The Ends of the Earth I: The Sun-Blasted Sands

Michael Panush

Pliny Periwinkle could smell Lord Dascombe Depeur for several seconds before he made his appearance. Lord Depeur was a nobleman from the Blessed Empire of the Holy Cross, and he spurned the religious orthodoxy of his country in exchange for a foppish appearance that made him the rival of a parrot for color and a skunk for scent. The sickly sweet smell of snuff floated through the dusty mud brick tavern, followed by a curious almost floral aroma. Pliny turned his head, pushing his glasses up on his thin nose as he saw Lord Dascombe approach their table, in all of his finery.

He wore a frock coat of purple and gold, a matching waistcoat and carefully arranged cravat. He doffed his feathered tricorne, revealing a snow white wig to match his snow white face. Even in the harsh heat of Sun Port, his composure remained icily calm. He folded his hands over the spherical topper of his walking stick and raised a monocle to one eye, so that he could regard the pirates.

"Captain Burns," he said, smiling slightly. "Well met."

Burns sat across from Lord Dascombe at the end of the table. The alehouse around them was bright, but dusty, with pitiless sunlight scorching in from a high window. Local ruffians in turbans and sand-stained robes lurked in the corners, fingering their scimitars and moustaches, while traders and pirates enjoyed the shade and cool drinks as a respite from the constant sun of the Pharonic Lands. The crew of the Fortune's Fancy had entered the alehouse nearly an hour before, selected a table and waited. Lord Dascombe was late, but Captain Nikos Burns assured his crew that it was worth it.

Burns leaned forward over the table, his pointed nose and stubble-laden chin arching over the several empty clay jars of potent desert beer. "The pleasure is mine, Lord Depeur. When you mentioned the wonderful word 'payment,' why, my heart beat just a tad quicker." He leaned back, a satisfied smile on his impish face. "For that, Lord Depeur, my hearty lads will sail to the ends of the earth – and beyond!"

"I'm glad you think so." Lord Depeur reached a hand into his frock coat. "I am sorry to say my family fortunes have been somewhat depleted, as of late. The unfortunate results of a very…active lifestyle." He licked his bloodless lips.

Tarsby snorted. "Wine, women and perfume, eh, Dascombe?" he asked. "And if you're out of clink, how you gonna afford our expensive services?"

Depeur withdrew a tattered papyrus scroll. He set it carefully on the table and smiled at the pirates. "That, my scaled little friend, lies within the folds of this marvelous little scrap of parchment. I procured it while gaming at cards the other day, and believe it to be the answer to all my woes – and yours." He pointed to the inked drawings that covered the paper, which showed thin lines leading across a trackless desert split by a wide blue waterway. "It's a treasure map."

A hallowed hush fell upon the pirates. Pliny had seen them laugh at the name of god and curse the dangers of the deep, but a treasure map was something else for them. It was sacred. Pliny looked to Captain Burns, who removed his battered tricorne as he examined the map. "By the Green God's seaweed beard!" he whispered. "So it is!"

"And what does it lead to?" There was even a trace of excitement in the taciturn Od Blue-Axe. "What treasure will we find at its end?"

"That's what I am quite interested in," Lord Depeur explained. "It's the Dragon's Fang. They say the Pharonics forged it in the days when they were the only ones in the Oddest Sea. They received it as a gift from Set, the dark god of the desert who they turned to in the days after they were sucked away from their homeland, and with his power, they kept dominion over the beasts of the land – and the serpents of the sea."

"So it lets you control animals or something?" Pliny wondered. Spot, his pet Polar Redclaw, sat curled up at his feet, lapping from a bowl of goat's milk. A magical charm that helped him control Spot would make Pliny's life more than a little easier.

"A story, lad, nothing more than the superstitious ramblings of these Egyptian fools," Lord Depeur explained. "But to think of the worth of such an object – some jewel encrusted, gold-lined ornament that must have held the eye of some Pharonic priest in the old days. It will fetch a fortune, of that I am certain." He nodded to Captain Burns as he pulled away the map. "And I'll gladly share it with you, my good captain. Provided you take me down the New Nile, follow the particular tributary leading to the specific tomb, and retrieve it for me."

"We have a bargain, then," Burns said, holding out his hand.

As they shook, Lord Depeur's smile slowly disappeared, like it was slipping under a tide of concern. He looked over his shoulder. "There is another factor, which I suppose I must mention," he said. The door of the tavern creaked open, and Pliny looked at the dark figure that stood silhouetted in the doorway. It was very short, and was not alone. "Others know that I have the map. They desire the Dragon's Fang and they are quite willing to get their hands dirty in order to obtain it."

The door swung back, crashing like sudden thunder against the doorway. A short statured creature stepped inside, followed by half-a-dozen of its fellows. They stood only a head taller than short Pliny Periwinkle, and had skin like green, crinkled seaweed and eyes like glowing moonlight. They wore dark crimson jackets and slickers, and Pliny saw serrated daggers and sword gleam in the low light.

"Sea Gherkins," Burns muttered. "You've got a pack of these little devils after you, Depeur?"

"What are Sea Gherkins, sir?" Pliny whispered to Od, as the band of green creatures walked slowly through the crowded tavern.

Od looked darkly at them, fingering the wooden handle of his mighty war axe. "They are mercantile creatures, serving whoever has the gold to pay them," Od explained. "They are craven little fiends, but cruel and cunning, and when they are in a battle they know they will win, they will fight like Frost Giants."

The leader of the Sea Gherkins removed his shapeless cloth cap, revealing long pointed ears drooping from the weight of numerous gold earrings. He smiled, revealing a mouth full of gold teeth. "Hello there, Depeur," he said, his voice squeaking with malice. "What a nice surprise, finding you in this den of iniquity."

Lord Depeur shrugged. "I think the atmosphere is charming," he retorted. "Except for your presence, Prissly Snullsuck."

Snullsuck snorted. He pulled a dagger from his coat and looked up at Pliny. "Look at that," he muttered. "You're almost as short as us, boy. Reckon I'll make you shorter still." He lunged forward, the serrated edge of his knife forming a silver blur as it reached for Pliny's throat.

