Chapter 23:

Chapter 23


The voyage back home had begun. The ship had turned around and departed from Crystal Cove. Such a brief visit for such integral items. The party was now more than halfway done with their quest. Two locations remained; four ingredients left. Then they can cure the plague and confront Grimwald. The deck was full of laughter and joy. Elizabeth watched the waves. Isaac helped himself to the mead down below. Vera and Willie drunkenly sang shanties and danced with each other. A brief break, soon to be interrupted. Elizabeth looked back at her friends and smiled, grateful for their presence. But when she resumed her sightseeing, her eyes widened.

"Guys! Do you see that?" She called out. Vera and Isaac stopped dead in their tracks. They rushed over to the side of the ship.

"Is that?"

"Can't be, can it?" A flash of lightning in the sky, not a cloud to be seen. A ring of arced electricity. A paper-thin window into a distant local, one hundreds of miles away. It bubbled and boiled the water around it. Inside stood four figures: a knight, a mage, a doctor, and a samurai.

"Remember, you only have a few minutes, so make them count." Necros instructed, his hand rested upon Dullahan's shoulder.

"And don't screw this up. Not unless you want me to take something else from you." Grimwald threatened.

"N-No sir! I won't fail you." He cowered.

"That's the fearless Dullahan?" Vera questioned. "Not really living up to the legends."

"You're right." Isaac confirmed. "I wonder what's gotten him so shaken up." Necros' hand started to glow a brilliant blue, charging the headless horseman with a similar energy. In the midst of the chaos, Elizabeth locked eyes with Grimwald. Without hesitation, he pointed at her and then dragged his thumb across his throat. She clutched hers in response, such intense fear running down her spine. She didn't have to guess what Dullahan was afraid of, she had already met his greatest fear. Dullahan stepped out of the portal. His foot hovered just above the bottomless ocean. The three heroes of Ethros had a puzzled look, which quickly turned to horror as Dullahan's foot planted firmly onto the sea as if it were solid ground.

"Only a few minutes, remember that!"

"Yeah yeah." The portal quickly closed, leaving Dullahan stranded out in the middle of the ocean.

"Okay, so he can walk on water. That's not something to worry about, right?" Vera panicked.

"Hey Dullahan!" Isaac called out. "What gives? I thought you were too embarrassed to fight us! I don't see a new gourd on that armor!"

"I didn't see his horse either." Elizabeth whispered.

"After our last encounter, Grimwald gave me some... encouragement..." His bold voice became shaky. "Now I'm over such a silly notion, such a trivial attachment!"

"If you say so. And what's with the party trick?"

"This is no party trick, paladin!" He began to pace in front of the boat. "Grimwald named this technique the Dreadnought, and it shall be your demise!" The three heroes all looked at each other and shrugged. Dreadnought? Not a clue. "Now!" Dullahan held his blade behind his back. It glowed an ominous dark energy. "Enough talk! It's time I take your head!" He raised the blade above his head and slammed it into the water. An arc of evil magic escaped the sword and soared towards the ship. It easily pierced and split the wood. Barreling through, it sliced the boat in half. The waves kicked the vessel up and to the sides. Everyone held on for dear life, hands gripping onto whatever they could hold. All except...

"MEDIC!!" Willie screamed. Elizabeth spotted him. He was clutching his chest, no his side. No, Willie was clutching where his arm used to be.

"Willie!" She got to her feet, but quickly toppled over. The ship's two halves were sinking fast.

"I got it!" Vera used every bit of her mana, conjuring magic from every part of her. Whip-like tendrils sprouted from her arms, her fingers, and her staff. They circumvented the boat, joined back with each other, and cinched tight. The two halves collided with each other, knocking everyone off balance. Vera held on and pulled with all her might. Isaac donned his helmet and drew his sword. Elizabeth sprinted to aid Willie.

