Chapter 10: The Masque of Truth

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The eerie black flames licked at the broken air around it, neither giving nor taking light from the room. Maeve forgot her body. There was only the black light. Nothing else existed in all the worlds.

    Somewhere in the void of existence, Sev muttered, "it's too late."

    But too late for what? Nothing existed but the light and its siren call.

    Nothing in all the tall tales and fairy stories prepared her for this. Sailors bragged of their many grand adventures and embellished the dangers they faced. Not a single story included a word about black fire. Its unnatural existence imposed itself on the world like a forbidden shadow of an unseen horror.

    As the blade drew back through the lantern and the broken air, it sparked against the metal grate surrounding the preternatural flame.

    The black-robed Vazra laid the sword on the altar and raised his hand to the edges of the cowl that framed the expressionless porcelain mask where his face should be.

    Pulling the fabric back, a black tricorn hat with multicolored phoenix feathers appeared as if emerging from a shadow. He unpinned the broach, holding his robe together at the neck, and let it fall to the ground.

    He wore a black frock coat, vest, and breeches, all with iridescence interwoven into the silk, so a rainbow of color flashed from the light, depending on the angle at which it was struck.

    Maeve recognized him from the wanted posters. This Vazra was the pirate, Lost Soul.

    Sev erupted in a frenzied whale as he recognized the man that murdered his family. He struggled against Jade, breaking free from his arms. He burst through the aetheric wall, drawing his sword.

    Lost Soul turned toward him, and the mask grinned. "At least you are punctual."

    Maeve sprung to her feet to stand next to her friend, who swore to avenge his family.

    The pirate laughed. “Their death is worthy of vengeance," he said with an odd certainty. "I remember the surprise on their faces when I ordered the guns to fire. They panicked as the wood splintered beneath them, and they understood that death had come for them. If only I could have stood in death's place in taking their souls into my own hands. I would have relished it all the more. I wish I could say they died well, Boy, but there was too much fear in them for that not to be a lie.”

    “Why did you kill them? There was no reason.” Tears ran from Sev’s eyes as his hatred distorted his face.

    "For the same reason I insured one person survived." The Vazra laughed again. "And the deed paid the dividend I required from it."

    Sev lunged at the pirate, who drew a blade from his belt and parried without effort.

    "Do not interfere!" Lost Soul said to the other Vazra in the room. "Stand your ground. He is mine."

    The other four stood like statues at the corners of the altar, their masked faces giving nothing away.

    Jade whispered to Maeve, “do we trust they are going to stay out of this, or do we engage them?”

    "We should focus on the pirate," she responded. "If we're lucky, we can knock him off balance and the three of us can run."

    "What about the ark?"

    "Our lives are the one thing I will always prize above the mission." Maeve had never been as sure of anything as she was of that.

    Sev lashed out at Lost Soul, who fended him off with the barest amount of effort imaginable. If he wanted to, he could've easily won the fight. Why was he toying with them?

    Jade attacked the pirate from behind, only to be intercepted by his second blade in his other hand. 

    Lost Soul danced between them with ease.

    Maeve sought a place to strike, to take him off guard. The fluidity with which the Vazra moved prevented many of the lines of attack she saw.

    Occasionally, he twisted completely around, proving his legs were not attached to the rest of him at the waist. He was a spirit with no skeleton or flesh to prevent him from turning or twisting in any way he wanted.

    Lost Soul wore no visible armor. If they struck him, they would hit his clothing. Would their blade slip through him doing no damage? 

    Maeve never fought a spirit before. She had never seen one fought or slain and didn’t have a firm grasp on what would happen.

    Sev’s blade passed just above Lost Soul, causing him to bend backward to avoid the strike.

    Lunging forward, Maeve struck towards the pirate’s head to cleave it in two.

    The Vazra twisted his neck so his mask rubbed against the collar of his frock coat without losing so much as a feather from his hat.

    Maeve changed the angle of her swing to prevent her blade from striking the stone floor.

    Lost Soul cackled with glee, and he contorted his body back into a formation that made him resemble a broken doll.

    The longer the fight stretched on, the more it worried Maeve that he hadn’t even tried to attack any of them. He expertly deflected every one of their blows without even once trying to land one himself.

