CHILD OF FIRE AND BLOOD
Deep within the Sun Islands archipelago, a group of ten light combat ships cleaved the cool waters as the first fingers of dawn began to reach over the eastern horizon. With tactical maneuvers coordinated by their command ship, the Albani expeditionary force closed in on Varga, hidden stronghold of the eastern pirate lords. From Varga, the seafaring traffic of more than a score of nations had been prey to the unpredictable methods the outlaws had developed across nearly two centuries of widespread activity.
The pirates of Tarakk had grown from operating in small groups looting small civilian vessels for whatever random valuables they had aboard, to acting as ordered fleets of small, swift attack boats under an organized command structure. The pirate fleets had become capable of harassing, boarding and capturing non-military vessels of any size.
The uncivilized men and women who had dedicated themselves to lives of crime on the open ocean gradually became technologically obsessed to the point of modifying their bodies with cybernetic additions and mechanical prosthetics to achieve greater efficiency in their endeavors. Their observed process was believed to involve holding captive vessels, their passengers and materials for sale, use or ransom. Profits were largely believed to fund continued operations and illicit surgeries.
The Albani military action, converging ships on Varga, was the latest and most significant tactical maneuver against the pirate forces in the last two decades. Years of undermining the fearsome reputations the cyborg pirates had established was seen by most as owing to the driving efforts of one man. It was at his command that missiles carrying payloads of irritant gas were unleashed upon Varga’s interior.
Though the gas-laden missiles appeared to be the first stage of the Albani surprise attack, it was actually the second. Before the sun’s first light, the expeditionary force’s command ship had engaged what the crew had come to call the Voice of Doom, a low frequency sound resonator that induced powerful disorientation and nausea in its targets. As a result, the pirate community’s response to the gas attack was minor.
The pirates of Varga woke to bursting gas bombs and stumbled toward their haven’s sheltered harbor. At the docks, their light attack craft, each capable of carrying twelve to twenty action-ready raiders, were blockaded by military vessels up to five times their size. Even with many of their attack craft captured over the past month, the scores that remained might still use their superior aquatic agility to threaten the military force.
Squads of riflemen and infantry in powered armor leaped over the side of the Albani frigate Hammer of Justice to pour across the decks of the pirate skiffs Hell’s Rage, The Scream of Demons and Goddess of War. Ready for action, the soldiers took up position on the boats and established a firing line on the dock. The pirates who had managed to gather at the docks, a majority of them still queasy and shaking, held fast to their swords and guns as they cybernetically selected combat targets through sonic and thermal imaging devices.
“Soldiers,” a somber officer with a dragon skull helmet cloaked in gray, called out from Hammer of Justice’s deck, “stand ready.”
“You’ve come to talk then?” one of the pirates called out.
“You are among the leadership of this rabble?” the bearded officer responded, spreading his cloak enough to display his ornate dark armor.
“Vopho Varin Sala,” the brown-haired man said, standing tall within his armored coat, his cybernetic eye glowing green. “Rorian Broadax to my left. You must be the Lost Prince.”
Within the beard, beneath the dragon skull helmet, there was a smile. The veteran commander tightened his grip on his long, bladed lance and lifted it skyward. Lightning flashed above him, rolling thunder behind it. As eyes turned to the clouds, the dirigible command ship Destiny appeared, moving slowly groundward. Descending faster than the larger craft, a hover platform approached the standoff bearing a white-haired man in black and gold armor flanked by two soldiers. A black cloak hung from his shoulders, flowing in the breeze as they flew.
“Pirates of Varga,” the white-haired man called out, his voice magically amplified to awe-inspiring resonance, “you stand before the Army of Light, prepared to dominate any resistance on this island. For numerous counts of violating international law, Alban’s Army of Light has come to bring you all to justice. The control codes on your boats have been overridden and their systems temporarily disabled. We have no wish to harm you. You are advised to surrender.”
The hover platform set down behind the Albani firing line almost silently. With absolute confidence, the commanding noble walked forward. His soldiers parted, allowing him to pass as the pirate leader also came forth to meet him.