"Lie down. Lie down." She instructed. "I need you to breathe, okay?" Willie continued to groan in agonizing pain. Elizabeth pulled out supplies from her bag. "I'm going to roll you on your side, okay? Keep holding onto your shoulder and don't let go." Elizabeth carefully put Willie on his side, injury facing the sky. She took a white rag and pressed it against his shoulder. "We're gonna hold this here until the bleeding stops, alright?" Willie did his best to nod, breathing sharply through his teeth. The rag quickly stained a dark crimson. "Shit..." She whispered, adding on another rag, applying more pressure. Meanwhile Dullahan continued to batter at the boat's broken hull.

"Dullahan!" Isaac shouted. "Where's the honor in fighting down there! Get up here and fight me like a man!"

"I have bigger things to worry about than honor, paladin! Once this ship sinks, I will personally make sure each and every one of you drown! Then my job will be complete, and Grimwald will give me all that I requested of him!" He jabbed at the wood again, the force knocking everyone back.

"I'm slipping!"

"I can't work like this!" Elizabeth pressed harder into Willie.

"Fuck... fuck!" Isaac darted over to Vera. He slid up next to her, meeting her face to face. "Vera, you need to give me some magic."

"W-What? I thought you didn't do magic!"

"I'm not the one casting it so it's fine."

"I'm using all I have to keep the ship from sinking. I don't have much to spare!"

"Vera please! I can keep him off the ship, but I need a spell to do it!"

"Ugh, fine! But it won't be a lot, so be careful!"

"Great! Thank you!"

"I'll give you water walk; I assume that's what Necros gave him." A similar blue energy swirled around Vera's hand. She placed it upon Isaac's shoulder and let the spell run through him.

"Thank you, Vera! You are a life saver! I don't know what we'd do without you! I know I can be rough on you sometimes but-"

"Save the flattery! Just go!" Isaac nodded. He swiftly sprinted back to the bow of the ship and leapt off. His body splashed into the water before being repelled out. Springing forward, he rolled and caught his footing.

"Now look who's got party tricks!" Isaac quickly blocked Dullahan's sword with his shield. "Don't expect me to run this time!"

"And don't expect me to falter so easily!" Dullahan snickered. He drew his blade back before thrusting again. Another block. Draw back. Thrust. Block. Draw back. Thrust. Block. Dullahan pinned Isaac against the ship's hull, pummeling him against the wood.

"Isaac!" Vera shouted.

"Working on it!" On the next attack, Isaac pushed back. Dullahan was knocked off balance. An opening. Isaac swung his sword, back and forth. It slashed across his armor, leaving scratches, but nothing more.

"You can't hurt me in a way that matters!" Dullahan caught the blade. Reeling back, he flung Isaac across the water. The knight skipped like a stone. He tried to use his arms and legs to slow his flight. His body dug into the sea like dirt. Coming to a stop, Isaac stumbled. How could he fight such an opponent on a surface both soft and firm? And this energy flowing through him. Pulsing at his feet. It felt so unnatural. Distracting. It was if his body wasn't truly his own. Isaac got knocked flat on his back. A swift punch square in his face. "Pay attention, paladin!" Dullahan demanded, continuing their brawl.

Elizabeth removed the blood-soaked cloth from Willie's shoulder. A glass bottle between her fingers, she uncorked it. She threaded a needle through his skin, sewing the wound shut while dumping the bottle's contents on the wound. Willie seethed in pain. The disinfectant burned. The stitches stung. Elizabeth propped Willie back upright.

"I know, I know. It hurts. But you'll be okay, I promise! Just bear with me a little longer." Elizabeth did her best to fix him up. Purification magic was out of the equation. It costs too much mana and Vera is already exhausted as is. Besides, it can't heal a wound this great. Elizabeth pulled out a bundle of wrappings and another glass bottle. She dumped the new red liquid onto the wraps. She then took the clothes soaked in healing potion and began wrapping them around Willie's body. Over and under his remaining arm, across his chest, and covering his shoulder. "Try to relax, and don't remove your wrappings."

"Yes, doc." Willie tiredly said. He leaned back and closed his eyes and Elizabeth sat and watched after him.