But Od Blue-Axe was faster still. The Viking came to his feet, swinging his axe with all of his might at Snullsuck. The gherkin stepped backwards, squeaking in panic as his dagger fell to the ground – along with a pair of his fingers. The other Gherkins hissed and snarled as they reached for their own knives, and the fight was on. Od turned to meet them, his axe lashing back and forth in lethal arcs, and hacking off the heads of two Gherkins in that many seconds.

The tavern erupted into conflict, all the barflies surging forward to get a piece of the action. Captain Burns upended the table, letting clay jars fall and crash to the ground in a staccato clatter. Pliny stood up, swooping up Spot in his arms and trying to find the door. "Captain!" he cried, as a Gherkin shot a musket through the window and blasted apart one of the amphora jars along the wall. "We better leave!"

"Grand idea, Pliny, my lad!" Burns cried, peeking out from behind the overturned table and firing his own brace of pistols. The flintlocks clattered and the Gherkin gunner fell dead, a bullet wedged through his skull. Tarsby had his hook sword out and was clearing a path, fighting with the blade and his claws against the Gherkin daggers.

They headed for the door, keeping Lord Depeur between Captain Burns and Od, while Pliny stayed with Tarsby. Burns drew his cutlass, holding the Sea Gherkin back with quick flashing strikes. The Gherkin cracked away with flintlocks as Burns kicked open the door and stepped into the busy street of Sun Port. Pliny kept his head down, his hand on his newsboy cap, as bullets flashed around them.

Burns pointed down the street. "Lord Depeur, I think it would be best if you left with us. There's nothing awaiting you in this fine city but a shallow grave in the desert sands!" He started hurrying down the alley, running past the panicked camels from a recently arrived caravan. Pliny and the crew of the Fancy followed, moving between the brightly colored stalls and their hawkers, the lines of slaves bound for the seaside market, and the occasional Pharonic noble in a perfumed and shaded litter, causing panic and chaos with the sight of their weapons.

They broke into a run, hearing the snarling hisses of the Sea Gherkin behind them. Burns pointed ahead, and Pliny saw the welcoming green waters of the wide river, the New Nile, at the end of the colorful market. Pliny's legs started to ache and his felt sweat beading his forehead and the back of his neck.

"Just a hair forward, me brave boys!" Burns shouted, turning to deliver a parting shot to the Sea Gherkin. "And then freedom, sweeter than spiced rum!" He hurried forward, running to the quays that jutted out into the dark green water, mingling with tall reeds and palms. The Fortune's Fancy lay at anchor at a nearby dock, it smokestack letting out thin curls of darkness to the bright blue sky.

But as Burns neared the docks, a Sea Gherkin leapt at him a nearby stall, landing on his shoulders and knocking him to the ground. Burns cursed and tried to raised his scimitar, but the Sea Gherkin had already pressed the edge of a dagger to the captain's throat. Od held his axe high, Tarsby pulled back his hook sword, and even Lord Depeur gripped his cane, but there was nothing they could do.

"Cut you open, captain!" the Sea Gherkin snarled. "Watch your juices run out!"

But before he could slit Burns' throat, a squawking mass of feathers came screaming down from the sky like a shabby comet. It was Feathers, the parrot and pilot of the Fortune's Fancy. The parrot barreled into the Sea Gherkin's side, knocking him off of the pirate captain and lashing out with claws and beak. "Unhand the captain! Unhand the captain!" Feathers shrieked, fluttering back and falling on the ground in a heap.

"Feathers, you lovely fowl," Burns cried, pulling out his cutlass and holding it at the Gherkin's chest. "I owe you my life, twice over." He looked down at the Sea Gherkin. "And as for you, my friend, you're in a pretty spot indeed. Who hired you? Spill your guts, or I'll spill them for you!"

The Sea Gherkin gulped. "Was the Conch Club!" he shrieked, his eyes flashing to the fallen dagger in the nearby dust. "They want the map! Or the Fang! You won't survive, sea rat! The Conch Club will see to that!"

Pliny had heard of the Conch Club. They were occultists, magi, and wizards who delved into the secrets of the Oddest Sea, for the interests of knowledge and their own power. Many of them were connected to the wealthy and powerful New Atlantis Company, which served as the mercantile arm of the Holy Empire.

Burns shook his head. "The Conch Club!" he hissed. "Ask a footpad or a cutpurse who hires them and they'll squawk out the Conch Club's name!" He pressed down the cutlass, making the Gherkin squeal. "Give me another name!"

"Periwinkle!" the Sea Gherkin cried and Pliny felt like a sledge hammer had struck him in the face. He stared at the Sea Gherkin, who nodded rapidly. "Aye, Lord Periwinkle of the Conch Club! He'll find you! He'll gut you! Mark my words!" The Gherkin dove for his fallen dagger, grabbing the bone handle and rearing up to strike at Burns. But the pirate was faster. His sword flashed out, cutting into the Gherkin's shoulder and cleaving him wide.

Pliny looked away, a hundred different feelings leaving him in a rush. His parents had died at sea years before, but could they have been sucked into the world of the Oddest Sea? Could one of them be pulling the strings of the Conch Club?

"He said Periwinkle," Pliny said. "That's my name."

"A startling turn of events, lad, and no mistake," Burns said. He held out his arm and Feathers fluttered onto his shoulder. "We'll discuss it later. For now, we must away!" He hurried for the gangplank of the Fancy, his crew close behind.

They dashed onto the Fortune's Fancy, and Pliny already had prepared to weigh anchor and sail. With just a few punches of buttons and pulls of levers, the Fancy steamed away from the quay of Sun Port, and sailed down the wide emerald waters of the New Nile. The Sea Gherkin ran to the edge of the pier and watched them leave, cursing and spitting as their prey slipped away.

The New Nile wound through a wide desert, with smaller rivers and creeks snaking away and vanishing into the seemingly endless sands. Both sides of the great river thronged with life, from the long mazes of tall marsh reeds and palms to the crocodiles and hippos, some bearing the jewelry of the Pharonic priests, who sported about in the shallows. Elegant many-plumed egrets made their way carefully through the marshes, while the great Wadjet serpents, their glowing third eyes like second suns, slithered through the mud.

