on the shoulder. "Ask for Jacques the Fox, and tell him Captain Sullivan Dice is asking for him. You'll get the help we need then."
Alfonso nodded and dashed off towards the fort. Dice took his place in the fort and put his hand on the falconet. "Right, lads. Shove off!" The Spaniards pushed the rowboat into the water, and each Tercio grabbed an oar and dug it into the water. The single boat sped towards the Don's last location.
Suddenly, the water shifted and Rodrigo's boat resurfaced in an eruption of spray, the large isopod right behind it. Captain Dice stared in amazement. He had seen ships dragged under by storms tear themselves to the surface, but it was a rare occurrence. "Make for the Don's ship!" he cried. "Kill all in our path!"
Just as he said those words, an isopod the size of a large carriage reared out of the water. Captain Dice drew a volley pistol and unloaded it into the segmented face of the monstrosity until it sank back into the water. The giant isopod, the one large as a mountain, trundled slowly towards them, pushing the Don's ship along like it was but a plaything. Captain Dice stood tall and grabbed the falconet, ripping it from its stand and tucking it under his arm. He pulled a match from his jacket and lit it on the side of the miniature cannon. "Put your backs into it!" he cried. "Almost there, lads!"
The Tercioes rowed closer to the don's ship. Dice nodded and the Spaniards threw ropes onto the sides of the deck. They pulled themselves up and clambered aboard, their swords drawn and muskets primed. Isopods appeared to greet them, burrowing out from below decks and charging out of a cabin. The Tercios fired, scattering the isopods, and then ran to man the cannons on the deck.
Captain Dice spotted Don Rodrigo, his fancy suit drenched, standing next to his servant and watching the towering isopod. Dice ran to the don's side. "Get into the rowboat, Rodrigo!" he commanded.
The servant, a short fellow with a powdered face still holding to the snuff bow, turned to Dice. "Something happened to the Don while we were under the water! He—"
"We don't have time!" Dice grabbed the Don's shoulder. "Get to the bloody rowboat!"
Rodrigo turned to Sullivan Dice and he had a vacant expression in his eye. "Yes," he said, his voice halting. "Yes, I will go." He walked slowly to the rowboat, his servant close behind.
Captain Dice watched them go and then looked back at the isopod. It bent its head down, staring at him. The corsair hefted the falconet and held the match above the fuse. The isopod stabbed down with one of its massive spiked legs, which drove straight through the wooden deck of the boat. Sullivan saw his chance. He ran to the leg and jumped on it, his boots pressing down on the hard shell. He ran up the leg, still holding the falconet. When he was eye-to-eye with the gargantuan sea louse, he lit the fuse.
The isopod snapped its mandibles, each one twice as tall as a man and as sharp as a blade, and lunged for the tiny man perched on its leg. Dice stood still and held the falconet steady. It fired, sending a cannonball straight into the isopod's open mouth. The cannon ball smashed out the other side, drilling a hole clean through the massive isopod's head. The beast let out a single squeak and fell backwards.
"Hah-hah!" Dice shouted as the gargantuan isopod tottered backward. He jumped off the leg of the great sea-beast and fell, landing on his feet on the deck. He looked up and saw the isopod falling, then looked at the Tercioes. He realized what was going on.
"The boat!" he cried. "Get to the boat and row as if the devil rides behind ye!" He ran to the edge of the deck, along with the Spaniards, swung down on the ropes and landed in the rowboat or the
water around it. Don Rodrigo and his snuff box carrier stood in the rear of the row boat, Rodrigo staring up at the great isopod with his arms outstretched.
The Spaniards grabbed the oars and pulled them, Captain Sullivan Dice grabbing one himself. The boat sped away from the don's ship as the isopod fell, crushing the boat under its bulk. A great wave surged against the rowboat, sending it splashing forward at a great rate. Captain Dice could not help waving his hat as the wave crested, and fell upon the beach. The rowboat slid out along the beach and became fixed there in the sand.
Captain Dice looked back at the sea and then at the walls of the fortress. "We did it!" he cried. "By God, we did it!" He turned to the Don and found that Rodrigo did not share his enthusiasm. The Don stared forward, a mild expression on his mustachioed face. "Ye don't seem to happy about it, do ye?"
Rodrigo shrugged. "We have so much still to do," he said. He looked back at the fort. "So much."
"Some snuff, my lord?" the servant with the powdered face asked.
"No." Don Rodrigo pushed him out of the way and stepped out of the boat. He began walking towards the fortress. Captain Dice and the Tercioes hopped out as well, and the fort's defenders began to open the gates.
