The Rogue's Pleasure and the Old Men of the Forest
Klaus Strickenbocker, clockwork genius, expert in all forms of mechanics, and an intellect beyond compare, landed on the deck of the flagship of the Illuminati's fleet after a long flight over the ocean. He had modified his legs, along with countless other parts of his body, for great combative and transport abilities, including placing small rockets within the skin of his knees. The rockets slipped outwards, went off, and carried him easily across the Pacific ocean, from the islands of Japan to the South China Sea, where the Illuminati Fleet lay at anchor.
Now he landed on their flagship, and looked with a murderous eye at the Illuminati brothers around him, as well as their hired sailors and cloaked and masked guards. "What are you looking at, damn you!" he shouted. "I have returned from an important mission! I have devoted my life's work to the Illuminati, and what have you done? Nothing, you simpering monkeys, nothing at all!"
The sound of footsteps distracted him. Strickenbocker spun around and saw William Snulgrave approaching, gingerly. The sycophantic Snulgrave wrung his gloved hands and smiled at Strickenbocker. "So, Herr Strickenbocker," he asked. "Does the Rogue's Pleasure lie moldering at the bottom of the sea?"
"I must speak to the Grand Master!" Strickenbocker shouted. "His charade is at an end! The truth must be known!"
Snulgrave shrugged. "What ever do you mean? Did you do something wrong, Herr Strickenbocker?"
"Fetch him, damn you!" Strickenbocker cried. The Illuminated Ones watched the proceeding with silent awe, staring at Strickenbocker and Snulgrave. The Teutonic expert of the mechanical and scientific arts had always been a leading and loyal member of the Illuminati.
The doors to the ship's lower chambers flew open with a crash. The Grand Master of the Illuminati stepped onto the deck, facing Strickenbocker. As always, he wore a long, hooded robe, so that his face and hands were invisible. The eye within the pyramid necklace of the Illuminati hung around his neck.
"What is it, Brother Strickenbocker?"
"He says he has something to tell you, O Grand Master," Snulgrave said, bowing his head to the ruler of the Illuminati. "Something important."
"So it would seem," the Grand Master said. "Tell me, Strickenbocker, did you succeed in the task I placed upon you?"
"No," Strickenbocker whispered.
"And where is your ship?"
"Sunk," Strickenbocker muttered. "By the damned sea rovers of the Rogue's Pleasure."
The Grand Master shook his hooded head. "You have failed yet again, Brother Strickenbocker."
"'Twas an impossible task, you devil!" Strickenbocker shouted. He swung out with his arms, long blades sliding from his arms, erupting from slits in his wrists. "You have ruined me, you monster, and I curse the day I put you in power! I will strike you down!"
He charged forward, but the Grand Master was quicker. With impossible speed, the Grand Master grabbed Strickenbocker's right eye and held it. Strickenbocker had long since replaced his eye with a mechanical cog, allowing him to manipulate his now lost ship, the Golden Gear, as well as the various gadgets placed inside his own body.
Strickenbocker let out a low whine, like the scream of grinding gears. "Please…" he whispered.
"Brother Strickenbocker, you are no longer a member of the Illuminati," the Grand Master said. While holding onto Strickenbocker's eye, he pulled off Strickenbocker's necklace and tossed it in the sea. Strickenbocker let out a low whine, but the Grand Master was not finished. "You have failed again and again, and you persist in bothering me. Your time is over."
"You can't…" Strickenbocker whispered. "You just can't…I created you…."
"So you have. But now I am in power. And you, most assuredly, are not." The Grand Master started to yank out the mechanical eye. It slid from its socket, a long screw appearing after it and letting traces of blood drip down Strickenbocker's screaming face. Klaus Strickenbocker struck out wildly with his blades, slashing one across the Grand Master's chest.
In a flash, the Grand Master had released him, and Strickenbocker stumbled backwards, clutching his bleeding eye. "No, no, no!" he whispered, blood dripping down his face. "This should not be happening!" He kicked his feet together, and the rockets once again slid out of his lower legs. Fire spat out from the rockets, launching Strickenbocker into the sky.
He chanced to look down at the fleet, and whined even louder as he saw the sheer size of the Illuminati's naval force. There was two score galleons, each a might, triple-masted ship fully loaded with cannon, Illuminati guards, and adorned with black sails emblazoned by the Illuminati's eye within the pyramid insignia. With such a force, it was certain that the Illuminati would succeed, and the world would fall to the Grand Master's machinations. And it was all Strickenbocker's fault.
Back on the deck of the flagship, the Grand Master did not even watch Strickenbocker speed away. Snulgrave approached the Grand Master, bowing low after every word. "O Grand Master, shall we send some ships to follow him? Perhaps we could spare one of the ships from the great fleet?"
"There is no point," the Grand Master answered. "Herr Strickenbocker is a coward and a fool. He will not trouble us again. Those ships are needed for the current mission – to capture the Dragon's Breath, and give us complete control of the Five Eternal Treasures."
"O Grand Master, your masterful plan nears fruition at last!" William Snulgrave cried. He paused. "Um, perhaps you could tell me what exactly that fruition will bring about? You still have not explained the purpose of bringing the Five Eternal Treasures together."
With a glower that seemed visible even the folds of his hood, the Grand Master faced Snulgrave. "Do you presume to question me, Brother Snulgrave."
Snulgrave shook his head vigorously. "No, no! Of course not!" He laughed nervously. "No, I was merely, merely wondering—"
"Then stop such idle thoughts." The Grand Master walked back to the entrance leading below decks. "Send me word when we reach the mainland. I shall give the fleet further commands then. Do no disturb me, Brother Snulgrave." He disappeared behind the doors.
William Snulgrave wiped the sweat from his forehead. "Cripes," he whispered, and leaned against the railing of the fleet.