Pliny leaned on the railing, seeing as much as he could of the strange sights. He watched the Fortune's Fancy steam along, gazing at the ever undulating wake left behind the clankship. He looked up into the sky as a flock of egrets soared over the Fancy, their feathers as white as clouds in the blue sky. Spot reared up on his hind legs, barking and squeaking angrily at the birds.

"He does like a fair tussle now and again, eh, lad?" Captain Burns' warm and confident voice came from behind. Pliny turned around and smiled as his captain joined him. Burns had his tricorne in his hand and sniffed deeply of the river air. "Smell that mud," he said, shaking his head. "The stuff of empires, lad. Agriculture and farming, building up mighty civilizations from the dust of the earth. Of course, I'd much rather find a great deal of gold, a bottle of rum, and a wench that knows how to…" he trailed off and looked at Pliny. "You look like you've been sipping saltwater, Pliny. What's ailing you?"

The boy spoke slowly, inwardly wincing as he repeated difficult memories. "My parents," he said. "My family. The Sea Gherkin said he was working for someone named Lord Periwinkle." He gulped. "Maybe, just maybe, it could be my father. Or my mother, I don't know."

"They were lost at sea, were they not?" Burns asked, resting a fatherly hand on Pliny's shoulder.

"Yes, sir."

"A shame." Burns looked off the railing, into the green water. His excitable manner was gone. "I never knew my own father. He stopped off into a port, produced me and sailed away without care nor qualms. A worthy start for a bastard pirate captain, I suppose."

Pliny wasn't sure what to say to that. He nodded quickly. "Well, I'm worried that maybe my parents are alive and in the Conch Club. Then they'd be villains, sorcerers who would murder and destroy for a chance at magical power. I mean, cripes, I wouldn't want that!" He sighed. "But I do want them alive."

"It's a right tough conundrum, lad," Burns said. "My advice? Set your mind at ease. There's nothing for it but to wait and see, gathering more information of the truth of the matter. Until then, put it forth from your mind and focus on the task at hand."

"That sounds like a good idea," Pliny agreed. Periwinkle wasn't exactly a common name, but it was still possible that it could be some bizarre coincidence. Also, Sea Gherkins were treacherous little devils, and there was no trusting them. Pliny decided quickly that the best course of action was to concentrate on his duties as cabin boy of the Fancy. He had to keep his ship and crew safe, clean, and prepared for anything.

He shielded his eyes from the sun and looked forward across the river. Something glimmered there, like gold along the banks. He heard the splash of water and turned back to his captain. "I think there's some kind of vessel coming towards us," he said. He looked back and nodded. "Yeah," he muttered. "There's a lot of them. And they're not really vessels…"

These were the Pharonic priests, the guardians of their sacred river of the New Nile. They came on gilded rafts and barges with elegantly sloping prows, painted in bright crimsons and blues and decorated with the heads of desert animals. A variety of tame hippos and crocodiles, adorned with jewelry that clanked as they swam, towed the barges and rafts, snorting and hissing as their drivers tugged at their reins. The Pharonic priests themselves were a dour bunch of men in white robes and belts of gold, their uniforms as simple as their vessels were gaudy. But the brutally practical sickle knives, barbed arrows and short curved bows proved that they were willing to defend the New Nile with more than prayers.

Burns nodded at the priests, running back from the railing. "Stay there and bandy words with them, lad. I'll fetch the others. We'll find a way out of this, by thunder!" He patted the handle of his cutlass. "If not, well, a few whiffs of grapeshot should end their little blockade. Though we may all be pierced by arrows and fed to their beasties in the process."

"W-what should I do?" Pliny asked, nervousness lending a tremor to his voice. "Just talk with them?" The priests were getting closer, some of them notching arrows to their bows as they sailed into range. Spot snorted and growled at Pliny's feet. "Just chat with them? What should I talk about?"

"Oh, the usual subjects of conversation," Burns suggested, slamming open the hatch and reaching down for the ladder. "You know, your names and your voyages, the weather – and why they should not kill us."

The hatch slammed shut and Pliny was alone on the deck. He turned back slowly to look at the Egyptians, gulping down his fear as he approached them. Pliny bowed his head. "Hello there," he said. "So, this weather's pretty hot, right? It's very dry."

In the foremost barge, one of the priests raised a golden rod topped with a shining crystal. His bald head was covered with regimented tattoos, making him look like a hieroglyphic painting come to life. He wore a simple yellow headdress, with a glowing topaz jewel in the center.

He nodded to Pliny. "Ra, blessed be he, spreads his sunlight across our realm. It is from his chariot that the desert is made hot and we thank him for it."

"Yeah," Pliny said. "That's real nice of him."

The priest slammed his staff on the deck of his barge. "But you have wandered into his holy land. What do you here? And why should we not kill you, and grind up your bones so that your ghosts wander without a home for all eternity?"

"Don't do that!" Pliny cried. He tried to think of something to say, but he guessed the truth would only cause more problems. These priests valued the tombs and resting places of their forebears, and telling them that the pirates were planning on a good amount of grave-robbing would surely earn them a speedy and painful death. Pliny thought quickly as Spot tugged at his pants leg. Absently, he reached down and picked up the Redclaw.

Instantly, the priest's eyes widened, and then lowered respectfully from Spot. "By the beak of Horus!" he cried. "You have a creature of Sekhmet, the Cat Goddess of War and Destruction!" He nodded to his men and they lowered their weapons and averted their eyes. "Forgive me, O bearer of Sekhmet's beloved!" he cried.

Pliny nodded, remembering a little information from his mythology class. Sekhmet was the Egyptian War Goddess, a fearsome lioness. The Egyptians held all cats as sacred animals, and a Polar Redclaws, with its snow white fur, bright red teeth and claws, and long tail, would seem some exotic and heavenly beast.

"We just want to go past," Pliny said. "Just, well, sail over to the banks and we'll go past."

"But what can we do to honor the beloved of Sekhmet?" the priest asked.

