by Rob Steiner
Rida Myndehr stood on the bow of the Turician schooner, willing it to go faster. Damned backward, stubborn Turicians, she thought. Why don’t they use the damned steam engines we gave them? We’d have been there yesterday.
She knew the answer, that the Turicians viewed Compact technology with the same suspicion that she viewed the Tuathan Wielders. She supposed she could understand the feeling, though it did nothing to ease her impatience and frustration with the slow pace of the schooners.
Though the Beldamark coast was only a half-mile off the starboard side, and Brya had told her that they were only an hour from the Tuathan encampment on the beach, she still felt as if she were late. Brya had described Melahara’s reports of harrower attacks, and that the Tuathan priests barely hung on to the massive shield Taran Abraeu had created. She only hoped they could hang on for an hour more.
Rida pulled her woolen, dark-green Shadarlak coat tighter around her neck to fight the biting wind. Two weeks ago she never would have believed such supernaturalist nonsense like live Mystics, magical arches that transport people hundreds of miles in an instant, or demonic creatures from a madman’s nightmares. Now she did not give such things a second thought. They were simply one more enemy to fight and defeat.
The captain of the Turician ship she was on, the Waverider, approached her. Like most Turicians, Captain Gemdi Hass had a full black beard and a full head of curly hair. And like most Turicians at Markwatch, he was gaunt from the plague that had swept through the city over a month ago.
He pointed to a large jut of land five miles away and said in a thick Turician accent, “The Mystic priest say that Tuathans are on other side of point.”
Rida nodded. Even though she knew, she asked, “How long?”
“Another hour, maybe less if wind holds.” The captain looked up at his full sails. “Ahura blesses us with good wind.”
Rida nodded. She glanced at the three schooners behind them. The Kingfisher, the Vendir, and the Teelamark sailed in a single-file line so as to fit through the narrow, fifty-pace corridor between the coral reef beds on either side of them. Between the four, they should have more than enough room to hold the five hundred or so Tuathans—
“General!” Brya screamed from behind, running up the deck past startled crewmen. “General, I see Angra trails!”
“On the peninsula,” she said, pointing at the jut of land Captain Hass had just pointed out. She saw nothing there, but knew that the Tuathans saw with different eyes.
Brya squinted. “Two—no, wait, a third just appeared.”
“Can you shield the ships?”
Brya shook her head helplessly. “They are too big for me. Maybe around a few people, but that is all.”
“Damn,” Rida said, under her breath. She turned to Captain Hass. “Signal your ships and tell them to—”
She stopped when she saw the mass of frothing water racing head-on toward the Windrider. The mass was over a hundred paces long, encompassing the entire corridor through the reef. It would be on the schooners in moments.
Captain Hass shouted something to the pilot at the stern of the ship. The schooner turned sharply to the starboard side. The Teelamark also turned to starboard, attempting to weave around the Windrider. But Teelamark’s captain realized he was heading right for an outcropping of rocks, and then turned back to port…right into the Windrider’s path.
There was only time for Rida to hear the captains scream different orders to their pilots before both ships collided. The stern of the Teelamark rammed into the port bow of the Windrider with a terrible grinding and cracking wood. Rida was thrown to the deck, and she saw Captain Hass tumble over the railing and into the water. Brya landed hard on her side nearby, and Rida heard a sickening crack followed by Brya screaming and holding the bone jutting out of her left forearm. Water gushed through the hole in the Windrider’s side, and the ship listed forward.
Over the snapping wood, yelling crewmen, and flooding below deck, Rida heard the frothing water approach them with tremendous speed. She raised her head above the ship’s railing in time to see a large wave hit the interlocked Windrider and Teelamark. Both ships surged upwards as the wave passed beneath them, then came down with a jarring thump into the water. The Windrider listed further forward, but the wave had vanished. The Windrider and the Teelamark bobbed up and down in its wake.