Many leagues from the South China Sea, in the archipelago of great and small islands home to Malays and countless other tribes, the great pirate ship Rogue's Pleasure approached the jungle-clad coast of one of the ocean-surrounded landmasses. Standing on the deck of the Rogue's Pleasure, the ship's captain, a veteran sea dog of many years upon the crashing waves, regarded the coast through his spyglass.
"Aye," he said to himself. "There seems a likely place to make port for the evening. And I'd sooner spend night lying at anchor near land, then floating upon the high seas, awaiting for the Illuminati to find us and send us the briny bottom." He turned on his heel and waved to Gentleman Jacoby Jackson. "Jacoby! We'll head to that lagoon, near the shore, and lay anchor there!"
"Yes, skipper!" Gentleman Jacoby replied, leaning off the railing and examining the area. "It seems a decent enough resting place." He shouted the order to the sailors keeping the Rogue's Pleasure afloat, and soon the ship-of-the-line was turning about, catching the wind in its great white sails, and heading towards the coast. Gentleman Jacoby stood next to Captain Dice, and looked at the lagoon. "It seems a likely landing place. Do you think it is inhabited, captain?"
"I know not," Dice said. "Ye know, I have yet to sail all of the seven seas, and there are many things that I do not know of."
Jacoby laughed. "Surely you jest, captain," he quipped. "But I have heard of some of the natives of these lands from a fellow in the Dutch East India Company, and they seem a wild and savage bunch."
Dice looked his shoulder, spotting Moll Bennet shouted at several corsairs as they worked to unfurl the mainsails. "Then we'd fit right in," the captain said.
As the Rogue's Pleasure headed towards the green coast of the large island, the ship's cabin boy ran to the railing to examine it. Herbert Welkins-Bulwer had his pet lemur held under his arm, and he gazed in wonder at the coast. "It's beautiful," he whispered to Pip. "I wonder what kinds of animals lurk in those woods. Do you think they could be creatures like you?"
The French buccaneer Pierre Rebuse, known as Rebuse the Slaughter, overheard Herbert's question and approached the boy, his scarlet cape billowing in the wind. "Ah, Herbert, I do not think they are quite like your dear monkey-rat!" he said, shaking his head. "But I have heard of many strange creatures there. I hear there is a man, covered in orange hair, that lives in the trees. An orang-utang, he is called."
"I think I have heard of such creatures," Herbert said. "I read about them in my library at home."
"Ah, but there are worse beasts in the jungle!" Rebuse said. "I have heard of the Orang Pendek, the Short Ones, who dwell within the forest and are like little devils." He looked at the coast and shook his head. "I hear they feast on human flesh. And I hear, in this country, that they are not the only ones."
As the Rogue's Pleasure sailed into the shaded bay, the sailors became aware that they were being watched. Captain Dice spotted them first – brown-skinned warriors standing underneath the palm trees, long-blades spears, wavy kris knives, bows with shafts at the ready, and some crude muskets and arquebuses, in their hands. They wore thin red robes and turbans, tattoos covering their faces and hands. Many of them had their teeth filed into points.
Dice looked them over and turned to Jacoby. "What did your Dutch friends say of these natives?" he asked.
"These are mostly Sea Dayaks," he explained. "They are headhunters, cannibals, and very warlike. Oftentimes, they are pirates."
The Sea Dayaks emerged from the jungle, standing onto the beach and readying their weapons. Moll Bennet pulled her musketoon from her sash and leveled it at the beach. "Shall we give them a broadside, captain?" she asked Dice. "I'd wager we could send a score of them savages screaming to hell, ere they could hit us back!"
"No, Moll," Dice said, shaking his head. "I've no wish to make foes. These men have come here for a battle, but I don't think it's us they're lying in wait for." He called out to the natives. "Any of you lot speak Dutch?" he asked.
One Sea Dayak warrior stepped forward, holding aloft his pointed spear. "I speaking some?" he said. "Who are you? What you want?"
Dice cupped his hands over his mouth and answered. "Just looking to take on a few supplies and spend the evening afore we set off again. We don't mean no trouble to you or your people, sir!"
The Sea Dayak chieftain shrugged. "We have come to stop a raid, of the Bajau Laut. They will arrive shortly, to try and take our village, revenge for our own raids. We will meet them here and stop them from entering the jungle and reaching our village."
"I see…" Dice considered the information. "Well, what if we lent ye our own firepower to your cause, and held off these Bajau Laut. Mayhaps then you'll let us come ashore and rest our weary bones?"
The chieftan nodded without hesitation. "Alliance shift quickly in the islands," he said. "I am called Itan. I have taken forty heads in battle. If you betray us, I will take yours."
Dice laughed. "Well, I'm Captain Sullivan Dice, and it's good to meet ye, Itan. But I'm warning ye, I've killed my share of men too, and I shan't hesitate if ye think about one in the back of me crew!" He turned back to his sailors. "Right, me buckos! We've a fight ahead of us, against a gang of island-raiding pirates, that sure as salt ain't of the Sweet Trade! We'll sail there, into the corner of the bay, and give them cannon and musket fire soon as they arrive!"
Jacoby approached the captain while Moll shouted orders to the crew. "Do you think that is wise, captain?" he asked. "Consorting with these savage types? They are headhunters, cannibals even, and may very well attempt to turn us into Long Pork."
"I've dealt with Caribs before, Jacoby," Dice replied. "Fought alongside them, even, and found them decent enough folk. We'll cast our lot with them, and see what comes of it. Now lay anchor, and run out the guns!"
The crew hastened to obey his commands. Ibrahim bin Ali readied the cannons, loading them with grape and round shot, while Moll and Escopeta Estevez arranged boarding parties and snipers in the rigging. Herbert stood near the cabins, waiting to help the wounded. For a few moments, silence reigned on the deck of the Rogue's Pleasure. Captain Dice smoked his pipe, and drew his trusty cutlass. They waited.