Before Pliny could answer, Captain Burns stepped back onto the deck. Feathers was perched on his shoulder and Pliny thought quickly. "Feathers, the bird on that guy's shoulder, he's beloved of Thoth, the god of wisdom," he explained. "We're just shepherding them through the desert. Isn't that right, Captain?"

Burns nodded quickly. "Aye, aye," he agreed. "Show them how bleeding smart you are, Feathers."

"I am the smartest being on this vessel," Feathers said. "I can say that with a great deal of certainty."

"Then you shall pass, and go with our blessings and thanks." The priest shouted orders to his men, and they hastily cleared the river, allowing the Fancy to sail by. Pliny watched as the ornate river creatures pulled aside the barges, and once more the wide New Nile was clear.

Burns motioned to the hatch and Pliny followed him down the hatch. Captain Burns patted him on the shoulder, hard enough to make the boy stumble, when he reached the cockpit. Od, Tarsby and even Lord Depeur stood there, all armed and ready for battle.

"Quick thinking, lad! Quick as lightning in a storm!" Burns smiled at his crewmen, motioning for them to lower their weapons. "That was damn smart, making like we was a pack of priests shuttling around these animals. The priesty types let us pass with no trouble and for now – according to your precious map, Lord Depeur – it's a straight journey to the tomb."

"Most excellent!" Lord Depeur agreed, relief on his powdered face. He smiled at Pliny and pumped the boy's hand. But then he stopped, his grin vanishing. "Of course, that does bring up the terrible question of what we are to do upon our return?"

The crew of the Fancy all exchanged a worried glance. The priests didn't appear to be suspicious, but to see them taking the sacred animals in one direction and then in the other, would doubtlessly cause confusion and could perhaps earn them the enmity of these Nile guardians.

Od gripped his axe tightly, the only answer needed. They sailed on, heading down the wide river to their hidden destination.

The moon was like a round opal over the New Nile when they finally reached the tomb. Lord Depeur stood on the quarterdeck, holding up the tattered piece of papyrus while the moonlight made his powdered face seem even paler. He nodded almost imperceptibly to Captain Burns, who called down to Feathers in the hold.

"Set down the anchor! We have reached the end of our little river voyage!" Captain Burns moved along the railing, joining Tarsby and Od, who were already ready to disembark. "Think of it, me hearties!" he cackled. "An emperor's ransom of riches, just waiting to be clutched by our dirty fingers! And all we must do is take a little jaunt underground and pull some Dragon's Fang from a crumbling dust heap!"

Pliny stood with them, his coat pulled around him and buttoned, and his dagger in its case. A cold wind blew off the desert, and Pliny had a fearful feeling that procuring the Dragon's Fang would not be an easy task. He heard the gangplank crash down onto the soggy mud of the riverbank, and shuddered quietly.

The crew checked their weapons, Lord Depeur checked his map, and then they set off. Feathers had the ship, and he landed on the railing and watched them go, squawking unheeded warnings as they stepped into the sand. "You won't come back! You'll be food for vultures and I'll be food for crocodiles! One chomp and I'll be gone!" Feathers whined. "Be careful!" he added, worried as a mother about her children.

"We will, thank you!" Pliny called back to the bird. He stepped into the sand, following Od and Captain Burns as they walked away from the green river, and into the endless desert. Lord Depeur trotted ahead of all of them, the map held up to his face.

After several minutes of a seemingly random stroll through the desert, Lord Depeur pointed to a protruding palm tree with his cane. "Thither," he said. "It lies."

The pirates hurried to the palm tree and examined it. Sure enough, there was a square hole, kept clear of sand, carved near the base of the palm tree. Three stone steps, worn smooth by the centuries, led into the darkness. Captain Burns was the first to step down, holding a glowing torch high to cast long shadows in a dark hall.

He turned to look back at his crew. "This way," he said, and they followed him into the darkness.

Pliny felt the closeness of the walls around him, and the darkness that seemed to seep in through the ancient stone. He looked at the faded hieroglyphics that covered the walls as the hall angled downwards and led them deeper underground. They were clear warnings, featuring the leering faces of animal-headed demons and gods, and the bodies of intruders roasting in spectral fires.

The hall widened, with chambers leading off into different tombs. The air grew brighter as well, and Pliny brushed his fingers against the wall and they came away glowing green. He realized some slightly luminous fungus must have grown here, providing an eerie glow to the tomb. Strange forms lay reclining on thin wooden couches in the corners of the chamber or standing at guard with long spears and round shields. They were mummies, wrapped round in many layers of cobwebs so they seemed like motionless pale ghosts in frozen fog.

"Kind of creepy…" Pliny said, keeping his voice to a whisper, though there was no one to hear him.

"The Pharonics venerate their dead," Od explained, his own voice quiet. "It seems odd that they would leave them here, to spend eternity as guards for some artifact."

"Then, hopefully, the loot is worth a lot of lucre," Tarsby said. "It better be, to make us drag ourselves across the goddamn dry desert."

Burns pointed to the end of the hall, where a stone passageway led to a final chamber. "This way!" Burns said, slashing at a curtain of cobwebs to clear the way. They walked into the final chamber, staring into the corners of the wide room. A fantastic area of riches, from golden idols to jeweled crowns, lay resting on faded velvet cushions and chipped pedestals.

At the center of the room was a throne, with the mummy of some forgotten desert king in full raiment sitting at mute attention. In his hands he bore the crook and flail of command, and wore a long necklace around his throat. Hanging from the end of the necklace, over his desiccated stomach, was the Dragon's Fang. It was an arm-long spike with sheer edges, all of some curious blue material that shone like turquoise in the torch's flickering light, but seemed as hard as steel.

Pliny gasped as he saw the shadows around them and in the corners of the final chamber move sinuously. One slithered near, and Pliny took a step back as he saw what it was, an instinctive shiver of fear running through his body like ice through his veins. It was a cobra, but as long and broad as some jungle python. The black scales shimmered in the low light, as one of the cobras slithered across the stone passageway to the throne. More of the great serpents coiled up around the treasures in the darkness, their hissing like the constant expulsion of steam.

"No need to be frightened of these wormy fellows!" Burns said helpfully. "They're mere beasts, more concerned with snapping up mice and rats to fill their bellies than stopping the likes of us from robbing this tomb."

