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TREMENDOUS WARSHIPS rose on both sides of him like featureless black walls. He listened intently for sounds of alarm, of outrage, certain he’d be spotted—there was no way he wouldn’t be! But all he heard was the steadily diminishing background roar of fire, its receding wall of flame shimmering off the dark bay waters, and the gentle sloshing of waves as the Arilyceum cut through them. He had caught a steady breeze and was navigating it expertly, making his way closer, ever closer, to open ocean. Out there he’d be almost impossible to spot—especially at night. If he could just make it! If he could just …
A demonic shriek pierced the night air, directly above him. He didn’t think: he let go of the captain’s wheel and dropped flat on his belly, his heart pounding madly. He came shakily to his knees after angrily cursing at himself to get up!—get up!—GET UP! He grasped the wheel again, sightless for what he was sailing towards, as another shriek, then another, sounded out. Then: distant voices—human. One spoke Thesean. “Where?” it demanded. “Point it out to me, you incompetent buffoon!” A few frozen seconds … “I see nothing … Wait. What is that? A singleship?”
Another bone-chilling shriek. A wake of demonic air blew into his bare, blistered back as the monster cleared the mainmast. He stood to get a quick read on his bearings, then crouched again. He felt nauseous with fear.
He’d been discovered.
What a fool he’d been, thinking he could escape, that he actually stood a chance!
Shrieks sounded out all around him now. Multiple flashes from the tops of those huge ships, and from smaller ones just in front. They were coming to get him. He had seconds to live.
And then, that feeling: that sense of easy finality and acceptance. It clashed violently with his cascading panic. You are the prompt, it seemed to say. Prompt the Ari.
Prompt—the Arilyceum? Prompt an inanimate object? Surely he was going mad! He held up, indecision and the sense of rapidly closing doom flooding through him. His body trembled; he redoubled his grasp on the captain’s wheel to keep from simply pitching himself overboard.
A flash just behind him. The stern of the boat suddenly dipped, as though a huge weight had been dropped there. He stood, turned.
The demon grinned at him, its sword already drawn. It growled something in a foreign language and advanced on him.
He didn’t know how he did what he did next. Instead of jumping overboard, he closed his eyes and, ludicrously, sought for that calm acceptance, as though he had more than a split second to live. He found it. He forced his consciousness through its gates and yelled, “PROTECT ME! PLEASE PROTECT ME!”
It all happened in slow motion. He opened his eyes to see the demon bringing its sword down, the thin edge of the blade like fire-tinted lightning aiming for the crown of his skull. He ducked left, and the blade struck a hand’s width away on the captain’s wheel. The blade sparked as it bounced off the wood—
—wood that should have cleaved cleanly in two with such force. The sound was so sharply loud that his head felt like it had been punched. He moved again—straight through the Mephastophian’s legs and to the stern, where he stood, crouching low, ready to move again, ready to launch himself overboard. The monster turned to face him. There were more overhead, screeching, waiting their turn.
That sense of ease flooded through him again, slowed his pounding heart, filled his straining lungs. It infuriated him because this wasn’t the time to feel settled and calm, but fight or flee! Without really thinking, he focused again and said, “ARI, PROTECT YOURSELF!”
The Mephastophian growled then lunged—
But Kaza didn’t have to move this time. The thrusting broadsword missed him entirely. The demon dropped the weapon and shrieked. It raised its great horned head to the dark sky and bellowed something—again in a foreign language—and then, as he watched, astonished, started melting right there, its clawed feet bubbling, then its huge legs, then up. The stench was overpowering. It cried out, writhing in place, sinking into its own armor, reaching for him, reaching for anything at all. It squealed so loudly Kaza thought his eardrums would explode.
With nothing but its trunk and head still intact, the monster pitched forward into the large puddle of disgusting black bubbling goo that had once been its feet and legs and hips, and, splashing down with a wet thud, burbled its last into the melting flesh of its form. The dissolving goo evaporated completely away, leaving only its armor behind. Kaza had backed up to the very stern of the boat and then onto its edge, his feet raised to keep from touching the stuff; he stared down now at the pristine deck in amazement—
—and was suddenly snatched up from behind and into the air. The demon that had him cried out in victory. It lifted over the mainmast as he yelled: the monster's talons dug deeply into his raw flesh. He cursed at it as that feeling of acceptance stole once more through him; he cried, “ATTACK EACH OTHER, NOT ME! LET—ME—GO!”