Dice walked next to Rodrigo. "I sent the soldier named Alfonso to the buccaneers. I know ye don't like the idea, but we can't win without them. We must all be together, fighting to hold the same place."
"Yes." Rodrigo nodded. "We must all be in the same place. That's good."
"Good to see come to your senses," Dice said, staring at Don Rodrigo. He stepped ahead of him and walked into the fortress, followed by the Don and the Tercioes that had rescued him.
The townspeople and soldiers of Las Cruces cheered when they saw their don. Rodrigo did not seem to notice. Captain Dice stared at the Don for a long time and stroked his beard. "I wonder…" he said. But before his musings could end, a lookout on the walls called out.
"The isopods! They are coming again! More of them! Bigger ones!"
The cheering ended. Captain Dice nodded and drew out his volley pistols. He swiftly reloaded them as he talked. "Load the cannons with grape! Get the grenadoes up to the towers! Load muskets and fix bayonets! We have to hold out until the buccaneers arrive!"
"Santiago!" the Spaniards cried. With their don returned, they were ready to go to battle. But when Captain Dice looked back at Rodrigo, he found that the Spanish nobleman had vanished.
"Damn," Captain Dice muttered. "Something terrible is about to unfold."
The isopods seemed to learn from their previous assault. This time, the great isopods went first, their smaller brethren following after them. They approached in wide formation, and while the cannon balls sometime struck the silver columns and reduced them to gore, more often the cannons turned up nothing more than tropical dirt.
When the isopods drew in range, the smaller ones crawled onto the backs of their larger cousins. The big isopods flipped their tails, sending the small isopods hurtling through the air and crashing atop the battlements. The Spanish muskets thundered, blasting some of the isopods out of the sky, but more landed on the wall and began to wreak havoc.
"Hold the line!" Captain Dice shouted. His cutlass was drawn and he stood on the ramparts, directing the artillery. "Don't give the blasted beasties and inch!" A small isopod came hurtling down at him like a diving vulture, its mandibles clattering. Dice swatted it from the sky with his cutlass. "Keep the fire up! Aim behind the big ones and kill the rest!"
The defenders of Las Cruces struggled to maintain control of the wall. They stabbed down with bayonets and pikes, skewering the smaller isopods. But more and more of the oversized sea lice sunk their mandibles and spiked legs into the soldiers, wounding and killing them. Bodies, human and isopod, fell off of the wall and thudded to the ground below. The smell of gunpowder hung heavy in the air, and the whizz of cannon and musket, the shrieks of the dying isopods and the howls of the wounded Spaniards filled all ears. And still the isopods came.
Occasionally, Captain Dice would look to the west of the fort, where the jungle grew. Though Dice's keen eyes swept the vegetation, he saw no sign of Alfonso, Jacques the Fox, or the buccaneers. He wondered if the isopods had killed Alfonso before he could reach the greenery, or if another silver swarm had slaughtered the buccaneers as this swarm slaughtered the Spaniards. He shook the thoughts out of his mind. He had to direct the people of Las Cruces, as the Don seemed to have lost all interest in human affairs.
Even as Sullivan Dice felt the jolt of recoil as his volley pistols spat lead into the ranks of the isopods, an idea filled his mind. He had heard tell of a certain species of isopod, native to the rivers of North America, that had a peculiar relationship with a kind of fish. The isopod, a tiny specimen, would enter the fish's mouth and bite the tongue, draining blood like a mosquito did to a man. In time, the tongue would lose blood and fall away completely. Then, the parasitic isopod would become the fish's tongue, and neither fish nor isopod suffered for the odd relationship. It was the only instance of a creature becoming the limb of another creature, and the tales of Native fishermen about opening fish's mouths and finding a pale sea-louse inside, stuck in Dice's mind.
He forced his mind back to reality. The large isopods had reached the wall and began to clamber to the top. They stabbed their pointed legs into the adobe sides of the forts and became stepping stones for the smaller isopods, which surged around them.
"The Grenadoes!" Dice cried. "Let them fly!" He grabbed one from a basket kept on the edge of the wall and hurled it down. It exploded as it fell, scattering a score of isopods in a red burst of flame. The Spaniards followed his example and hurled down more bombs, but once more it seemed the isopods had learned from their mistake. They avoided the bombs, and the grenadoes exploded harmlessly on the ground.