"They must eat some awfully big mice and rats," Pliny said, grateful that he had left Spot on the Fancy. "And I thought Set, the god of desert beasts, controlled the Dragon's Fang. Maybe these snakes are his servants, and they're serving as guards." It was a strange statement, but it made a bizarre kind of sense, especially in the weird world of the Oddest Sea.

Lord Depeur shrugged as he approached the throne and the seated mummy. "Guards, serpents, armies of the dead – I knew retrieving this marvelous treasure would not be a simple task. That's why I hired you." He reached out, his hands shaking as his manicured fingers wrapped around the jagged edges of the tooth. "And at the present moment, my friends, I believe it is time to earn your pay."

He pulled the chain and the brittle metal snapped. Lord Depeur held up the Dragon's Fang, marveling at the pointed utility of the weapon. He slid it into his coat and turned to the pirates, his ecstatic expression fading back to his usual distaste for everything.

"There," he said. "That wasn't so dreadful, now was it?"

At that moment, all of the giant cobras attacked. They lashed out from their hiding place amidst the furniture and ornaments of the room, rearing up and spreading their hoods before lunging down with mouths open and venom-dripping fangs poised to bite into flesh. Captain Burns cursed as he swung his cutlass around, hacking a pair of snakes in half and letting their bodies writhe as he ran for the door.

A cobra lunged for Pliny, striking down to bury its fangs in his shoulder. Pliny leapt backwards, but the cobra was like dark lightning. It coiled around him, entangling Pliny's thin body within its scaly curves. Pliny gasped as it tightened, feeling his bones battered and his breath leave him. Od grabbed the side of the serpent and yanked it away, then slashed it in half with a single blow of his axe.

"To the door!" Burns cried, gesturing frantically with his torch. Lord Depeur was already running from the chamber of the serpents, clutching the Dragon's Fang tightly to his chest. Pliny followed him, with Tarsby close behind. A cobra lunged for Tarsby, but the Deep One spun about and smashed open its head with the butt of his lightning rifle. Od followed, and then Burns dashed out of the room.

But in the wide hallway that led to the tomb's exit, another obstacle rose to impede and destroy them. Pliny first felt a cold wind rushing past him from the chamber of the serpents, rustling his hair and making his back shiver. The strange breeze made the cobwebs dance, causing soft shadows to rise and fall across the tomb walls.

As one, the mummified guardians of the tomb came to a sudden, terrible life. Their ancient limbs cracked and straightened, as the cobwebs were torn away. Pliny saw spear points glisten in the low light of the luminous fungi and Burns' torch, as the soldier mummies moved forward to stop them. He looked into the dead eyes of the mummies, and saw only the merciless determination of the dead.

Captain Burns swung his cutlass up, parrying a round Egyptian axe seconds before it cracked into his skull. "Ten thousand blistering hells!" he swore. "What next? Will the walls themselves come up to attack us?"

"We are in the holds of their gods, captain," Od muttered, clearing a pathway with the cleaving edge of his battleaxe. "It would not surprise me." His axe cut through the dusty arms and spears of the mummies, sending their brittle pieces crashing across the room in dusty fragments. They fought forward slowly, each stepped earned after they hacked down the Pharonic guardians. Pliny stayed behind Od and Tarsby, while Lord Depeur kept near Captain Burns, wincing and moaning with each mummy's attack.

The battle was fast, deadly and brutal, with the wide shadows of the tomb hiding their attackers until the last moment. A mummy wielding a pair of stubby triangular daggers leapt forward, jumping into their midst and pulling back its blade to decapitate Depeur, who squealed like a wounded animal. Captain Burns swung his torch into the midsection of the mummy, and the orange flames danced quickly along the dry wrappings of the prepared corpse. The mummy continued fighting, ignoring the flames flickering across it as the fire spread.

"Not your best idea, captain!" Tarsby cursed, slashing off the mummy's head with a wave of his hook sword. "We'd best flee now, or we'll roast along with these withered old ragdolls!"

They ran down the hall, and Pliny felt waves of heat washing over him as fire spread through the tomb. Mummies, still consumed with the fire from Burns' torch, stepped into their path and tried to stop them, but Burns' cutlass, Od's axe and Tarsby's hook sword hacked them down with deadly speed. Pliny looked up through the curtains of flame and the falling cobwebs, and saw the night sky, with its full moon and twinkling stars, through the square entrance to the tomb. Never had the darkness of night seemed so welcoming.

"Almost there!" Burns cried, bashing a mummy's skull apart with the handle of his cutlass. "These worthless bilge rats won't stop us now!" He pulled out his flintlocks and opened fire, blasting apart the mummy in front of him.

Behind them, Pliny felt the heat suddenly grow in intensity. He looked over his shoulder and saw a smoldering mummy laying at the base of the wall, where the luminous fungi grew. The fire spread rapidly across the walls, like a growing spill of water. He realized they had seconds before the entire tomb was consumed in flame.

"Run!" Pliny cried. He grabbed Lord Depeur's arm and dashed for the exit. Od, Tarsby and Burns followed him, and they ran into the final group of mummies that stood between them and exit. Pliny didn't see much of the battle. He was aware of skeletal fingers, strangely soft, gripping his arm until he hacked them away with a slash of his dagger.

Then he was stepping out of the stone steps and into the moonlight. Pliny sank down to his knees, feeling the soft sand between his fingers. He looked back at Captain Burns, Lord Depeur, Od, and Tarsby joined him. Behind him, the Tomb of the Dragon's Fang burned. Smoke reached up in thin ribbons to the night sky, forming dark bands over the silvery moon.

Captain Burns leaned against a palm tree, letting his cutlass fall from his weary hand and clatter in the white sand. "Well," he said, looking back at the burning tomb. "We can't exactly put that gewgaw back where we found it, now can we?"

"There will be no need," Lord Depeur said, holding up the Dragon's Fang to the moonlight. "You have done your jobs well, my piratical friends. Soon fortunes unimaginable shall be mine. I already have a fence waiting for me in Sun Port, a delightful Tuskman by the name of Old McGill."