Soon enough, the Bajau Laut arrived. They were the Sea People, living entirely in their large fleets of dhows and lumbering barges, preying on other ships and seaside communities, and always putting to sea before they could be caught. Now they were sailing in for war, a score of small dhows loaded with their warriors. They carried bows and arrows, a few muskets and small cannons, and most of them wielded the long kris knives native to the region. They were clad in blue robes and turbans, and most of them bore the tanned skin and scars that told of many years on the wild seas.
As they sailed into the bay, Captain Dice raised his cutlass. "Cut them down, lads!" he cried. "Strike now!"
"Fire starboard!" Ibrahim shouted, and the cannons of the Rogue's Pleasure thundered in answer. The heavy cannons tore through the light dhows, ripping men apart and sending clouds of red into the sea. The Sea Dayaks struck from the shore, racing onto the sandy beach and hurling spears, arrows, and firing their muskets into the surprised Bajau Laut.
But the Sea People did not go down without a fight. Even as several of their ships slipped, smoldering, under the waves, others sailed towards the Rogue's Pleasure to return fire. They hurled spears and arrows aboard, striking several of the sailors. The stricken men sunk to the deck or tumbled into the sea. The dhows sailed under the cannons, preventing the guns from blasting them.
Moll ran to the edge of the deck, leaning down and firing with her musketoon. "Keep them from boarding, you lily-livered scuts!" she shouted to the sailors as the Bajau Laut hurled up grappling hooks and ropes. A Bajau Laut reached the railing, a kris dagger in his hands. He swung it at Moll, but she parried with her fascine knife and emptied the second barrel of her musketoon into her foe's brains.
Soon the coastal waters were red, and the Bajau Laut began to fall back. They pounded away from the beach, swimming speedily through the water and clambering onto their boats. The sails were soon raised, and the dhows sped away into the wide ocean. Captain Dice walked to the railing and doffed his hat to Itam.
"We upheld our word, sir. Will ye let us lay anchor here and spend the evening?" he asked.
Itam looked at the numerous bodies lying in the water. His men were already taking the bodies ashore, hacking off their heads with the kris knives and holding each grisly trophy aloft. "We have collected many heads today," he said, grinning. He smiled at Captain Dice. "You will stay here long? With such forces as you, we could defeat even the Old Men of the Forest!"
"Old Men of the Forest?" Dice asked. "Who be they?"
"The Short Ones," Itam said. "Orang Pendek. They prey on our people from their homes deep in the jungle, but their numbers grow fewer each year." He shrugged. "It does not matter. Please, come ashore. As long as you stay on this island, you will the honored guests of the Sea Dayak!"
Dice nodded. "Well, I look forward to the evening, then," he agreed.
The pirates did indeed come ashore, leaving a small portion of their crew aboard to guard the ship and the bay, under the command of Escopeta Estevez. Dice led the others ashore, and Chief Itam led them through the tangle of jungle to the Sea Dayak village. It was not far from the bay, and numerous dhows and canoes rested amidst the wooden huts. The severed heads of the tribe's enemies dangled from long poles or from the sides of huts, rotting in the tropical sun.
Herbert walked near Moll Bennet, and she kept him from looking at the gory trophies. "Don't want to be seeing that, dearie," she told him. "Not fit for a lad your age to be staring at."
Captain Dice and the pirates sat in the town square, and Chief Itam had his tribesmen bring forth jugs of water, coconuts, fruits and strips of meat. The pirates hungrily gobbled down some of the good there, and prepared to take other bits back with the ship as needed supplies.
While the food was being sorted out, Herbert walked to the jungle. He was joined by Rebuse the Slaughterer, and the wily buccaneer and small, aristocratic boy stared into the shaded jungle. "Do you think the Orang-utangs are in there?" Herbert asked. "and the Orang Pendek as well?"
"Who knows?" Rebuse asked. "Only mystery lurks within the great jungle!"
Herbert turned to the buccaneer. "I'd like to explore it for a little," he said, petting Pip's glossy coat. "Just to see what's going on. Do you think Madam Bennet will agree?"
"If it's just for a little, I don't think the mademoiselle shall mind," Rebuse said. "Still, my dear child, you should perhaps ask her, I think."
"All right," Herbert agreed. He walked over to Moll, who was leaning against one of the huts, sipping on a jug of dark rum. "Madam Bennet?" he asked, speaking quickly. "I and Rebuse, Monsieur Rebuse I mean, were going to go into the woods for a little, just to see if we could find an orang-utang. We would not spend a great deal of time in the wilderness, and would hasten back to you before nightfall. Is that acceptable?"
Moll looked at Herbert and smiled. "You'll stay with Rebuse? I trust him, so if you don't stray, I see no reason for a quick jaunting." She patted his shoulder. "But you hurry back afore dark, you hear me, Herbert?"
"Oh, yes," Herbert agreed. "Thank you, Madam Bennet." He bowed his head to her, and hurried off to Rebuse's side. The boy and the buccaneer walked into the jungle, walking between the vine-strewn trees.
Captain Dice walked over to Moll, as she watched the cabin boy walking away into the greenery. "Seems nice of you," Dice said. "Letting the lad have a bit of fun in the midst of all this trouble."
"Had I my druthers, he'd not even be aboard a pirate vessel," Moll whispered. "But he is, and all I can do is take care of him the best I can." She sighed. "He does deserve better."
"We all do, Moll," Dice said. "But what else is there, but to bring hither the rum and wait until the morrow?" He smiled as he took the jug from her and gave a quick sip. "And to watch our for our comrades in the Flying Gang?"
"I'll drink to that," Moll said, swiping back the rum.
As their friends drank and talked, Herbert and Rebuse walked into the jungle. Herbert tripped over roots and collided with vines, Pip squeaking with fear each time Herbert's clumsiness got the better of him. Herbert looked in amazement at the lush greenery, and watched the tropical birds flutter from branch to branch, calling out in peals of bright song. Rebuse walked behind him, hacking at the occasional branch with his machete.
