Weekly Free Story – The Plight of the Arshion

Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Each Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!

Enjoy!

The Plight of the Arshion

Thugri Sound, Isamoa 9th, 399 VF (Vaarck’s Founding)

The Bosun’s shrill whistle screaming through her skull awoke Rhione from the bliss of sleep.

Groaning, she snapped her eyes open, staring up at the hammock swinging above her head. Her body didn’t want to move, but she forced herself to sit up in her own hammock, brushing strands of her white-blonde hair from her brown face.

Theisseg’s scrawny feathers,” she muttered, cursing the Storm Goddess for interrupting her sleep. She’d been up past the midnight watch patching the starboard hold of the Arshion. A small skyreef had struck the whaler near sunset. Thugri Sound was rife with the obstacles, and the lookout should have been paying more attention. They were lucky that it had only been a small reef that had collided with the ship, a boulder the size of a fat sow instead of a massive rock. It didn’t damage any of the ship’s frames—the ribs of the ship that ran along the hull from port to starboard—and only cracked a few of the hull’s planks.

Rhione rolled out of her hammock, trying to blink back the weight of sleep from her eyes. She grimaced, the deck cold on her bare feet. She forced herself to stand up, joining the rest of the night watch as they struggled out of their hammocks, men and women cursing and grousing.

What minnow’s crawled up the Cap’n’s skirt?” muttered Dhith, his portly face flushed red as he stepped out of the quartermaster’s stores.

Don’t know, dear, I was sleepin’,” Rhione muttered to her husband. She just wanted to lean against Dhith’s solid frame, close her eyes, and drift off into . . . She shook her head, trying to make her mind work.

Pirates,” muttered Three-Finger Tharsh, the oldest sailor on the Arshion, his face as wrinkled as a year-old prune. “It’s gonna be pirates.”

The grime of sleep fell off Rhione as her heart thudded to life. Agerzak pirates. They haunted Thugri Sound, riding on their strange beasts across the skies. After two years of sailing the Great Empty hunting for whales, the Arshion was heading home to Shuutan and passing through the most dangerous part of their voyage: the stretch through Thugri Sound. The Sound was the border between the Autonomy of Les-Vion to the south—Rhione and the rest of the crew’s nation—and the Agerzak Kingdom of Estapf to the north. Every year, Agerzak pirates took a few whalers out of the hundreds that plied the Sound, forcing their crews to fly the captured ships to the nearest Agerzak port.

Lucky crews were ransomed. Most weren’t. The pirates just wanted the whale oil.

Rhione formed the sun with her thumb and pinkie. “Riasruo defend us,” she muttered as she climbed up the steep steps out of the hold and onto the well deck, the Goddess’s feathery rays falling on her slim shoulders.

Take your battle stations!” bellowed the beefy Bosun, thrusting a crossbow and leather quiver full of bolts into Rhione’s calloused hand. “We gots an unfriendly ship behind us.”

She actually felt relieved. The Agerzak pirates never had ships. At least they didn’t two years ago. A lot could’ve changed.

Sailors scrambled through the rigging, unfurling the sails to full. A great gust whipped down the ship as the Windwarden increased the breeze, propelling the Arshion faster through the skies. Grioch, the slimy Windwarden, had been lucky when he’d received his Blessing. Riasruo, the Sun Goddess, had granted him Major Wind.

There were four different categories of Blessing—Mist, Wind, Pressure, and Lightning—that could come in three different strengths—Minor, Moderate, or Major. Every worshiper of Riasruo was granted a combination of Blessings at seventeen. The Goddess had blessed Rhione with Moderate Mist, allowing her to see through thick clouds and precipitate moisture from the air, and Minor Lightning, granting her immunity to electricity. Thanks to Grioch’s Blessing of Major Wind, he could power the Arshion’s engine, allowing her to fly, and could generate the breezes to propel her across the skies.

Don’t just stand there!” the Bosun bellowed at her.

Rhione glowered at the squat-faced man. As the ship’s chief carpenter, she had equal rank to the Bosun and the Quartermaster. Only the First Mate and the Captain stood higher than her.

I don’t care that you ain’t under my command,” the Bosun grunted. “You get your backside to the gunwale and prepare to defend the ship!”

Aye,” she muttered, shrinking from his boarish rage. Her hands shook as she clutched the crossbow. She’d never used one in her life.

The Bosun thrust one into her husband’s hands. Dhith’s jowls paled. This can’t be how it ends. We didn’t just spend two years plyin’ the Great Empty for it to end just a week out from home.

Ma!”

Rhione’s son raced up, his skinny face thick with fear. Chev served as the cabin boy on the Arshion while learning his parents’ trade. It was his first voyage, and he’d grown so much, sprouting into gangly youth, his brown face sporting a few red pimples. He’d soon have a man’s height and build. Rhione’s spine stiffened; she couldn’t afford to be afraid.

Get below deck!” she snapped at her son. “Ain’t no place for you up here.”

But it’s my job to run out the crossbow bolts. I gots to do my job.”

Fear and pride warred inside her. Chev was such a hard worker, eager to become a full member of the crew. He already knew all the various knots, hitches, bends, splices, loops, and bindings to manage the complicated rigging of the Arshion. Once he gained his strength, he’d make a fine sailor.

You mind your ma,” Dhith snapped.

Sorry, Pa!” Chev yelled, running to the stairs leading below deck. “I need to fetch another barrel of bolts.”

To the gunwale!” the Bosun bellowed at Rhione, cracking his scarred knuckles.