The demon released him—from a dangerous height. The fall seemed to take forever. When he hit the water the force of the impact completely knocked the wind out of him. He came up sputtering, fighting to stay conscious and gasping for air, the wounds from the talons stinging fiercely from the saltwater rushing into them. The water was ice cold. He cast desperately about for the Ari. But she had sailed on, pilotless, into the darkness. He called out: “Don’t leave me, Ari! Protect yourself! I’ll find you!” He snorted and then vomited: a nasty mix of salty sea water and burning stomach acid: a reaction, surely, to the nonstop terror of the night and the burns and the blisters and the wounds the demon had inflicted on him (were its talons poisonous?). It was difficult to keep his head above water as he gagged. When the convulsions abated he swam in the direction he thought the Arilyceum was.
It was ridiculous to think that the singleship was some sort of conscious aecxal entity—wasn’t it? Yes. It was. Far more likely that the Infinitum had in fact granted his last wish before disintegrating into nothingness.
The Ari could protect herself! And she could protect him!
For now. But how long would the Infinitum’s power last?
The screeching of demons had increased a hundredfold; it sounded like an entire legion of them was just overhead. None of them bothered swooping down on him, even though he had to be plainly visible.
The talon wounds were sapping his will to swim on, twinging fiercely with every stroke; so too the coldness of the water and the fact that he couldn’t see the Ari anywhere. It was too dark! He wondered if he was bleeding to death. His spine ached; his entire left side, which impacted the water first, felt like one enormous, stinging bruise over dozens of oozing blisters. He fought the urge to puke again, worried that if the wounds didn’t kill him the poison they possibly carried would.
Suddenly, a massive broadside of cannonfire—
BOOOOM! BOOM! BOOOM!BOOM!BOOM! BOOOOOOOOOOOOM!
—from the warship closest to him!
At him? No, he wouldn’t be here wondering! Then— at whom?
He got his answer when the warship just across the way, closest to this one and of the same size and shape, responded, sixty or more of its cannons flaring orange for a split second:
The cannonfire ZOOOOOOOOOOOOMED! overhead and into the great black hull of the closest warship. Flaming chunks of wood flew off it, splashed down threateningly around him. He ducked under, then came up and sprinted full-on in the direction the Ari had sailed.
And now the smaller ships were getting in on the attack!
Thump! Thump! Thumpthumpthump! BOOOOOOOM!
The Gyssians were attacking each other! Each other!
And then—all at once—all-out war. It sounded like a titanic battle fought in the lightless lake of hell itself. The broadsides were coming so often it wasn’t possible to tell when one ended and another began. The warships were all raising sails and attempting to navigate around one another while sending manic fire at each other. At any moment there must have been hundreds of tons of lead flying over him. The sky above the firefight was alight with strobe flashes of Gyssian soldiers and demons as they met in mid-air to do battle.
A frigate just ahead exploded.
Kaza had to duck under again; he came up sputtering. Flaming debris—and now bodies—floated all around him. But the orange-white mushroom bloom of the explosion had revealed the small triangular silhouette of the Ari, he was sure of it. She was just ahead and to the right, maybe ten minutes’ swim time—and in the direct line of fire. He doubled the stroking of his arms, crying out against the pain, as the barrage continued, as burning rubble dropped all around him and shrieking demons and crying seagulls and pelicans and terns and cormorants winged angrily overhead. They all ignored him.
He swam furiously for the singleship, hoping he could overcome its speed with his own, refusing to consider the lunacy of such a notion. He had to keep his head above water in order to keep from running into the flotsam. The strain made his shoulders burn and his spine send sharp shooting pains to his fingertips and toes. The wounds in his back and sides throbbed incoherently, and the nausea still threatened. But everything had been dunked under the current of hope that he could still somehow escape.
From the water the Arilyceum looked, miraculously, untouched. The singleship had slowed to a standstill as though it had been waiting for him to swim to her. He approached from behind, climbed aboard using the stern ladder, and fell exhausted and shivering to the deck next to the empty, huge Gyssian armor of an annihilated demon. The sky immediately above was a lined, glowing orange sheet of cannonfire. The noise was so intense he felt his head would split open any moment. Its thunder layered over its own echoes, raising its volume by the second, renting the air with its fury. Hands over his ears, he raised himself and glanced down on his body.
He was bleeding freely from at least four open puncture wounds, three of which were on his back. He couldn’t see those, but a gentle swipe with his hand over all of them yielded, in turn, rich red blood, which dripped thickly off his palm. The wound he could see, just below his rib cage on his right side, hurt the most. The talon had gone through a blister as wide as his fist, adding to the agony. He stared at the gory hole, horrified, unsure what to do.
He came to his feet and grasped the captain’s wheel. “Onward, girl!” he yelled, barely able to hear himself. “Onward!”
The gust of gunpowder-rich air that filled the Ari’s sails next moment made him whoop out in victory. It worked! It was as though Nature Herself was trying to help him escape!