They continued down the path, Herbert occasionally asking Rebuse a question and the buccaneer answering as best they could. Pip leapt from Herbert's shoulders and dashed from branch to branch, his ringed tail flapping about behind him as he enjoyed the wilderness so close to his native land of Madagascar. Pip leapt down into Herbert's hands, and squeaked loudly, looking upwards with his pointed nose.
Herbert stared up. "What's that?" he asked. "What is it, Pip?" He gasped. "Oh," he whispered. "Monsieur Rebuse, look! It's one of the Orang-utangs!"
Sure enough, a furry, orange creature sat in the upper branches, sleeping peacefully in the midday heat. It hand arranged a nest of branches for itself, and sat calmly happily away from the ground. Herbert stared at it in awe, waiting for it to move or do anything, but the great orange ape merely sat there, as if resting for a lifetime of hard work.
Herbert and Rebuse looked at the orang-utang, and then the ape suddenly stood up and clambered away, moving swiftly from branch to branch and then disappearing into the overgrown canopy. Herbert removed his tricorne and scratched his head. "What could have frightened it?" he asked.
"I think it smelled me." That familiar voice came from the shade of a large tree. A familiar form stepped out, dressed in a buckskin jacket, with twin tomahawks on his belt and a musket leaning against his shoulder. He had an upturned moustache, giving him the appearance of a second smile. He doffed his hat to them. "Little Herbert! And Rebuse! What are you doing here!"
This was Theophilius Van Reeper, a Dutch mountain man who called the wild places of the North American continent home. He held a Kentucky long rifle against his shoulder, and a pack containing supplies and trapping equipment. The hunter approached them and leaned against a tree.
"Hello, Mr. Van Reeper, sir," Herbert said, smiling at the mountain man. "We are here to battle the Illuminati actually. They're collected the Five Eternal Treasures, for some dreadful, unknown purpose, and we are here to stop them. The Rogue's Pleasure lies at anchor in a bay a little ways from here, and Monsieur Rebuse and some of his buccaneers accompanied us."
Van Reeper nodded. "The Illuminati? I have heard of them. Was not that old foe of yours, the mechanical genius and madman Strickenbocker a member?"
"He was," Herbert agreed. "But the current leader of the Illuminated Ones, the Grand Master, seems to have something much more sinister in mind then Strickenbocker could ever have conceived. They have been trying to stop for a long time, but they haven't and as soon as we find them, we'll find out a way to stop them."
"Ah," Van Reeper said. "I came here to hunt some of the exotic game – the Orang Pendek in particular. But if your captain wouldn't mind, I would like to accompany you. If the Illuminati are trying to conquer the world, then I will do all I can stop them."
Rebuse nodded. "It will be great to fight by your side, mon ami!" he said, waving about his machete. "Oh, the great battles we will engage in! They will sing glorious songs of our victories! Hah!" He stabbed out with his machete, cutting down an imaginary enemy. "Now, let us find some of these Orang Pendek, Monsieur Van Reeper, so that you may return home with the happy scent of success emanating from your skin!"
"Yes…" Van Reeper said, a little taken aback. "That would be good."
The two men, one boy, and lemur walked on through the jungle, searching for any sign of the Orang Pendek. Herbert stayed close to Rebuse and Van Reeper now, not wishing to disturb any potential prey. He carried Pip in his hands, making sure the lemur didn't squeak out of turn to drive away a hidden animal.
They walked along the shaded trees in silence, Van Reeper holding his long rifle, and Rebuse holding his blunderbuss, with his machetes resting at his waist within easy reach. Herbert looked at the dense trees on both sides of the thin dirt path that wound through the underbrush like some wild, insane snake. As time passed, he wondered about each shadow that flitted in and out of sight, each green frond waving lightly in the wind, and even the creak of far off animals, the calls of other beasts and birds, and the ever-present chirp of local insects.
It was because of this, that Herbert didn't notice that he stepped into a lasso of curled vine, placed on the ground, until it snapped shut around his leg and lifted him up into the sky. "Oh dear!" Herbert shouted, as he was suspended over the ground by the rope trap. Pip fell from his hands and ran around on the around, squeaking and crying in terror.
Van Reeper pointed his rifle into the brush and Rebuse gripped his machete and steadied Herbert. "Easy, dear child," he said. "Just stay there, and I'll cut you down. You must have stumbled into some hunter's trap." He raised his machete. "Van Reeper? Is this your work?"
"Not mine," Theophilius said. "Perhaps some local set this trap?"
Herbert swung back and forth and saw several dark shapes moving through the jungle, approaching them on both sides of the narrow forest path. "Mr. Van Reeper! Mr. Rebuse!" he cried. "Watch out! They're all around us!"
"Who is it, boy, who?" Van Reeper asked, raising his rifle. He could not see the small furry beings, sitting crouched in the underbrush. They only stood as tall as a man's waist, and were covered from head to toe in thick gray fur. "What set this trap?"
"The Orang Pendek!" Herbert managed to cry, and then the Short Ones launched their attack.
They first hurled a volley of short, flint-tipped spears, and then ran from the underbrush wielding their blunt war clubs. Van Reeper fired his musket, blasting off the head of one of the leaping Orang Pendek, and then drew out his tomahawks. Rebuse fired his blunderbuss and grabbed his machete, slashing open the chest of the small ape-men.
But they were outnumbered and overwhelmed. A club cracked into Van Reeper's knee, knocking him to the ground. "Run, Rebuse!" he shouted. "Bring help! I will find some way to signal you, to lead you to the village!"
"I have no wish to leave you, mon ami!" Rebuse cried. "I am no coward!" A thrown spear left a long trace of red across his shoulder, but Rebuse ignored it, and swung his machete about wildly until the weapon was red to the hilt. The Orang Pendek swarmed around him, but he did not go down.
"We cannot win this alone!" Van Reeper cried. "Return with help! Do it for Herbert!" he added.