"What is keeping that blasted Frenchman?" Dice demanded, looking in the direction of the jungle and seeing no movement. "Ten thousand hells! We cannot hold this miserable fort for—" A thundering explosion, coming from inside the walls, ended his word. The ground shifted under Captain Dice as the wall he stood on was weakened by a tremendous blast of gunpowder.
He came to his feet quickly and looked down. A smoldering crater had been carved in the wall. The isopods were already pounding on it, forcing their way in.
After the lookout announced the incoming isopods, Don Rodrigo de Montoya Y Cavana stole away. His servant with the powdered face and silver snuff box followed the Don as he walked to the powder storage. Rodrigo saluted to the guards as he walked inside. Quickly the Don grabbed a straight sword, another gilded blunderbuss and a belt of single-shot pistols. Then, he picked up a barrel of gunpowder.
"My lord?" the servant asked. "What are you doing?"
The Don did not answer. He walked out, carrying the barrel of gunpowder, and set it to the walls. The people of Las Cruces were too busy battling the isopods to notice his strange actions. The servant watched again in shock as Rodrigo walked again to the powder storage and came out again with another barrel of gunpowder. He placed it near the first, directly next to the wall.
"My lord?" The servant tried to block the Don's way. "Would you perhaps like some snuff?"
Rodrigo pushed him out of the way and walked back to the powder storage. He came out again, carrying a third barrel of gunpowder. He placed it with the other two and returned to the powder storage again.
The servant scratched his wig. "Ah well," he said. "He is the direct descendant of her most Catholic Majesty, Queen Isabella of Spain and is sixteenth in line to the throne. He must know what he is doing." He watched as the Don prepared another four barrels of gunpowder and another position on the wall, this one closer to the gate. Then the Don stepped to the first four barrels he had placed and drew a pistol.
"My lord?" the servant asked for a third time. "Please, may I ask as to what you are doing? It does seem quite odd to be stacking gunpowder at the fort's vital points and then point a pistol at them. Perhaps some snuff would make you feel better?"
In answer, Don Rodrigo placed the pistol against the servant's powdered face and pulled the trigger, turning the whitened skin red. He dropped the spent pistol and drew another, aimed it at the barrels of gunpowder, cocked it, and pulled the trigger. The explosion rocked the fortress and weakened the wall. The isopods outside began to chip at the fort's side, breaking in. Rodrigo smiled and looked to the next four barrels.
"Don't go doing that, ye man with the heart of a sea-louse!" Captain Dice's rifle thundered, knocking off Rodrigo's curled wig.
Rodrigo picked it up and put the shoulder-length wig on his head again. He faced Captain Dice and smiled, letting his true form shine through. "You cannot win, human. The swarms will devour the land and suck them dry. All will be silver!" His eyeballs fell from their sockets, revealing a pair of isopods within. His mouth opened and isopods had replaced his tongue. Isopods erupted from inside his chest and leered out at Captain Dice. Two tiny isopods swung down from his nostrils. "Despair, human, before the might of the swarm!"
"I can't blame ye for killing the don." Captain Dice lowered his rifle. "Maybe I'd even buy ye a mug of rum under different circumstances. But as it is, I'll have to make ye follow Rodrigo to oblivion!" He reached for the trigger, but before he could fire, the half-isopod half-man drew out his blunderbuss and fired. The bullet knocked the rifle out of Dice's hands.
"Despair!" Rodrigo ran towards Dice, his hands outstretched. Isopods shout out of his palms, chittering as they flew towards the corsair captain. Dice drew his volley pistols and fired, blasting the isopods out of the air. He dropped the empty volley guns behind him and drew his cutlass. Rodrigo drew a pistol and fired, but Dice ducked the shot then ran in front of Rodrigo and stabbed his blade straight through the former don's chest.
The don only smiled. He stepped backward, walking out of the blade. Isopods grinned at Dice through the opened wound. With a flourish, the don drew his saber and struck out at Dice. The pirate captain parried the blow, but the isopod-human hybrid struck with such force that Sullivan fell backwards. He came to his feet and slashed out again, hacking off one of the don's arms. But as the limb fell away, a chain of isopods slid out and grabbed the limb, pulling it back on. Rodrigo's re-attached arm grabbed a pistol and fired, the shot grazing Dice's chest.
"You cannot win!" Rodrigo shouted. "Despair human! Fall to your knees and despair!"
"Ye may have eaten his brain, but ye kept his pretentious nature!" Dice dodged another of Rodrigo's blow and grabbed his cutlass with both hands. "I'll silence that mouth with steel!" he shouted and plunged the cutlass into Rodrigo's open mouth. He stabbed the cutlass downward, into the dirt and fastened Rodrigo to the ground. The don struck out with his saber, slashing the corsair's legs and sending him to the ground.