    It was possible he enjoyed the fight, but as it languished on, no matter what sick thrill he received from the match, it had to be wearing thin. He was waiting for something. Biding his time to take the perfect shot.

    Lost Soul jumped up and flipped his body around to land flat on the ceiling like a spider and turned his head all the way around to look down at them.

    He sprung down.

    Jade, Sev, and Maeve raised their blades to guard against the incoming strike.

    The pirate dove over Maeve's head and landed on the other side of the altar.

    With a quick slash, he struck out at the red-robed Vazra, cutting them in half.

    Half the robe fell to the ground while the other half flew up in the air as a golden mist flashing with lightning struck at the lantern on the altar.

    Lost Soul laughed.

    Spinning, he hacked the blue-robed Vazra in half before jumping back onto the ceiling.

    As the cracking pops of the dying Vazra flowed into the black flame, Lost Soul’s maniacal laughter filled the room.

    The pirate jumped from the roof, driving his blade into the left eye socket of the green-robed Vazra before laying his weight onto the blade to cut him down the center.

    Without mercy, he slashed the one in the golden robe in half.

    As the misty lightning crackled around him, Lost Soul raised his arms, laughing.

    Sev struck at the pirate.

    Lost Soul parried his blade, continuing to laugh.

    Jade joined the fray, and the fight continued at the standstill it had been.

    Maeve held back.

    The life of the slain Vazra flashed in the lantern’s cage. Within, the black flame flickered like an eldritch shadow amid the lightning flickering around it.

    Lost Soul didn’t kill his comrades, he sacrificed them at the proper time. They hadn’t interrupted the ritual—they were part of it.

    This fight was as planned as the chants and ritual actions they had taken up to this point.

    Lost Soul raided the island and stole the ark so Garland would hire them to retrieve it.

    What part did they play in all this? Was the violence necessary for the ritual, or did he need something from them?

    When the time was right, would he slaughter them in the same way he did his companions?

    “We have to get out of here!” Maeve shouted.

    Lost Soul laughed and focused his attention on Sev. “Are you ready to run, little boy?”

    Sev screeched with rage and struck hard enough to cause the pirate’s blade to bounce in his hand.

    The pirate pressed forward, kicking Jade back. 

    Jade slammed against the wall near the door and slid to the ground.

    Sev stepped around to face Lost Soul head-on.

    “Are you not going to run?” the pirate asked.

    Without a word, Sev struck wildly.

    Maeve stiffened. “Stop!”

    Lost Soul lowered his blade, and Sev cleaved the Vazra at the neck and pressed through.

    Maeve grabbed Sev by the shoulders and pulled him back.

    The pirate wobbled on his legs and cackled madly.

    Misty lightning flashed from Lost Soul’s body to the lantern. The empty mask and clothes fell to the ground.

    Dark shadows rose from the remains of all five dead Vazra and rose in the air like fog.

    The light from the crystals embedded in the walls faded away.

    Only the faint glow of the aetheric pillars cast their colors over the room.

    Deep black figures stood at each corner, with one before the altar.

    The umbral fog rose into the air and spiraled into the lantern.

    A profound silence enveloped everything.

    The breath of the four survivors in the room punctuated the only silence in ragged pulses.

    A black flame erupted from the lantern, knocking them back and pressing them into the wall.

    The shadows slithered across Maeve’s face, pressing into her skin like it sought a way in.

    She closed her eyes and clenched her teeth, wishing she could pinch her nose closed and cover her ears.

    Oily shadows slithered over her body like worms.

    Holding in the scream, her chest tightened. She didn’t want to let any of that into her body.

    Her lungs burned.

    She needed to breathe.

    Never would she submit to this darkness.

    It would have to kill her if it wanted to take her.

    Maeve prayed to whatever deity that might hear her thoughts. She even called on the maiden of the moon to help her since she had shown favor to Sev.

    The pressure on her back lessened, and she fell hard to the floor.

    Exhaling, she involuntarily gulped air into her lungs, coughing and wheezing.

    She opened her eyes.

    The light crystals flickered on the walls, and the darkness retreated into the lantern.

    Her entire body ached from the trauma of impact.

    She searched around her to find Sev and Jade trying to catch their breath like she did.

    A shadow moved up by the altar.

    The Tugwattle grabbed the lamp and ran out of the room.

    Maeve reached in his direction in a vain attempt to stop him. What had they done?

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