This made Rebuse nod. "Very well," he repeated, drawing out another machete. "For Herbert." He dashed backwards, spinning his machete about in a wide arch, sending furry limbs and gouts of blood flying in all directions. Herbert watched him go. Pip leapt up into his arms, and held onto the lemur as he spun back and forth. He couldn't see Theophilius Van Reeper, but the Dutchman was not making any noise.
"Mr. Van Reeper?" Herbert asked.
There was no response. One of the Orang Pendek raised his flint-tipped spear, cutting the rope holding Herbert up. The boy tumbled to the ground, holding Pip close to him. Despite the pains from the fall, Herbert tried to pull himself up and run, but the Orang Pendek swarmed over him and prevented any escape. A stone club cracked over the boy's head, and the last thing he saw was Theophilius Van Reeper being tied and bound before he sank into unconsciousness.
When he awoke, Herbert found himself in a large wooden cage, tall bars made from branches and bamboo stretching around in all directions. The floor was the jungle dirt, and Herbert felt the heat of several flickering torches illuminating the dim forest. The cage stood in the center of the Orang Pendek village, and was much taller than even the largest of their crude wooden and stone huts. The little ape men sat about the cave, fingering their axes and staring at them.
"Pip?" Herbert whispered. He looked down and saw the lemur sitting near his leg, looking expectantly at him. Herbert leaned over and petted Pip, then came to his feet. He saw Theophilius Van Reeper lying in the corner of the cage and ran to him. Van Reeper's forehead was bruised, and he was unconscious, but he seemed mostly unharmed. "Oh, thank god," Herbert whispered.
"Thank God for your survival?" asked a voice that chilled Herbert to the bone. It was familiar, but it had a tinge of lunacy to it. Herbert looked into the corner of the cage and saw a man curled up against the bars, dressed in a frock coat that was once gold, but was covered in dirt and torn. "Well, that's not a fire for warmth those apes are building. They're going to cook us. And then they're going to eat us."
Herbert stared at his fellow prisoner, as he slowly realized who it was. "Herr S-strickenbocker?" he asked, his voice shaking as he gripped his arm, which Strickenbocker had but recently broken with a clasp of his impossibly strong arms. "Strickenbocker?" Herbert repeated. "Is that you?"
Slowly, Strickenbocker turned around and looked at Herbert. The boy was taken aback by the state Strickenbocker was in. His cog had nearly been wrenched free from his face, parts of his skin were pulled back, revealing bits of steel and wiring amidst the bleeding scratches and wounds. Dried blood poured down his face, reaching down to his chin. Strickenbocker had bound it with torn strips from his own coat. His arms and legs were twisted about, one of his wrist blades projecting from his lower arm at a useless angle.
"Yes," Strickenbocker whispered, turning around and slumping against the bars of the cage. "It is I."
"What happened to you?" Herbert asked, his curiosity overwhelming his fear. "I thought you were with the Illuminati. What are you doing here?"
Strickenbocker sighed. "It is a long story. And why would I share it with you, you odious brat? It is because of you and your cursed ship that my attempts to bring order to the world have failed! If Ludwig Von Woopenhuasen did not choose to side with you instead of entering the Illuminati than…" he trailed off, unwilling to finish his thought.
"Then what?" Herbert asked. "Sir?"
"Then perhaps my plans might have met with success," Strickenbocker whispered. "Instead of a continuous line of dismal failures." He sunk down against the wooden bars of the prison and sighed. "I suppose I should tell you the story, boy. It matters not to us, or to any in this wretched world, for we will soon be bubbling away and resting in some simian's stomach, and this world will be crushed under the boot of the Grand Master."
Herbert nodded and sat down in front of Strickenbocker. "What is the Grand Master's plan?"
"I don't know," Strickenbocker muttered. "But I do know that it will succeed. He is impossibly clever, utterly strong, undefeatable in any combat, an expert in every form of occult lore and magic. He is the greatest magician, tactician and warrior the world will ever seen."
"How can you know all of that, sir?" Herbert asked.
Strickenbocker stared at the boy, his good eye going red with rage. "For I created him!" he shouted. He came to his feet and stalked around the small prison, kicking at the dirt in his anger. "After Von Woopenhausen declined to join the Illuminati, I knew that I must bend the organization to my will. It was little more than a social club for doddering fools and I knew that had to change!"
"But you…you made the Grand Master?" Herbert's eyes were wide with surprise.
"Indeed," Strickenbocker agreed. "The Grand Master who ruled the Illuminati was an idiot, an aged fool who would not bring any glory to the organization. If I killed him, someone equally stupid would merely take his place. So I devised a plan – create an automaton that responded to my orders, murder the Grand Master and replace him with no one knowing." He snorted. "If only I had known…"
"Known what, sir?" Herbert asked. He looked at Van Reeper, who was regaining his consciousness. The boy to Van Reeper's aid, and helped him up. He removed his jacket, and tore strips of cloth to bind the cuts of Van Reeper's head and shoulders. "Excuse me, sorry," he muttered, as Van Reeper woke up.
The Dutchman looked around, shaking his head groggily. "They took us?" he whispered. "Herbert? Is that you?"
"Yes, Mr. Van Reeper," Herbert said. "How are you feeling?"
"Well enough, I think." He came to his feet and looked at Strickenbocker. His eyes narrowed. "Herbert, is this the man from the manor, the mechanical inventor!" He reached to his belt, and withdrew one of his tomahawks. He looked at the blade and smiled. "Ah," he whispered. "It seems the Orang Pendek did not see the need to remove this blade."
"We can escape?" Herbert asked, examining the tomahawk. "You could, maybe, cut through the bars and we could run into the jungle?"
"What's the point?" Strickenbocker asked. "The Grand Master will rule the world soon enough. All efforts of survival are futile."
Van Reeper stared at Strickenbocker. "What's he going about?"
"He killed the leader of the Illuminati, and built an automaton to take his place," Herbert explained. "But something went wrong."