"You mean you don't have the coin to pay us now?" Tarsby asked. His lips curled back, revealing his curved teeth and he dragged his clawed hand through the sand. "That ain't how we do business, you dandy swindler!"

Depeur gulped. "I shall have your remuneration in due course," he said. "After I deliver the Dragon's Fang to Old McGill, I assure you that all the payment you desire shall be yours."

Pliny nodded. "We do trust you, Mr. Depeur. But we had better get out of here now. Just keep that thing safe until you trade it to Mr. McGill."

Only Od Blue-Axe took no interest in the Dragon's Fang. He looked at the smoke, rising into the sky, and then back at the river. "Captain," he said. "This is flat land. The smoke will be visible for miles. The priest must know of the tombs that lie in this desert. They will know we have desecrated one. They will try and stop us."

With a sigh, Captain Burns nodded. "Aye, there's a fair chance of that, I'll wager. The Pharonics will soon have all their beasties and boats in the New Nile, trying to block our passage, and they won't be up for bargaining now. We'll push through then, with cannons blazing."

They hurried back to the shore, moving swiftly through the sand. Pliny was tired and nervous, and his Buster Browns sank into the sand with each step, making it difficult to walk, but he pressed on, keeping the clankship in sight. The campfires of desert dweller flickered on the opposite bank and further down the river. Pliny could see moonlight on ornate barges, far down the New Nile.

The Pharonic priests were moving in to stop them, desperate to prove their fanatical devotion to the desert gods. Pliny gulped as he thought about the weapons wielded by the priests when he had seen them previously. The Fortune's Fancy was already preparing to leave, and the pirates hurried along the gangplank to make their way back to the deck.

Captain Burns slammed open the hatch leading to the cockpit while Tarsby ran to the gunnery chair on the quarterdeck. "Feathers, my ragged mate, how about sending us back up this fair river, eh?" he asked. "And with a fair bit of haste too, I should say!"

Pliny reached the deck and stood next to Od near the prow, while Lord Depeur hurried back to his chambers, clutching the Dragon's Fang and muttering to himself. Pliny realized that his hand had fallen to his dagger. He was used to battle now, and even though it shocked him, he knew there would be the crashing of ships, the thunder of cannons and the screams of dying men.

The smokestack of the Fancy belched out steam as she turned about and began sailing back up the New Nile. Burns moved to the quarterdeck and nodded to Tarsby. "The guns are ready?" he asked. "We'll pepper them with grape, then use round shot to cleave a hole in their blockade and sail through."

Wordlessly, Tarsby's clawed hand fell on the trigger. His lightning rifle rested next to him, ready to be fired into the mass of Pharonic priests.

"Captain?" Pliny asked, speaking suddenly. "Do you think we'll win?"

Burns shrugged. "Most of us shall make it through," he replied. "But that is the pirate's lot, isn't it? The merry life and the short one. We must be ready to die, at any time, for such is the price of true freedom. And soon enough, we'll have the fortune needed to make that freedom a reality."

The Fortune's Fancy continued down the Nile, and Pliny could see the torches of the Pharonic barges blocking the river, like a bridge of glowing dots of fire. He considered Captain Burns' words. Was his future in the Oddest Sea a grave at the bottom of some cursed sea? Or maybe there was some way the crew of the Fortune's Fancy could overcome the unpleasant end of seafaring adventurers? But a simple look at the Pharonic priests before them told Pliny that anything other than a swift death was unlikely.

The warrior priests notched arrows to their bows, lighting them with their torches, and raised their spears. Od pushed Pliny down, urging him to take cover, when the priests unleashed their salvo. But their arrows soared away from the Fancy, flying up the opposite end of the river. Pliny squinted into the darkness, trying to see what the priests were shooting at.

"Neptune's beard!" Burns cried. "A spot of luck!" He raised his spyglass to his eye and examined the scene. "The Sea Gherkins!" Burns laughed. "The green devils followed us! And the Pharonic priests, bless their hearts and their animal-headed gods, decided the Sea Gherkins are foes to be destroyed!"

He dashed forward, running to the hatch as he nodded to Pliny and Od. "Feathers!" Burns shouted. "Double our pace! No energy for the guns, we shan't need them yet! All to the engine and full speed ahead!"

"Captain!" Feathers cried. "We'll be sailing straight to—"

"Do as I say, you dust rag!" Burns ordered. He looked back to Pliny, Od and Tarsby. "Hold onto something, I suggest," he said. "And keep your heads down."

The Fortune's Fancy shot forward, cutting cleanly through the lime green water. Pliny stared forward, watching the rafts and barges of the Pharonic priests draw nearer. Beyond them, he could see the skiffs and sloop of the Sea Gherkins. They were rude vessels, cobbled together from bits of wood in a hundred shades of faded paint, and armed with falconets and small cannons. The Sea Gherkins had attacked the priests without even trying to parley, and were firing off muskets and pistols from the rigging while they struggled to prepare their cannons. As for the stoic priests, they kept their arrows aimed at the Gherkins, and didn't see the approach of the Fancy.

The clankship surged forward, its engine roaring like an enraged beast. The prow crashed into the thin line of barges and rafts, smashing them aside like wheat before a scythe. Some of the barges were simply pushed out of the way, their priestly sailors falling into the swift Nile, while one of the vessels fell before the plow and was cracked in half, the carefully painted wood joining its crew in the churning water.

Captain Burns stood on the prow, his cutlass pointed forward. The Sea Gherkin sloop was dead ahead, and they unleashed a panicked salvo against the Fancy. Pliny heard the whine as musket shot ricocheted off metal or punched into the sturdy hull of their ship. The falconets thundered away next, one shot cracking neatly into the side of the Fortune's Fancy, while another splashed into the water off the deck and raised a fountain of water.

Tarsby leaned forward from his perch in the gunnery chair. His hand tensed on the long lever to the main gun. "Now, skipper?" he asked.

"Now," Burns agreed. "Send those blighters to the bottom!"