Under the back-and-forth of furious cannonfire he sailed. Gyssians warred upon each other with unconstrained violence.
And Kaza knew that he had somehow started it.
But—how much longer would that wish last? He refused to think about it.
Hunks of flaming wood and burning ash fell onto the singleship like Hell's own rain. But they’d disappear instantly on impact, leaving behind nothing but rising smoke, which trailed behind the Ari, protecting her even more from sight. He navigated her as best he could away from the worst of it, zig-zagging his route ever closer to the open
. At times he had to sail directly
between two warships firing round after round of broadsides at one another;
he’d hit the deck at such times—the ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!
of the cannonballs so close overhead he was sure that if he stood on his
tip-toes he’d be struck headless. He was sure the singleship was in fact being
struck, but the only evidence of such was very brief, dull gray flashes along
the mainmast and, occasionally, along the hull itself, which sent up high
sprays of water that rained back down on him. Once or twice the flashes would
happen on the deck itself, mere inches from him. Senecum Ocean
Was he invulnerable as well? He glanced down at the one bloody talon wound he could see.
He tried not to think about how close death was from him such times; he tried not to think at all. The striking iron seemed as harmless and insubstantial as angels’ wings. Or perhaps the Ari, having been transformed by the Infinitum (only temporarily?), was now far more substantial than ordinary matter, so much so that minor things like huge flying cannonballs couldn’t affect her.
The breeze filling the Arilyceum's sails was entirely selective and utterly magical. It was also unrelentingly cold. Kaza, wearing only his soaking, filthy breeches, shivered uncontrollably. He felt like one massive, freezing sting.
The wound he could see was leaking blood at a frightful rate. Once as a child he’d hammered a nail straight through the palm of his hand while helping his father put up a fence. The gushing blood had made him as scared as the sickening image of a thin silver metal spike sticking out of his flesh. The blood loss from the talon rivaled that wound. Multiplied by four wounds total, it probably meant he was slowly bleeding to death.
He grasped the captain’s wheel like it was his last lifeline to freedom and did battle against the singular hopeless terror that, for all his efforts, he was dying. He couldn’t let go of the wheel: not yet. The Infinitum may have granted the Ari remarkable properties, but it most certainly did not make her self-guiding. That was his duty.
Ships passed by; sometimes they abruptly altered course and came straight at him. Always their great cannons blazed. Once he sailed too close to a mid-sized destroyer and the Arilyceum’s starboard side ground up against it as he desperately spun the captain’s wheel to get out of the way. Looking back, he saw a long, thin, deep gouge on the warship's hull. He worried that the Ari was damaged. He let go of the wheel just long enough to go and check.
The singleship was untouched.
He pumped his fists into the air in victory, then bent over double, clutching at himself, dropping weakly to his knees. That … hurt. When he thought he could hobble over to the wheel without passing out, he came unsteadily to his feet and, still crouching, eased himself back to it.
Just ahead was … blackness.
. Senecum Ocean
He gazed over his shoulder at the still-raging battle, at the now-distant orange flames blooming like evil flowers over Puowbalpom.
He was going to make it!
But as he turned to look ahead, a horrible cold gripped him, a cold that didn’t bluster into his bare back from the steady breeze, but seemed to come from somewhere deep inside his very soul. It was so cold, so stifling, that he couldn’t help but let go of the wheel and clutch once more at himself. And then a horrible voice sounded out in his mind, one that contained multitudes, like an entire angry village speaking the same thing at the same time:
—Fools! Cease fighting! A Mathematician has escaped—a Dreamcatcher has sensed his presence! He sails from Theseus! From the bay! Find him! Kill him!—
All at once, the great firefight stopped.
The silence that descended was far more terrifying than the battle's deafening roar.
He huddled in himself, shaking so hard from cold that he couldn’t bring himself to stand. His breath left his lungs in a deathly fog. The breeze filling the Ari’s sails had died. The singleship floated still in the water.
Kaza was sure of it. The nightmare Normalas said was responsible for the invasion of all of Aquanus had just spoken.
The nightmare responsible for the extermination of his entire country and all its inhabitants, his family and his sister and Uncle Hawk. All save him.
The nightmare who just ordered the whole of his Thesean invasion force to find him and kill him.
The nightmare—the Mathematician—who somehow thought he, Kaza, was a Mathematician. He, Kaza, who couldn’t even Transform without the help of a priceless piece of now-extinct Infinitum. He, Kaza, who was slowly bleeding to death. He, Kaza—a Mathematician.
He chuckled. The sound was like the mutated, unwanted child of a whimper and his earlier retching.Freedom? He was farther away from it than ever before.