"Yes, very wrong," Strickenbocker said simply. "The automaton was perfect, my masterpiece. He mimicked a man in every way, and he had just the right amount of intelligence needed to maintain the façade. But then, that intelligence began to grow." Strickenbocker shuddered. "He began to read occult texts in the Illuminati's voluminous library. But while a man will go mad if he buries himself in tomes of occult lore, a machine had no soul to be tarnished. He became a master of every spell, every discipline, and grew in intelligence rapidly."
"So that's why you're lying here in a cage with a bunch of hungry monkey-men outside, eh?" Van Reeper asked.
"Well, I attempted to do battle with him, after I was made angry by the destruction of my ship. He defeated me, easily, and cast me out. My implanted rockets carried me here, until they lost power and I crashed into the brush, where these little devils found me." Strickenbocker slumped down against the bars of the prison, his energy seeming to flow away from him.
"So what now?" Van Reeper asked.
"What does it matter?" Strickenbocker asked, looking away at the jungle canopy above their heads. "We all will lose against the Grand Master and the Illuminati anyway."
"Well, Mr. Strickenbocker, I don't think that's true at all," Herbert announced. "I think we can beat him, and stop his plans, whatever they are, and save the world, and I know the crew of the Rogue's Pleasure will do it." Despite his fears, he approached Strickenbocker with his hand held out. "Now, Mr. Strickenbocker, I know you were quite cruel to me, and you were a horrible person, but I guess you are defeated now, and alone." He held out his hand. "If you agree to help my friends aboard the Rogue's Pleasure, we can stop the Grand Master, and his fiendish plan, whatever it may be."
Strickenbocker shook his head. "No…" he whispered. "I deserve nothing but pain and death for my actions! I have damned the world! How can a gang of ragtag pirates sail against the most powerful sorcerer on earth and hope for victory, how can they defeat a veritable man of steel?"
Herbert shrugged. "Well, Captain Dice, and all of the crew, they won't give up. They know what's right, and they're brave and very smart, and they can figure out a way to stop him, and put that plan into action. I know they can."
"And they would forgive me?" Strickenbocker asked. "Me, the cause of all of this? After all I have done? After I have --- hurt you?"
"I give you my word, sir," Herbert said. "As a gentleman."
Van Reeper let out a hacking laugh. "Do you really think we can trust him, dear boy?" he asked.
"I think so, sir," Herbert agreed. "He broke my arm, not too long ago, but just look at him – he's all alone, and he's beaten and we can help him. I think he's willing." Herbert sat down. "Do you think so?"
Van Reeper shrugged. He looked at Strickenbocker. "It's not an act," he whispered. "This is a man who has lost everything." He nodded to Herbert. "And one we can trust."
"So what are we to do?" Strickenbocker asked. "If we try and escape with your tomahawk, those little apes will cut us to pieces!"
"Maybe not," Van Reeper said, raising his tomahawk. "Rebuse went for help. If they can arrive, they could distract the Orang Pendek, and then I could hack aside some of these bars and allow us to make a run for freedom."
"Are you seriously thinking the pirates will able to find this place?"
"They'll need a signal," Herbert said. "Something to alert them." He looked at Pip and then at the fire pit. "Um, Pip? I think we might need you to do something." He reached out between the bars and grabbed a dry branch that lay on the ground. He handed the branch to Pip and then pointed to the bonfire.
The Orang Pendek were already adding logs and stoking the fire, making the blaze go higher and higher. Herbert spotted a large pile of dry leaves leafs near one of the wooden huts. He imagined the smoke rising from the piles of leaves, filling the sky and creating a large beacon to his friends in the Sea Dayak village.
"Would that work?" he asked Van Reeper and Strickenbocker. "If Pip got some fire, we could toss it in that pile of brush and created a signal. But do you think it would work?"
Theophilius Van Reeper seemed incredulous. "I don't know how well trained that lemur of yours is, my boy, and even if we do get a good fire going, we have to hope that your friends can spot it, that Rebuse has alerted them to our situation."
"The Frenchman?" Strickenbocker asked, groaning. "He's with you?"
"Yes," Theophilius said. "And I think he is about our only hope."
Rebuse the Slaughterer stumbled into the Sea Dayak camp. He was bleeding from a dozen wounds, his machete was out and bloodied, and he walked haltingly, looking at the village through a haze of fatigue and bloodlust. Moll Bennet was the first to spot him. She ran towards Rebuse, pushing aside others in her haste, and grabbed his shoulder to steady him.
"What's going on, you damned Frenchy?" Moll demanded. "Where is Herbert?"
"Taken…" Rebuse whispered, pausing for breath. "Orang Pendek…"
At the mention of the legendary creatures' name, the Sea Dayak people regarded each other with fear, and spoke in hushed whispers. The women took their children inside, behind the open doors of their huts and houses. The men fingered the blades of their kris knives and looked into the jungle, knowing that the old men of the forest had taken another set of victims.
Captain Dice stood up, moving to Rebuse and Moll quickly. He already had his cutlass drown. "Itam!" he cried. "Where do these beasts lurk? Ye tell me and I'll send the bulliest lads I got to rescue our cabin boy!"
Itam shook his head. "No, Sullivan Dice, you do not understand. Orang Pendek, the short ones, they are like the wind, or the dirt beneath the jungle trees. They are everywhere at once, impossible to stop. They steal away children, sometimes grown men, into the forest, and we never hear from them again." He fingered the kris at his belt. "I am sorry, captain."
"Well, I'll not be taking your word for it, my friend," Dice said. He looked back at the jungle. "Your island can't be that large. What say we send a few of me boys into yonder jungle, and see what they can turn up? I won't just accept that a bunch of bleeding monkeys stole away my cabin lad, by thunder!"
Moll drew out her musketoon. "I'll go first," she cried. "I'll tear apart the goddamned jungle apart, inch by bloody inch, until I find him!" She looked over at the pirates. "Come on! Which one of you lousy scallywags is man enough to go with me?"