With a malicious smile, Tarsby slammed down the lever and squeezed the trigger. All the guns on the Fancy spat to life, sending a wave of cannon fire against the Sea Gherkins. The cannon mounted in the prow of the Clankship thundered first, gouging a groove through the top deck of the Gherkin sloop – and all the Gherkin sailors in the way. Their shrieking squeals rose in a chorus of pain as the cannon shot tore away limbs, blasted through bodies, and turned the deck red.

Prissly Snullsuck ran to the prow of his ship, waving a fist at the pirates. "I'll hound you, sea rats!" he shrieked, as another cannon blast demolished the mast of his ship. "Mark my words, I'll be dragging blades across your cursed throats!"

The Fancy continued speeding forward, the cannons cracking away as clockwork mechanisms reloaded them in time. Pliny covered his ears as red water rose in fountains around them. The main Gherkin sloop took a blast of round shot in the water line and began to list heavily, the Sea Gherkin sailors leaping over aboard and swimming to shore.

In a single motion, Captain Burns sheathed his cutlass and smiled at his handiwork. Fires blazed on the sinking ships falling slowly into the New Nile, while the unlucky Sea Gherkins and priests tossed overboard contended with the hungry crocodiles and serpents of the waterways. Burns turned back to his crew and smiled at them.

"You've done damn well," he said. "All of you. And a reward is coming, one that will have us rolling in riches, I reckon." He reached out and patted Pliny's shoulder. "Now, back to your cabins with you, and sleep well, for you've earned it in your blood and sweat."

Pliny headed back with Od to the cabin they shared. "Do you think the captain's right?" Pliny asked to Od, keeping his voice low in the cozy darkness of their cabin. "All our troubles will be gone once Lord Depeur pays us for helping him get the Dragon's Fang?"

Od shrugged. "The Norns have much in store for us," he said. "I doubt their plans end here."

The cabin boy slipped into his bed and looked up at the dark ceiling as they steamed along, thinking of the peace their reward would bring them, and hoping that it would be long before their next terrifying battle. But he had a feeling that the Dragon's Fang was only the first step on a long road, one that would take them to the ends of the earth and cause no end of trouble.

They arrived in Sun Port the next day, and Lord Depeur led them into the warren of mud brick houses and colorful stalls that made up the great city's bazaar. Tarsby stayed close behind Lord Depeur, fingering the curved blade of his hook sword. Lord Depeur fiddled with his lacy cuffs and staff, the Dragon's fang wrapped in velvet cloth and tucked under his arm.

"Must you stay so close, Mr. Tarsby?" he inquired of the Deep One. "Your smell is intolerable."

"My scent will be the least of your worries if you try and swindle us, fancy fellow," Tarsby hissed. "Where exactly is this fence? Did Old McGill really make the journey up here from Sea Shanty Town? Or was you feeding us some codswallop?"

Lord Depeur smiled and pushed his wig back on his head. "I assure you, my friend, that is not the case." His grin widened as he waved a silken handkerchief into the air. "I see our substantially sized mutual friend, captain. Let us approach."

They walked down the narrow path between the stalls, passing merchants in from their caravans and trade fleets. At the far end, dressed in a formless black cloak that failed to hide his large bulk, was Old McGill. He was a Tuskman, with the flabby belly, long tusks and thick whiskers of a walrus. His tusks were covered in delicate scrimshaw carvings and he wore a red fez, the tassel stirring in the desert breeze. Old McGill leaned forward, his dark eyes grim.

"Ah, Lord Depeur," he said. "I am delighted to have found you. We must talk."

"Yes, we must," Depeur agreed. "I'm afraid I must double the price." He looked back at the pirates. "I believe that will make them happy, and you know well that the Dragon's Fang is worth an incalculable amount of riches."

Old McGill shrugged. "Change the price all you want, Lord Depeur, but it won't be doing you no good. I ain't buying." He lowered his head, his whiskers drooping with remorse. "I apologize, and it ain't like me to change my word, but I'm afraid there's nothing for it. As much as I love collecting artifacts like that Fang of yours and fencing them for a higher price, I love being alive a lot more. And this walrus ain't gonna be alive if he's dealing with that Dragon's Fang."

Captain Burns nodded, tapping his fingers nervously on the handle of his cutlass. "What's the situation then, eh?" he demanded. "Some other fellow forcing you out? We'll deal with them, my bucko, and no mistake about that!"

"Not these fellows," McGill said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "It's the Conch Club. They want that Dragon's Fang more than they want anything. And they're willing to do anything to get it. Back in Sea Shanty Town, when they sent a couple storm mages to blow up half the damn city and destroy you, they was only partially interested in something what was mostly worthless. But now they're all interested, and their bringing all their guns to bear. Everyone interested in the Dragon's Fang ought to back off sharpish."

Burns snorted, shaking his head. "Them Conch Club cretins ain't nothing but a bunch of perfumed dandies!" His fingers fastened around the handle of his cutlass. "Why, I could slay the lot of them before dinner, and have time for dessert!"

"You don't understand." McGill leaned forward, his eyes going wide. "I like you, Captain Burns. You're a good man, whether you're robbing graves or practicing the sweet trade, so I'll tell you the sad truth – the Conch Club ain't mucking about. They're sending in their top men, sorcerers who whisper in Neptune's ear and have him do their bidding! They're sending Mr. Prickle!"

The pirates exchanged a glance. Pliny had never heard the name before, but he could feel the shiver run along the pirates and Lord Depeur tugged at his collar. "Captain?" Depeur asked. Pliny realized that the foppish nobleman didn't quite know what to do.

"Doesn't matter," Burns said. "We won't give up. We're pirates, are we not? Brethren of the Coast. The wild sea is our home and danger is our life. We'll fight whoever the Conch Club sends again us, including that mawkin man Prickle!"

Old McGill shrugged his thick shoulders. "If you insist, captain. But if I were you, I'd chuck that Fang into the sea and sail for the horizon without looking back." He ponderously turned around, his bottom flippers flapping up sand as he walked. "I hope to do business again with you, captain!" he called, slipping into the crowd. "If you still live!"

Captain Burns fumed. He looked back at his crew. "These are black waters were sailing," he said. "If Mr. Prickle himself is involved, the Conch Club must not be fooling about. They want trouble, and we'll have to give it to them."

