WE’D BEEN sailing through a storm the past day and a half, forcing me to ground our Scouts. We now estimate that we’re actually ten to fourteen days, not eight, of hard sailing to get to the southeast shores of the Sankyan Wilderness.
The Captain maintained a steady vigil at the wheel while Ghaeng barked out orders. The seas were rough—twenty-five to thirty feet—the rain and wind constant, with occasional thunderstorms and lightning.
The Captain is a proven master at keeping his charges focused and positive. He joined the crew last night for a round of Texas Hold’em. He brought a bottle of Irish whiskey which he offered up as a prize to the ultimate winner (we were playing with toothpicks). A young midsilo named Jomuvo, probably not even of legal age to drink in the United States, won it. He split the bounty among his comrades. As Failure road up and down big swells, we sang August and Arrow drinking songs and let the night rage heedlessly on.
These were the conditions this big Zephyr boat loved the most. We could almost feel her joy as she plowed into another wave, as the wind whipped about her and the rain lashed down on her decks. This was when she was most formidable.
We woke to a violent thunderstorm that sent not one but two bolts of lightning down on our primary mainmast. No one was injured. Later in the morning, we watched a waterspout form a mison off our port quarter. It kissed the angry sea, a twisting black and gray menace that reminded us of the Day of Fire and Ice.
Luckily, it did not molest us, but snaked away, then dissipated a minute later. We took it as a sign—a good one. The Pier gods were watching out for us. That’s what the crew were saying.
Half an hour later, the sun cracked the rushing sky. By noon we were sailing calm seas, with a steady, cool breeze at our backs and King Ammalinaeus occasionally peeking through haze fronted by rain-stuffed gray-white clouds.
In the early evening we received an Arrowsparrow from King’s Perch:
Vorddra est. 2.981E b -0.335 SSW;
ref. HC Lucanson Arilyceum; all speed!
ref. HC Lucanson Arilyceum; all speed!
We dipped our sea paper and got our current reading. We were sitting at 3.003 b -0.337. We quickly ran the triangulation. Our faces fell when we saw the truth staring up at us. We were well behind the Vorddra, as much as two hundred fifty misons.
The Captain, as I suppose all captains are wont to do during such times, slammed his fist on the planning table.
“We haven’t her speed, we’re at least two days behind her ... we’re going to need a big helpin’ of luck, methinks!”
He glanced at the Helmsman, who had the paper. “Expand the scope.”
This Orilo did. At a hundred misons, as mentioned previously, the edge of the sea paper gets blurry. Sometimes it clears suddenly and you can see what’s out there, or what it thinks is out there. We gathered in close and examined its edges, hoping to catch a quick glimpse of the Vorddra. But after twenty minutes, it was obvious that the sea paper wasn’t able to help us out.
“We need to know where that Imperial is, and we need to know now!” growled the Captain.
He glanced at me.
“We’ll be ready when needed, sir,” I said.
I am only now strong enough to fully consider what happened.
I’m still in the Infirmary. Our Chief Healer, Shybanit (“Shyban-ee”), is working on my leg and shoulder.
I’m very lucky to be alive.
We found the Vorddra. It may be too late to stop her. I don’t know.
More tomorrow after the funeral. For now, I need rest.
On my feet.
I’ve got two circular one-inch scars on my left calf, brand new. The Healers couldn’t get rid of them. It’s where the Mephastophian bit me.
First things first. Two days after assuring the Captain that the Scouts would be ready, the sea paper, its function dialed up all the way, displayed the following data set at its very edge:
Speed: 6.75 MiPH
Speed: 6.75 MiPH
I saw it with both Ghaeng and Cays. The ship’s size was indeterminate. We knew from Cays that it was an Imperial fast frigate, a little larger than one of our feints. The information lasted for all of three seconds and was gone. It didn’t come back.
Was it true? If so, that damn boat was only a hundred misons ahead! Against all reason, we were catching up!
I immediately informed the Captain, who yelled the information to the crew, who had been working on four hours of sleep for over a week. Excited for the good news, they shouted their excitement and got back to work.
The storm helped. As I said before, the Failure is a Zephyr-designed warship. It was built for storms. The Vorddra wasn’t.
The Pier gods were smiling down at us!
I ordered two of my swiftest scouts to accompany me—Tom and Yavoki. Tom was just a kid, Earth-born, only nineteen years old. Yavoki was forty-five, and had fought in the Day of Fire and Ice. She was Arrow by birth, and a gritty, fiery badass.
Their funerals were a couple of hours ago.
We launched from Failure in the early morning light. Our mission was to scout as far ahead as we could for any sign of the Imperial.
Tom’s and Yavoki’s Transforms were albatrosses. I’m a seagull. Albatrosses are excellent long-distance fliers, capable of staying airborne for years if need be. Seagulls aren’t quite as capable. Still, during training exercises, I spent ten weeks flying up and down the Mexican coast, landing only for a few seconds for easy fish swimming near the surface.