Dullahan slammed Isaac's head against the water, then again. He held his head underwater. Frantic splashing. Rising bubbles. After a moment he pulled him back up and let go of the knight. Isaac coughed up the briny sea and gasped for air.

"What a pitiful excuse for a knight." Dullahan turned around and looked back at the ship. He flipped his sword around, pommel facing the boat. "A reminder for those aboard! I am not just the Dullahan. I am not just the headless horseman! I, am the shadow of Ethros!" In a flash, faster than the eye can see, faster than the brain can comprehend, faster than even light, Dullahan sprinted into the ship. His pommel collided with the hull. A shattering shockwave shook the sea. The ship started to crack and crumble.

"I CAN'T KEEP IT TOGETHER!" Vera screamed. Dullahan dug his fingers into the wood. He roared as he pried the boat open. The floorboards beneath Elizabeth suddenly gave way. The doctor quickly fell through the wood as the boat was ripped apart.

"There you are!" Dullahan sneered. A mad dash towards the girl. Elizabeth's eyes widened, trembled. Dullahan grabbed her by the throat. "Grimwald's been dying to get his hands on you!" Elizabeth flailed wildly at the horseman, but to no effect. A shadow cannot be harmed by anything but light.

"DROP HER!" A sword plunged into Dullahan's back and out his abdomen. Startled, he dropped the doctor, who sank into the ocean.

"What are you doing?! You're either going to kill her or yourself!"

"I took an oath!" Isaac dismissed.

"So it seems..." Dullahan resumed his fight against Isaac. The two traded blows as Elizabeth sunk further into the briny depths. Maybe this is how she could avoid conflict, she thought. With water walk, neither of them could actually dive down to get her. She could just wait it out. Although. She can't hold her breath for very long. And she isn't the best swimmer. So, either die by drowning or die by blade. Great. Dullahan and Isaac continued to brawl. Steel clashed against steel. Swords, shields, and fists attempted to tear their opponent apart. Sweat, water, and blood dripped from their armors. They stayed locked in a fierce duel, until something suddenly shifted. Dullahan's feet sunk into the water. He plummeted into the deep blue abyss.

"His spell wore off." Isaac sighed. He keeled over to catch his breath. The water rippled softly around him. Then it rippled a little stronger, and stronger. The water quickly became violent. Waves upon waves threw Isaac around until a whirlpool opened up beneath him. "Shit, shit!" The knight yelled as he slipped.

"ENOUGH GAMES!" Dullahan shouted, standing on a sandbar, his blade raised high above his head. He sliced downwards, another familiar arc of dark energy emerging from the blade. The sea was split in two. Elizabeth quickly found herself sitting on the same sandbar, looking up at a biblical scene. Two walls of water beside her. A cornucopia of sea creatures swimming unbothered around her. And just beyond her, the shadow of Ethros. Dullahan dashed and grabbed Elizabeth once again as the ocean started to rain down upon them. A strong leap into the air as the waterfalls collapsed in. The sea quickly filled back in. Elizabeth and Dullahan emerged above it all, water trail trickling past Dullahan's boots. "I've got you! And there's no way I'm losing you this time! Once we fall back to the earth, I'll sink to the bottom of the sea and watch you drown!" Elizabeth then felt something wrap around her leg, something she's felt before. Looking down, she could see the soft blue glow of Vera's tendrils.

"Vera!" She shouted. Sacrificing one of the whips that held the boat together, she had grabbed ahold of the doctor. Vera pulled with all her remaining might. It was just enough to force Elizabeth out from Dullahan's grasp.

"Wha- damnit!" Now airborne and doctor-less, Dullahan was out of options. He began his descent back down to the earth. Suddenly, the portal reopened. Grimwald and his army had returned.

"Grab him." He coldly spoke. The samurai reached out through the portal and caught Dullahan's chest plate with one arm. "Dullahan."

"Uhhh, yes sir?"

"Let's talk. Pull him in, Ronin." The samurai silently obliged and pulled the headless horseman into the portal. It quickly closed and no longer did they fight. It was finished, the heroes of Ethros had won, for now at least.