For a few seconds, all the pirates were silent. Lord Depeur moaned as he fiddled with his lacy cuffs and walking stick. Pliny sort of wanted to ask who Mr. Prickle was, but from the fear of his shipmates, he guessed that they had other things on their minds than giving him an answer. He stayed quiet and looked down at his shoes. Spot had remained aboard the Fancy, as he didn't want the disorderly Redclaw causing trouble with Old McGill, but Pliny missed his pet's companionship.

Then, Od spoke. He looked straight at his captain, his voice a deep rumble without emotion or worry. "Is it worth it, captain?" he asked.

It was a simple question, but Captain Burns folded his arms and lowered his gaze. Pliny realized that the captain was frightened, and that was a strange sight indeed. Burns had expressed fear if the prize of his efforts wasn't worth the danger, but now it seemed that it was, and he needed to muster up the courage he had to lead his crew. "I believe it is," Burns said. "Stick with me, Od, and we'll make it through."

Lord Depeur needed more convincing. "Good heavens!" he cried, shaking his head. "I never knew I would wander into such danger when I won that cursed map whilst gaming at cards. Oh! I wish I never received the confounded thing!" He looked up at Captain Burns. "You gentlemen may have the steel for this sort of thing, but I do not. I want no part of a war with the Conch Club."

"You're speaking a little too late, Depeur." Tarsby pointed with a clawed hand down the narrow pathway between the market stalls. "They're here."

Pliny turned to stare at the cluster of half-a-dozen gaudily dressed storm mages heading their way. He remembered the inscrutable wizards from Sea Shanty Town, and these gentlemen seemed to be cut from the same strange cloth. With their pearl colored frock coats, carefully arranged cravats and narwhal horn canes, they seemed to have walked out of some shimmering white heaven. But it was their masks, jeweled and gleaming in the desert sun, which marked them as members of the Conch Club.

Lord Depeur turned to face them. He held out his hands, the color draining from his face. "Ah, hello there, gentlemen," he said. "Perhaps we can, well, come to some deal regarding the ownership of the Dragon's Fang. I would be willing to negotiate and I'd certainly—"

Swift as the storms, the six Conch Club mages drew pale shells from their robes. They held them up, and the air went hot as bands of crackling lightning blasted out from the conch shells and struck into Lord Depeur. They blasted through his chest, knocking him backwards. Od and Tarsby grabbed his shoulder, holding him upright. But Pliny had only to see the steam pouring from the wound to know that Lord Depeur was finished.

"Run!" Tarsby cried, and the pirates turned and dashed into the stall, as patrons and merchants alike scrambled to get out of the way of the Conch Club.

They joined the panicked dash, trying their best to lose themselves in the crowd and get away from the storm sorcerers. Pliny's feet pounded on the sand and flagstones of the market. He didn't want to risk a look back at Lord Depeur and see that awful wound and the flesh, already going black, inside the noble's coat.

"Here!" Captain Burns cried, pointing to a nearby alley between two blocks of clustered mud brick houses. They ducked into the shaded alley, the sudden shadows offering a welcome relief from the heat. Pliny looked over his shoulder, but couldn't spot the Conch Club. For the time being at least, it seemed like they had lost their pursuers.

Tarsby and Od leaned Lord Depeur down against one of the walls. Od examined the wound and shook his head. Lord Depeur nodded. Blood flecked his colorless lips and powdered face. He reached into his coat. "It's your…problem now…captain," he told Burns, handing him the Dragon's Fang in its velvet covering. "My only…payment for your…services."

Burns nodded. "Thank you, sir," he said. "You're a good man, Dascombe Depeur, even if you smell a bit funny. I'm sorry."

"Oh, it's better than…growing old, drinking one's self into a wretched grave…" Depeur whispered. "I just wish….I had been…better dressed at this moment." His eyes flicked shut and his breath ceased. He was as still as a painting, and Pliny shuddered and turned away. Despite all the dangers of the Oddest Sea, he hadn't seen anyone he called friend meet with their deaths, until now.

Before any of the pirates could wonder what to do next, they heard footsteps at the mouth of the alley. Captain Burns turned around, drawing his pistols, but one of the Conch Club's storm mages was already there, shell held high in his gloved hands and crackling with sea blue arcane energy.

Pliny felt pure terror run through him. He had just seen Lord Depeur die and now he would join him. For all of his courage, all of his politeness and efforts, he was still going to die in some dusty alley in Sun Port. He reached for his dagger, though he knew it would be pointless. Captain Burns had no chance to fire, or even say goodbye.

But the crack of a musket ended the blaze of storm magic. The conch club fell to the ground, shattering with an almost musical noise. The Conch Club sorcerer fell to a crouch, the lights in his eyes fading as his limbs became stiff.

A dark figure stood behind him, a straight sword and long barreled pistol in his hands. He wore a black cloak and tricorne, with matching gloves and boots. His face was covered in a glaring white mask, fashioned from a human skull. His eyes stared out through the sockets of the skull, pitiless and cold. When they fell on Pliny, they boy wondered if he would prefer the lightning bolts of the Conch Club's magic. The skull-masked fellow stepped into the alley, several of his men in similar dark clothes staying behind him, as if wary of their leader.

"Captain Burns," he said, his voice dry, slow and without emotion. "You have something I want."

"King Death," Burns said. "Been a long time since I sailed under your black banner. How's the Requiem doing?"

"She sails on a tide of blood," King Death explained. "And her course will only end with the deaths of the enemies of piracy." He held out his hand. "Come. Return to my ship."

Tarsby stepped forward. "We don't like taking orders from dry—"

"We'd be delighted to, my old friend!" Burns cried. He looked back at his crew, his smile vanishing. "Don't mouth off to him. Don't disobey him. And don't question his sanity, whatever you do. This is King Death, the most fearsome pirate to ever hoist the black flag. And now, he wants something to do with us."

They followed King Death and his crew back into the abandoned bazaar. The Conch Club was nowhere to be seen, but Pliny doubted that they were much safer with the crew of the Requiem. He didn't know what could await them aboard King Death's ship, but he had a feeling the crew of the Fortune's Fancy were headed straight for more danger.

-The End-