This wasn’t a nightmare, and Dain wasn’t going to wake up.
Since Sable left for The Maiden a fortnight past, Dain had been having nightly terrors, dreams filled with dark songs and cold, twisted shadows. But this present horror was real, and his feet, along with those of most of the crew, were frozen to the decks of The Gilded Pearl.
Heart racing, eyes glued on the dark masses growing in the salmon skies, Dain wondered if he was equal to the task—not just facing what came at him now, but all of it, everything. He’d been determined to fight, to end the genocide of the adept, to break the magical curses and stop a looming war. Dain had wanted the life he’d dreamed of back. And he’d wanted his loved ones free as well. So he’d plunged in, headfirst, with no thought to his qualifications or capabilities. Now he felt like a self-promoted cabin-boy trying to play captain on his first day at sea. He was out of his depth. Who was he to find the rightful bearer? Who was he to challenge an emperor and his monstrous creations? Who was he? Maybe he’d been naive, maybe just plain stupid—he was leaning toward the latter.
He could hear the wing-beats now.
This mission, the one he’d convinced his friends and family to join, might not end in victory after all––
A small, pale hand clamped onto his forearm.
Falling forward in relief, Dain cursed the emperor and his minions for their cold, terror-inducing magic. It was the worst part of dealing with stalkers—being imbued with panic, or in this case, frozen with fear and doubt. Idris, the boy who’d just stabilized Dain’s emotions with a touch, tried to help steady him physically now, but the child was less than half his size so they stumbled together. It wasn’t until Casper appeared, grabbing the scruff of Dain’s tunic and dragging him upright, that he was able to find his feet again. Drawing a deep, ragged breath, Dain gave a quick pat to Idris’s shoulder before the boy ran to relieve the rest of the crew. The child had an unfathomable talent, a level of power Dain feared most days, but right now, he was far too grateful to be afraid.
Casper looked to the dark wings on the horizon, his brow pinching tight. “This was yer plan, mate—time to see it through.”
Dain shook out his limbs, trying to loosen the faint remnant of fear still clinging to his heart. Then he bolted for the helm, calling orders to the crew as he went.
The late pirate, Captain Foxwing, had sworn up and down that The Gilded Pearl was the fastest galleon on the high seas. The vessel was certainly built for speed with its light frame and economical size, and the test runs had proven it to be at least half as fast as it was pretty, but there was still no way of knowing whether it was quick enough for what pursued them now.
They just needed to get up enough speed to keep the oncoming beasts in constant motion. That was it. Then it’d all be worth the risk. Hopefully.
The recovering crew scrambled, some stumbling to their respective stations after being released from their own frozen terror by Idris, but they still had the sails, ropes, and rigging secured and ready for Dain’s wind in record time. Of all the talents Dain had discovered within himself, the wind was by far the strongest and most responsive. And now, as he reached for the element, it sprang to his call like a child waiting in the wings to play. Dain’s long blond hair tore from its leather thong, whipping around his face as a formidable gust billowed the sails. The ship had already been in motion, but now it leapt over the waves. He heard several sailors curse in surprise at the sudden thrust, but a few hooted in exhilaration.
All of the crew besides himself, Casper, and Idris were pirates who’d been temporarily assigned by the queen of Nords Cove. As a merchant sailor, Dain would never have thought he’d see the day when he’d be praising pirates, but this crew had proven themselves worthy, and fearless. They hadn’t even flinched when he’d concocted this plan; in fact, many of them had seemed eager for the chance to kill a demon. The pirates had no love for the long-reigning emperor of Dorthane and his unnatural creations.
An eerie, steel-on-stone screech pealed through the air behind them, but Dain didn’t turn to look. He only coaxed the wind in greater billows.
Faster—they needed to go faster.
This time, Dain turned.
Less than half a span from the stern, framed against the bright and cloudless skies, feathers glistened. But these massive onyx wings were the only beautiful things on the creatures following behind. Everything else was hideous. All three were humanoid in form but giant and twisted, malformed in disconcerting ways, with oily skin that shifted in deep violet hues. They didn’t wear robes like their regular stalker counterparts, but filthy loincloths instead, and the largest one, the one with multiple breasts, wore nothing at all. They had long tails and their heads were hairless, almost bulbous. Their pitch-black eyes, the size of saucers, bore into Dain’s soul. Despite Idris’s relieving touch, Dain shivered. Then fear was replaced by pity—these monstrosities had once been adept, just like himself, and to some degree he would feel bad for trying to hurt them today.