"You will be ours!" Rodrigo's mouth opened around Dice's cutlass and the isopod inside began to crawl towards Captain Dice.
Dice's hands searched out for something, anything, to use against the creature that had once been Don Rodrigo. His hand fastened around the silver snuff box. Captain Dice's eyes widened as he recalled the way that Rodrigo refused snuff after the isopods had possessed him. He grabbed the box and smashed it into the Don's face.
Instantly, Rodrigo went into convulsions. The snuff sank into his nose and mouth and he began to shiver and snort. He sneezed, sending an isopod hurtling out of his nose. The tiny sea louse smashed against the wall of the fort and died. Rodrigo sneezed again, and isopods, squealing in their death throes, poured out of his nose, ears and eyes. He closed his mouth and his cheeks and chest bulged. Then, he let one more sneeze, loud as cannon, and blew himself to bloody rags.
Captain Dice stood up and looked at Rodrigo's ruined body. "Well," he muttered, "for the man who's seventeenth in line to the throne of Catholic Spain, I guess it's a good day." Then he looked at the hole in the wall. The isopods had widened it and were now breaking through. The defenders ran down from the walls, firing parting shots and battling the isopods down the steps to the battlements. They were losing the fight.
Dice pulled his cutlass from the ground and held it high. "If ye must suffer death," he whispered, "then make it a good one." And he ran straight into the charging isopods.
He hacked and slashed like a mad man. He skewered an isopod, gutted another one, chopped a third in twain, and still his cutlass did not slow, nor did his arm tire. The Spaniards saw the pirate fighting on and took hard. The Tercioes ran next to Dice, their halberds chopping and stabbing as their muskets thundered. The townspeople hurled the last of the grenadoes and threw themselves into the battle. They surged forward, driving the isopods out of the fort and into the open.
The corsair killed yet another isopod and then his luck ended. An isopod knocked into him and forced him down, his cutlass falling from his grasp. Captain Dice saw the mandibles reaching in, hungry for his flesh. But a machete flew through the air and buried itself in the head of the isopod, sending the beast into spasms. Captain Dice grabbed his cutlass and came to his feet.
He saw Alfonso standing with Jacques the Fox, a short Frenchman with a thick brown beard dressed in a loose shirt and vest, pantaloons and a slouch hat, and covered in belts of knives, pistols and other weapons. Behind them stood two hundred armed buccaneers, wielding machetes, long knives, musketoons, rifles, war clubs and more.
"Slimy scum!" Jacques the Fox shouted. "Monsieur Dice will not die by your hand!" He raised a machete high, the blade catching the sun. "Brethren of the Coast! Bathe your blades in their blood!" And with a vigorous war-whoop, the Frenchman led the buccaneers into the fray.
They fired their pistols and musketoons as they charged, then hurled throwing knives, gunpowder bombs. Finally they drew machetes and long knives, hacking apart the isopods. The silver swarm seemed to realize it was defeated. The isopods ran back to the docks and the sea, but the buccaneers and the people of Las Cruces did not let them escape. They fired after them, then ran them down and hacked the beasts to pieces. Captain Dice and Jacques the Fox stood side by side, pistols blazing in tandem as isopods died before them.
By the time the blood-red sun set on that day, the last isopod had been hacked to silver scraps.
Captain Dice stepped into his rowboat, Jacques the Fox, the buccaneers, and the survivors of Las Cruces looking on. "Are you sure you will not stay with us, Monsieur Dice?" Jacques asked. "We have to decided to adopt these few townspeople and soldiers as Brethren of the Coast, and we will go north where the wild bulls run free and there is good hunting."
Dice looked to Alfonso. "Is this true?"
The Spaniard nodded. "It is, sir. Our service to the Don is clearly over, and I think our service to crown is over as well. We've had enough of fancy titles and want to make our own destiny as buccaneers, no matter the danger."
Captain Dice smiled. "I thank ye for your kind offer, Jacques, but the sea is calling to me once more. There's a good tide now and I can be in Port Royale by the morn. I'll have fine wenches and rum both." He put his oars into the water, sending his craft out into the sea.
"Monsieur!" Jacques cried, as Dice began to sail away. "If we ever see the isopods again, what should we do?"
The corsair captain thought for only a moment. "By thunder, ye blast the slimy bastards to smithereens and enough times to make sure!" He dug his oars into the water and began to paddle away in the direction of the setting sun.