Dice turned to here. "Easy, Moll," he said. "Ye won't be doing Hebert any favors by charging on in after him." He looked back to Itam. "Ye have got a score of good fighters to your command, Itam. They must this jungle well. Why not send them off?"
"They would not be enough," Itam explained. "Too much area to explore, and the Orang Pendek know every inch of it. They travel through holes in the earth, through the wind itself. They would cut us down before we could get too far."
"Then we'll need more men," Gentleman Jacoby suggested. He looked at Dice and shrugged his shoulders. "Captain, do you recall those fellows who we battled earlier on this fine afternoon? The Bajau Laut I think they were called?"
Slowly, Captain Dice nodded as he realized the purpose to Jacoby's inquires. "Ye speak of an alliance?" he asked. "Against the Orang Pendek?" Dice stroked his beard as he considered the question. "Aye, that would help, but I know not if our hosts would be so happy to fight alongside the very foes whose heads they bedeck their homes with as decoration!" He turned to the Sea Dayak chief. "What say you, Itam? Will ye be willing to remove the stain of the Orang Pendek from your lands, if ye must fight alongside the Bajau Laut?"
"We have made alliances with them in the past," Itam explained. "And it would be a great boon to slaughter the Orang Pendek to the last…" He considered it. "I will take a dhow and sail out to their fleet. But I must ask for one of your men to accompany me, so the Bajau Laut know it is not trickery."
"I'll go with you, then," Jacoby said, adjusting his cravat. "Better than traipsing through some filthy jungle anyway." He walked off with Itam, along with a score of the Sea Dayak warriors.
Captain Dice watched them go and turned to Moll, but saw she and several others were already charging into the forest, hacking at low hanging branches with their blades as if they were the necks and chests of enemies, and clearing a blunt path through the greenery. Dice ran after Moll, and soon came to stand next to her.
"Ahoy, Moll!" he shouted. "Slow down, or you'll likely to cut Herbert in half as likely as stumble upon him! Ease your passions, and do the job right!"
Moll turned at him, and Dice saw the scowl of purest rage burning on her dirt-smeared face. "It's my own bloody fault," she whispered. "I'm supposed to be looking out for the boy, and it's me own stupidity what lets him get dragged off by a bunch of little ape men."
"Now, Moll, ye know that's but a damnable lie," Dice said gently. "Ye have looked out for Herbert as would his own mother, more so in fact, and ye care for him right, I think." He patted the shoulder of his second mate. "It be a dangerous life, the pirate's one, but with a guardian like yourself about, it should be a safe as some rich fellow's nursery for young Herbert."
But Moll merely snorted. "Let us find him, captain, and then we'll see how safe the Rogue's Pleasure is for our cabin boy."
She went back to hacking through the greenery, joined by Ibrahim, Gabriel Ghost, Achak O'Toole and the rest of the crew, all shouting out Herbert's name as they looked through the jungle. Rebuse the Slaughterer joined them, holding a machete in each hand, and none yelled louder than he, or searched with a greater ferocity.
He looked up at the sky, and it was he who spotted the pillar of black smoke, rising up to the heavens like a winding, dark serpent. "Aha!" he shouted. "My friends, look at that! See, Herbert and Van Reeper – they create a signal, to show us where they are!"
Gabriel Ghost looked at the smoke and nodded. "They are quite resourceful," he said. "It appears to be sprouting from the jungle several leagues in a westerly direction. Let us proceed there, and see what we may find."
Captain Dice withdrew his cutlass. "Be on your guard, men!" he cried. "The Orang Pendek may be small, but they seem like clever monkeys and fierce fighters. We'll need our wits about us, by thunder!" He pulled out one of his volley pistols, and cocked the weapon in anticipation for the coming battle. "And we've only our own steel to preserve us until Jacoby and the Bajau Laut arrive!"
So saying, the pirates wandered off into the jungle, heading in the direction of the pillar of smoke, to rescue Herbert from the claws of the Orang Pendek.
For Herbert Welkins-Bulwer, Theophilius Van Reeper, and Klaus Strickenbocker, the creation of the pillar of smoke proved a difficult task. Herbert took Pip to the edge of the cage and let the lemur squeeze through the bars, as soon as the Orang Pendek weren't looking. Strickenbocker watched them, narrating in terse sentences what they were doing.
"They are heating the fire on which they will cook us," Strickenbocker whispered. "They tossing in the wood, and boiling the water. They are cutting up fruits, which they will serve along our mangled limbs."
"Hush, you fool!" Van Reeper cried, and looked back to Herbert and Pip. "They're busy," he whispered. "Now!"
"All right," Herbert agreed. "Pip, go on now." He pressed the thin stick into Pip's little claw, and set the lemur outside of the cage. Strickenbocker and Theophilius Van Reeper gathered around the cage and stared out at the lemur, watching as he scampered along the ground.
One of the Orang Pendek, a barrel-chested ape holding a large war club, spotted Pip and let out a low groan. He ran towards the lemur, swinging his club wildly. Herbert gasped in fear, but Pip leapt over the Orang Pendek's head, landing on the dirt behind him, right before the fire.
Pip placed his stick into the fire, until it began to blaze. Swiftly, Pip tossed it into the pile of burning leaves, and then ran from a horde of Orang Pendek coming behind him. The blazing brand fell into the pile of leaves, and soon they began to smolder, sending up great gouts of smoke. Meanwhile, the Orang Pendek ran after Pip, hooting and screeching in simian rage.
"Pip!" Herbert cried out for his lemur as the Orang Pendek closed in. One of them grabbed Pip's tale and dragged the lemur to him. Pip squeaked and struggled, and sunk his teeth into the furry hands holding him. The Orang Pendek released him, and Pip sprang into the air, and landed on the roof of one of the huts.
Hooting in anger, the Orang Pendek hurled spears and flint axes at the roof, and Pip narrowly scampered out of the way.