The Gilded Pearl had sailed well beyond Nords Cove to ensure that the pirate haven wasn’t discovered while Dain practiced his talents on the open seas. He’d worked hard to lure these creatures here, hoping they’d sense his magic and come. Until now, land-bound stalkers had been the adept’s primary concern, and though those demons were fierce foes, they were afraid of the sea. A single drop of saltwater burned them; a decent splash would kill them. But these new stalkers were unknown, untested, and Dain knew they’d never stand a chance of finding the rightful bearer or stopping this war if the skies were full of invincible monsters. Plus, he’d never be able to keep Sable safe—keep her from being ripped from his arms again. The emperor wouldn’t stop searching for her; she was far too valuable. In fact, Sable’s talent had grown so powerful that she could shift entire battalions from one location to another with a wave of her hands. This made her the ultimate weapon of war, a perfect guerrilla tactician, an invader’s dream. So, not only did Dain want Sable by his side, safe and sound, he also couldn’t let her power fall into the hands of the enemy ever again.
Casper cried out from the crow’s nest above. “The demons are gaining on us!”
Several pirates spewed curses toward the monsters, and one even pitched a dagger, but Dain didn’t get to see if the weapon flew far enough to hit its intended target as he turned to focus on the breeze, encouraging the wind to push harder. He had to make sure there was just the right amount of space between the ship and the beasts for his experiment to work. His mastery of the water element was limited, so if the creatures were too far, he might miss, but if they were too close, the seawater might land with no effect and they wouldn’t be able to outrun them.
More steely screams pierced the skies as the wind hurled toward the sails. The ship creaked loud under the pressure, and Dain saw sailors scramble to stabilize the rigging before he glanced backward once again. They had gained some space, but not much—it was now or never. Motioning to the pirate waiting on his right, Dain urged the woman to the helm before he ran for the portside rail. Stretching his hand toward the current below, he waved his fingers, beckoning. The water was often reluctant to his call, their relationship with each other still rough, but to Dain’s relief, the element responded with vigor today, balling into dozens of globular projectiles. Perhaps somehow the water knew what was at stake? Jord said the elements were entities, of sorts, and Dain could only guess at what they understood.
He spun, flinging his arm wide to direct the miniature water bombs toward the flying stalkers while he urged the wind to help the globes strike true. Then he prayed to Donnamide, the lord of the sea, that the ocean would have the same effect as it did on the land-bound stalkers, and that this whole plan would be worth the risk.
His prayer went unanswered, or at least the first half did.
The water splattered like raindrops against the beasts, dribbling down their oily skin to no effect. A chorus of sour, laugh-like taunts followed, filling the air as their heavy wings beat harder.
Casper reiterated Dain’s curse out loud before hollering, “Get us out of here!”
Pirates cinched the sails, trying to ramp up the ship’s speed.
Dain sent a destabilizing gust toward the monsters, but the creatures were strong, and they lunged against the flow, throwing their arms forward like they were swimming.
Dain only had one more trick up his sleeve, but it wasn’t going to be easy. Jord had taught him how to harness his talent in a more economical way, but magic still required physical endurance, and while Dain might not have tired as fast as before, his talents would drain him, eventually. If a storm had already been on the horizon, his next idea would have been far less work. But creating a tempest from scratch, on a clear, sunny morning, was another feat entirely.
The ship creaked again, and this time the mainmast bowed under the weight of the wind.
Dain had no choice. He called for the crew to batten the sails as he raised his arms to the skies. He didn’t need hand motions to direct his talent like Sable did, but after weeks of practice he’d found that the movements helped him to concentrate, to focus.
Small fingers clamped onto his leg.
Idris stood beside him, knuckles white on Dain’s thigh. The child was supposed to have hidden after he’d finished releasing the crew—why was he still here?
“Let me do it,” Idris said. His ancient fuchsia eyes were wide, making them a little eerie.
Another screech bellowed, closer than before.
Dain looked from the boy to the aft of the ship, his mind whirring as he remembered how Leara An, Idris’s sister, had taken control of his body and talents months ago on The Maiden. She’d done it to save them all, but the feeling had been wrong, invasive; it was something Dain had never wanted to experience again. However, the girl had wielded his magic with might. She’d been powerful, swift, calculated and precise, and Dain figured Idris could probably do the same. If Dain let him, the child might be able to call the storm in an instant.