All was quiet a moment, and then the sea exploded with dozens of tentacles that reminded Rida all too vividly of the Tainted attack on the train in Doare. But these tentacles looked like barbed kelp, and smelled of seaweed, fish, and rot. The tentacles thrashed about the decks, grabbing screaming men, pulling them over the side or tearing off limbs.
When one of the tentacles wrapped itself around Brya’s right leg, Rida blinked away her shock and drew her saber. Brya screamed when the tentacle yanked her toward the railing. Rida ran over and severed the tentacle with one swing of her saber. The remaining part still wrapped around Brya’s leg continued to writhe and thrash, its barbs sinking deeper into Brya’s flesh.
More tentacles shot from out of the water. The crewmen had produced swords and were hacking at each tentacle that tried grabbing them. But it was not enough. The Windrider continued to lose men. The deck was littered with torn limbs, and slick with blood and pieces of trampled kelp.
As Rida hacked away at the Tainted kelp, she heard a groaning of wood from the front of the ship. She turned in time to see dozens of tentacles wrap around the ship’s masthead—a dour looking mermaid—and pull the front of the ship into the water. As the stern jerked downward, Rida lost her footing and slid down the slippery deck into a mass of writhing kelp.
Fatimah looked up to see one of the younger priests pointing at the two harrowers still standing on the beach. They had not moved since Melahara had last spoken to them.
“Have you been asleep?” another priest asked. “They’ve been there an hour.”
“Not them,” the first priest said. “Over there.”
She pointed to the small wooded peninsula a few miles away, where large rocks jutted out from the tip, like the skeletal spine of a submerged sea monster.
Three black tendrils snaked down from Angra to a position on the peninsula’s point.
Fatimah jumped up and raced to where Melahara talked with Eblin and Ocrim Tylea. All three looked up when Fatimah skidded to a stop in front of them.
“Angra trails,” she said, “on the peninsula to the north.”
All three ran with her to the beach, while Eblin limped along as fast as she could. They stopped just short of the beach, a dozen paces from the end of the shield, and stared at the three undulating, black tendrils.
Melahara looked at Ladak. “What is happening over there?”
Ladak glanced at the tendrils. “Oh, that. That means the ships from Markwatch you were waiting for won’t be arriving within the hour. What am I saying? They won’t be arriving at all.”
He opened his gold pocket watch. “And your hour is up. What say you about my generous offer?”
Melahara raised her hand to Ahura and closed her eyes a few moments, then lowered her hand slowly and stared at Ladak, horrified.
“What is happening?” Ocrim Tylea asked.
“Brya says they are under attack,” Melahara said, “but she was cut off.” She looked at Ladak. “What have you done?”
“Made sure that you have no choice but to accept my offer.”
Ocrim Tylea spat, “You mean your surrender terms?”
Ladak shrugged. “Whatever you want to call it.”
He put the watch back in his black coat and adjusted his tri-corner hat. “Am I to assume that you refuse to hand over the Zervakan?”
Eblin finally arrived and said, “You know we cannot give him to you.”
Ladak sighed, as if he were truly disappointed. But Fatimah thought he was trying to control a smile. “That disappoints me. The Tuathans and the Fomorians should be allies in this world, not adversaries. The Mundanes will destroy us all if they get the chance. Look at the technology the Compact developed in a mere two hundred years—muskets, cannon, trains, wiretypes. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but certainly within the next fifty years they will be powerful enough to challenge us. ”
Melahara said, “You make it sound as if we should rule the Mundanes by divine right. That is the Fomorian way, not the Tuathan. We choose to live in peace with the Mundanes. And to stop you from enslaving them.”
Ladak raised an eyebrow. “You cannot save them if you are all dead.”
Ocrim said, “We will resist you if you attack us again.”
Ladak chuckled. “Ah, you mean you will hide behind your magnificent shield. Well, about that….”
An arrow hissed from out of the woods and struck the heart of the priest holding the shield. The young, red-haired priest’s eyes rolled into her head and she fell on her back.
The blue shield winked out of existence before another priest could take over.
“Arrows are crude, but effective,” Ladak said. “Now what were you saying about resisting?”