"You show them, lemur!" Van Reeper cried. "Give them a run, fight those damned apes! You can do it, my furry friend!"
"Be careful, Pip!" Herbert shouted, worried for the safety of his beloved pet. "Don't get too close to them! Get into the jungle and hide!"
The lemur dashed for the safety of the jungle, but just as it reached the border of the green sanctuary, an Orang Pendek grabbed his tail and yanked him backwards. This time, the Orang Pendek held its flint knife to Pip's throat, and the lemur stopped struggled and lay still. Herbert sobbed and reached through the bars, a futile attempt to save his pet from certain death, but the Orang Pendek merely prepared to drive the dagger into Pip's chest.
But before the lemur could finish the lemur, a musketoon thundered, and the Orang Pendek sank backwards, its gray-furred head blown to pieces. Moll Bennet stepped into the village, as Pip scampered towards her. She held out her hand and caught it, then pointed her musketoon at the rest of the Orang Pendek.
"Over here!" she shouted. "I found them, you scuts! I bleeding found it!" she cocked her musketoon and fired again as the Oran Pendek charged. Moll cradled Pip close to her and drew her fascine knife, gritting her teeth as she meant the apes in bloody combat. She struck out with the knife, drawing blood with each swipe and driving the Orang Pendek back. The simian devils hooted and screeched with their primitive bloodlust, clambering over each other as they attempted to bring Moll down.
"Moll!" Herbert cried. He looked back at Van Reeper and Strickenbocker. "Don't worry," he said. "We are rescued."
Following Moll, the rest of the Rogue's Pleasure corsairs charged from the jungle and entered the bloody fray. Their blades swung into the chests and faces of the waist high Orang Pendek, hacking through gray fur and tearing the simian bodies apart. Gabriel Ghost wielded his sword cane, Ibrahim fired his musket into their swelling ranks, and Captain Dice slashed about with his cutlass, crying wordlessly as the Orang Pendek threatened to overwhelm them in a gray tide of fur, fangs, and flint-tipped weapons.
Then, a flurry of flaming arrows flew into the small huts of the Orang Pendek village. Dice looked up and saw Gentleman Jacoby, leading an army of Bajau Laut and Sea Dayak warriors from the other side of the village, sweeping aside the Orang Pendek in their way. Dice shouted aloud, and raised his bloody cutlass in a salute to Itam and Jacoby. Itam was already taking the head of one of the Orang Pendek as a trophy.
Meanwhile, Theophilius Van Reeper swung his tomahawk into the sides of the cage, hewing aside the wood until it was big enough for him to slip through. "Herbert!" he cried. "Come on! Let us leave this place!"
"Thank you, Mr. Van Reeper!" Herbert cried. He grabbed Strickenbocker's arm and helped him to the edge of the cage. Strickenbocker did not resist, and soon all of them stood outside. An Orang Pendek ran to stop them, screeching as it charged with its spear pointed low. Van Reeper hurled his tomahawk, burying it in the charging ape's forehead.
The fires were burning higher now, laying the Orang Pendek village low. Many of them died screaming in the blaze, while others died before the blades and pistols of the pirates and Malay natives. A few ran off into the forest, screeching and pawing at their singed fur. Before long, the Orang Pendek were defeated for good.
Herbert stepped out of the cage and spotted Moll. "Moll! Pip!" he cried, running towards her. She embraced him, and Pip crawled over Herbert's shoulder and took his normal place. Herbert scratched Pip's ears. "Good boy," he whispered. "You are an excellent creature."
Strickenbocker limped towards them, and Moll raised her fascine knife. "Oi!" she shouted. "Not another step, or I'll have this stuck in your guts, you dastard!"
The inventor took a step back and held out his arms. "Then kill me, woman," he whispered. "Kill me and end this torment that you call life!"
"No, Moll!" Herbert said. He stepped between them. "Mr. Strickenbocker, he has something very important to tell you, to tell all of the crew of the Rogue's Pleasure. He knows things about the Illuminati Grand Master, and he has agreed to help us defeat him."
Captain Dice approached, pointing his cutlass at Strickenbocker. "Be this true?" he asked.
Strickenbocker slowly nodded. "I'll tell you what I have done, and after that you may do as you wish. I know longer care, for it will not matter. The Grand Master's domination over this world, this very plane of existence perhaps, is a foregone conclusion." He told them everything he had told Herbert and Van Reeper, and the pirates of the Rogue's Pleasure gathered around and heard him. When he had finished, Strickenbocker sank to the ground and fell silent.
Dice turned to Ghost. "Mr. Ghost, do ye give any credence to these ramblings? Could some machine learn of the magical arts?"
"I have never heard of such a thing," Ghost said, scratching his pale chin. "But I see no reason why not. And it makes a cold kind of sense. A man's mind cannot embrace too many cosmic secrets, and it will cause him to go mad. But a machine? One with no soul, only cold logic to its mind? It would only feel the need to learn more."
"And that's how it bested the Comte de St. Germain!" Jacoby whispered.
They all stood in silence, wondering what to do next, especially when faced with such a dangerous foe. The Bajau Laut and the Sea Dayak, their temporary alliance already fading, quickly returned to the jungle, taking what trophies they could with them. Captain Dice did not even notice them go.
Finally, Dice looked up and regarded his crew. "If ye want out, then ye shall have it, and no complaining from me, or fellows calling ye a traitor to the crew or the code. It's always been that with me crew, and I ain't about to change it now, by thunder! We be sailing right into Hell's mouth, and I know not of the end of it. So if ye be wanting out, just walk away, and I'll not give ye another glance."
He waited, and no pirate made a move to leave. Captain Dice merely nodded. "Aye," he said. "I knew I choose me crew wisely, that I did. Well, let us away to the ship. We sail with the tide."
And with that, the crew of the Rogue's Pleasure returned to their ship, ready to sail out against the Grand Master of the Illuminati, and all the terrors he could bring against them.