The ship was slowing now, and one of the monsters managed to breach the swirling air, grappling for the railing at the stern, his long claws slicing across the decorative wood before the wind toppled him backward, thrusting him just out of reach again.
Casper called from above, urging Dain in a half-sarcastic, half-breathless cry to think of something fast before they all became harpy fodder. Some of the crew nodded in agreement while others muttered prayers to Orthane—maybe Dain had been too hasty in calling these pirates fearless? They were right, though. He would tire, the wind would die, and it wouldn’t be long before the beasts overtook the ship. No matter how skilled he or Casper were with a sword, or how notoriously vicious these pirates might be in a fight, it was unlikely they’d survive against these giants. Dain’s earlier terror-induced thoughts came roaring back into his head now. Who was he to stop a war?
The child pulled at his pant leg again, more urgently.
Dain’s jaw clenched.
Then, without looking down at the boy, he gave Idris his hand.
Small fingernails sliced into his palm, and the weight and primal drive of Idris’s power invaded Dain’s body. The child took over everything that should’ve been Dain’s own, bending it to his will, and the elements didn’t even resist the call.
It was only moments before the skies darkened, before the rain pelted and the thunder rolled. The tempest raged, tilting and throwing The Gilded Pearl so violently that most of the crew were tossed from their stations. The stalkers were vaulted by the storm into the skies above, but somehow Idris kept both himself and Dain rooted on the spot. The boy’s draw made Dain’s knees grow weak, but he tried to steel himself against the physical exertion. He needed to finish what he started, and find out whether or not these monsters had a chink in their unnatural armor.
An ivory-blue bolt ripped from the crimson clouds to raze the flesh of the nearest beast, the one who’d clawed the deck rail. The monster didn’t even flinch on impact; the bolt just glanced off his violet frame. Dain cursed as Idris tried again, and again, all to no avail. Despite the boy’s hold over his body, Dain started to crumple, and as the rain dripped off the end of his nose, he yelled above the storm.
“Enough, Idris! They are made, like you and the stalkers. We can’t kill them with magic.”
The ancient gaze in Idris’s eyes faded, replaced by the shock and fear of a child. Dain should’ve known this would happen. At the very least, the experiment had proven one thing—the monsters were invincible. Even if they all died here today, his friends and family would know what they were up against. He’d left a note for Sable. They’d been communicating via shifted messages since she left, and this morning he’d written out his plan in detail, leaving it for her to take tonight.
Dain reached out to shove the child toward the captain’s quarters. “You did good, Idris. It’s not your fault. Now get inside, find the trap door I showed you, and hide. Don’t come out, no matter what you hear.” At least Dain knew the boy would be safe. The stalkers couldn’t sense him, and Sable would come back for Idris the minute she got Dain’s note.
The child’s bottom lip quivered, and Dain had to shove him one more time before he stumbled away to obey. As soon as the cabin doors closed, Dain pulled his sword from his belt.
Casper was beside him moments later, rapier in hand. “Ye’ve a knack for getting us into trouble, mate.”
Dain heaved an exhausted sigh, the winds, rain, and thunder ebbing away. “And you have a knack for joining me, willingly.”
Casper’s handsome face broke into a wide grin. “What? Like I’d miss all the fun?” His gaze flitted to the sky where the stalkers had regrouped and were preparing to dive. “Let’s see how these beasts like the taste of steel, shall we?”
The crew had regrouped after being dispersed by the impromptu storm, and they now stood with swords, daggers, and axes brandished and ready. A few of the pirates looked concerned, but most appeared eager, almost like they’d been waiting for this the whole time.
Fearless after all.
The monsters above somersaulted into a nosedive, their piercing screams making Dain wish he could cover his ears. If he survived this, Sable was going to be furious with him for being so reckless. Sable—he didn’t want to leave her. Dain’s sword arm drooped. He’d been a fool to think he could pull this off. He should’ve been smarter; he should’ve had another contingency plan in place. Who was he to stop a war, who was he—
He took a deep breath. Mo had once said that no one can escape the consequences of their choices, not unless they spend their lives running. Dain tightened his grip on his sword again. He was tired of running.
The smell hit him first, the stalkers’ pungent scent reminding Dain of rotting fish.
He hated fish.
Clenching his jaw, loosening his knees, Dain readied himself to engage.
Hope you had fun reading, if you’re interested, The Rightful Bearer is available here in my shop and also on Amazon as well.