“You’re the one they call the Lost Prince?” the pirate asked.
“Lar Kwa, prince of Alban,” he said, “leader of the Army of Light. You lead these people?”
“Vopho Varin Sala and my brother, Rorian Broadax,” the pirate replied, “last pirate lords of the eastern faction and commanders of Varga.”
“Then you are authorized to present the surrender of your people and transfer control of Varga without challenge?” Lar Kwa asked.
“We are,” Sala confirmed, looking about at his own people and the military standing against them. “The day is early yet, though. We’ve gone to the trouble of warming up our hardware, so we would not be averse to some killing before breakfast.”
“I do offer terms,” the prince said, “if you are of a mind to hear them.”
“What do you have to offer that we should not fight to take?” Broadax asked, his gleaming bionic arms brandishing a heavy combat axe menacingly.
“Redemption. To that end, your people will have safe passage under the royal authority of Alban,” Lar Kwa said, the fist beneath his cloak grasping the pommel of his blade as a faint golden halo enveloped him, “If your honor code demands, as lords of this land, nobility dictates that I may offer you a duel. I will try my best to leave at least one of you unharmed and then we can be on our way.”
Vopho Varin Sala seemed to consider the prince’s offer, perhaps even silently communicating with his brother through their matching artificial eyes. Even without the passing nausea as a factor, something overwhelming in the prince’s winning smile and gleaming eyes drained from them the urge to fight. As they looked back to Lar Kwa, Sala and Broadax seemed almost entranced by his presence. Then, trembling, they each fell to their knees. Taking the prince’s gloved hand, the pirate lords gently bowed their foreheads to the royal presence. Following the example of their leaders, the assemblage of pirates down to every last man, woman and child quietly sank to their knees and bowed their heads.
“And at once, you recognize the divine power you face,” Lar Kwa said, “reaching into your core.”
“Tales of you and your mighty army have spread far, my great lord,” the pirate leader said. “It is you alone, though, to whom we attribute the losses we have suffered for over a decade in many battles. We have often discussed the coming of this storm and choose not to oppose you now.”
“You honor me,” the prince said with a cautious smile. “Perhaps our great gods will yet show you their mercy.”
“If it is your will,” Sala said. “We’ll all do our best in your service to earn that mercy.”
“Perhaps we can duel later,” Lar Kwa laughed, “to entertain our people and the cameras.”
“As your highness wishes,” Sala said humbly.
“As all of these people are yielding to the authority of the Crimson Throne and the power of Alban,” Lar Kwa said, employing his amplified voice again and holding his golden sword overhead to make a sweeping gesture, “I know they will begin happily earning our favor by joining my Army of Light in freeing any captives still held here. Once we have finished here, we will begin our journey home to Alban.”
“Master?” General Karra queried from the deck of the ship, marking the only time anyone gathered could note hearing uncertainty in the stalwart veteran’s voice. “Is it time already?”
“Absolutely, old friend,” Prince Lar Kwa said. “Those who sit above have shown me that Alban has dire need of us, so we must return with all haste. Land the troops. Varga must be made secure and then our homeland must be saved from the horrors that beset the people even now. We have prepared for years to face this and now the Lost Prince will go home. It will be our greatest challenge yet, though only the first of many should we succeed.”
“Yes, my lord,” the general responded, bowing sharply before he withdrew.
Releasing the unseen grip on his weapon, Lar Kwa activated a radio in his collar and called, “Arcane, is Destiny ready to travel?”
“The command ship is fully prepared, lord,” came the atonal reply from his most efficient servant. “Is there anything else to which you need me to attend?”
“Move the remainder of the fleet,” the prince commanded, looking up at the hovering dirigible. “Any that still have available space for transport, send here. Have the rest wait to the southwest of the islands where we can meet them for the journey back to Alban.”
“Affirmative,” Arcane replied. “Movements will begin at once.”
“Excellent,” the prince said. “I already know the perfect room for you to set-up in when we reach the palace. We have a lot of work ahead of us if we are indeed to change the world.”