I was in great shape and ready to lead the mission. Tom and Yavoki were anxious but ready to go.
We glided west over the deep blue of the Senecum Ocean after leveling off at a mison altitude.
Ammalinaeus’ striped majesty kept watch over us from the south. To the west and north, pearl-white fog blanketed the sea for an indeterminate distance in both directions. We could just make out the very distant peaks of the Sankyan rising above it.
I gazed over my right wing. —What do you think, Kals?—
Yavoki shook her head.
I looked over my left wing. —Tom?—
—I think we’re going to have to eventually go into it, sir.—
He didn’t sound at all enthusiastic, and for good reason.
Saeire Insu Scouts are trained to gauge distance and speed by sense alone. We were flying at Standard 3, which was the speed for medium-altitude reconnaissance given optimum conditions: slight or no breeze, clear skies, no detected threats in the immediate vicinity. At this speed we could cover three hundred misons in about ten hours.
—Standard 2,— I ordered, slowing us down. —Spread to one-eighth mison and maintain heading. We’re going in. Ten minutes in; three up and hold. If you see the Imperial, call out. Let’s go.—
—Aye, sir!— they shouted in unison, and arced away.
After the fifth sky-up, where, after ten minutes, we rise above the fog to locate each other and report, neither joined me.
I waited another three minutes, calling out to them. We were just over a hundred misons from the Failure.
One’s Voice can be trained to reach over a mison. It takes a lot of work to get it that far. I knew Tom’s Voice was the strongest of all of ours, but even it could barely reach half a mison. My Voice can be heard at a quarter mison; Yavoki’s just slightly less than that.
The strongest Voice in the Saeire Insu is thought to belong to either the Commander of the Sentinel Phantasme, Luis Arroyo, or the king himself. Both are capable of projecting their Voice almost ten misons, which is otherworldly.
I descended back into the fog bank. My compatriots’ absence was ominous. In such instances, the strategy is to get within sight of the water, which in this case put me just over it. The fog was so thick that I could only see a few meters ahead.
It was then I heard Tom’s Voice. It was barely audible and choked with agony:
—First Watch,— he called, —First Watch ...—
He must have seen me, because he cried out: —FIRST WATCH!—
I caught sight of him. He was human again and in the mouth of a Mephastophian as the monster flew back to the Vorddra, which I also spied. The demon bit down, and Tom died, his form going limp, blood running in streams off the monster’s jaw.
How could the Imperials see us? We were cloaked with Antarctic Cottonwood!
Shadow suddenly shut out the light, and a sharp pain erupted on my right wing.
I was falling.
I flashed just before I splashed down. As a human, I wasn’t injured; still, I could feel the effects of whatever struck my wing, possibly enough to keep me from moving it. If I flashed back, I would likely bleed to death. I didn’t know.
The demon was on top of me before I could react. Its massive claws tried snatching me out of the water as it passed overhead. It grabbed for my head, but by then I had my sword. It swished up and cut the monster’s claw off. The demon fell spinning into the ocean seven feet away. It screamed and was suddenly on top of me. It sank its teeth into my leg and tried goring me with a dagger that would’ve been a regular sword in anyone else’s grip, but missed. I twisted and struck again. The beast wasn’t ready for my Daen-Cer-Tain training. It gazed about, confused, a split-second before I drove my blade into its brain.
It died. But a third demon was launching off the Vorddra, which fired a broadside at me. Water splashed high very close. I flashed and, shrieking against blinding agony, launched into the fog.
I could only go a hundred meters or so before the pain became too great. I was gliding so close to the water that my wingtips touched it. I flashed back and splashed down. By sheer coincidence I surfaced right next to Yavoki—what was left of her. There was no sign of the demon that had killed her. Somehow she was still floating. I won’t describe what she looked like.
Somehow Imperials could see us, even though we were under the cloak of Antarctic Cottonwood!
It bloody well didn’t matter. The Mephastophians were very close. The fog was the only thing keeping me alive. I flashed and launched once more into it. I can’t tell you how hard it was not to cry out.
That’s how I got back to the Failure. I’d go as far as I could—maybe up to a half-mison, most times much less than that—and flash back and splash into the sea. I’d sputter and come up again, knowing that my seagull form was bleeding to death. I was having trouble focusing. I wasn’t sure I was even flying in the right direction. Fatigue and shock gripped me like a warm, limp, unrelenting blanket. They urged me to sink, just sink, and be done with it, just let go, just rest ...
I didn’t remember leaving the fog.
What seemed like hours later, after using my Voice to yell as far as I could, I was spied by Failure’s Scouts, who descended to my aid. I was certain the Vorddra and its demons were just behind me.
As great good luck would have it, they weren’t.
I don’t remember being pulled out of the ocean. I just remember the Scouts landing next to me and assuring me I was going to be all right.