She knew the Bosun wouldn’t spare hitting her just because of her sex, so she joined her husband at the gunwale, the railing that lined the Arshion’s three decks. She kept throwing quick glances over her shoulders, keeping an eye on her son as he lugged a heavy barrel out of the hold, stony points of crossbow bolts sticking out of the top. He set it on the deck, ready to run resupplies to the ship’s defenders.

Stormin’ winds, that’s me and Dhith.

Rhione leaned her crossbow on the gunwale, her hands shaking as she stared out at the open, blue sky above Theisseg’s Storm, struggling to still the tremble in her hands. I’m forgettin’ somethin’. She looked at the wooden crossbow, a string made of wound carp guts connected the weapon’s arms. She hadn’t loaded it. Get it together. Don’t be no downyheaded fool now! She cranked back the windlass, the bone mechanism clicking and clacking before she settled a bolt on the cradle. With a breath, she aimed out at the sky.

Here they come!” roared the Captain from the stern deck, her voice shrill. “Five Agerzak raiders ridin’ across the sky. Hear that? There’s only five! We can beat them back. We have more numbers. So just feather them with your bolts, and we’ll get through this. Just remember the wealth in the tanks! You’ll all be rich when we get the oil back.”

How can the Captain care ‘bout the whale oil right now?” Rhione muttered, trying not to think about five Agerzak raiders bearing down on them.

It’s all the woman cares about,” snorted Dhith. “She’s probably happy we’re bein’ attacked. The more of us them pirates kill before we beat them back, the bigger her share.”

Get ready!” Captain Rhey’s voice was even more shrill than usual, her panic infecting Rhione’s heart. “They’re comin’ up on the port side.”

Great. Why did we choose this side?” Dhith asked.

Theisseg’s scrawny feathers are rainin’ on us today, dear.”

Her husband reached out and touched her arm, his thick fingers giving her a reassuring squeeze. They had shared their fires for over fifteen years, and while it wasn’t always the most steady burning flame, their marriage had been more good than bad.

It’ll be fine,” he smiled.

The Agerzaks burst around the side of the ship, galloping across the skies. They were all barbaric, hulking men, barely dressed, their pale chests muscled and covered in blue paint. Their beards and hair were all thick and black, flowing behind them as they rode their strange, wingless pegasi across the skies. Every time the beasts’ hooves struck the empty air, fire burst as if they were running upon a sheet of flames across the skies.

Rhione aimed her crossbow at the first rider. This pirate clutched a bow, not holding on to his reins as he drew back an arrow. She fired. Her bolt missed him by more than a few ropes, falling uselessly behind him down into the Storm.

Storm-cursed thing,” she muttered, grabbing the crank.

The pirate released his bow. Agony flared across her temple. Darkness crashed down on Rhione.

* * *

Pain was the first thing that Rhione felt, a throbbing ache right behind her eyes. Her stomach roiled and bile crept up her throat. Her eyes fluttered open, sunlight stabbing into her mind. She heaved her stomach onto the deck of the Arshion.

Dhith,” she muttered, spitting out vile vomit from her mouth. She pushed herself up with her arms. “Dhith. What’s happenin’?”

He’s dead, Ma.”

Her son’s voice was so quiet, a whisper from leagues off even though he knelt right next to her.

Who’s dead?” she asked, her hand going to her temple. Pain flared. Sticky blood stained her hand.

Pa.”

That can’t be. He was right next to me. Dhith! Where are you?”

Her son hugged her, clinging to her. “Pa’s dead. They killed him.”

His tears were hot on her neck. Then her gaze arrested on proof of her son’s words. Her husband’s body lay crumpled on the deck, missing his head.

Horror seized her mind as she gazed across the well deck of the Arshion. Her husband wasn’t the only corpse. Agerzak greatswords had painted the white-yellow well deck of the Arshion red. Her stomach rebelled again.

What’s goin’ on?” she asked, struggling to remember. Everything was so fuzzy. Her head throbbed so badly.

We lost, Ma. The pirates boarded us. They took all the oil onto their ships and—” Her son started, looking up at the shadow that fell on them.

You’re alive,” the Bosun grunted, looming over her and her son. “Cap’n wants to see all the chiefs now. We got plans to make.”

Not now,” Rhione muttered, clutching her son. She wanted to cry, but her head pounded.

Now!” he growled, seizing her arm. “The Theisseg-damned pirates took Grioch.”

Grioch. The name penetrated the fuzz paining her skull. “Our Windwarden?”

He nodded, hauling her to her feet.

But, how are we . . .?” She shivered in dread, glancing at Chev; her fingers made the sun, joining thumb to little finger. “Riasruo defend us.”

We got about a day to find a skyland before the engine’s charge dies and . . .”

We fall into the Storm Below.

We’re at the mercy of Theisseg and her capricious winds,” he continued as they crossed the deck, passing the stunned crew. Many sported bandages, staring with dead eyes at the deck. Men and women broken by the pirates. In the distance, a pair of ships with black hulls and blue sails dwindled as they sailed away. They looked like Vaarckthian corvettes, but no Imperial warship would be painted in those colors.

If we had put in at Onhur, we would’ve known the pirates got ships now. Damn greedy Cap’n. Would a day in port really have ruined the trip?

Captain Rhey waited in her cabin, a map of the Thugri Sound unfurled before her, a compass lying on the parchment along with her other navigation tools. A dotted line drawn with a grease pencil led from the Arshion’s position southwest towards the Skyland of Eche. Behind the Captain, the ship’s lanky scout lounged against a bulkhead, a frown creasing his weathered cheeks.

Cap’n,” the Bosun said. “Me and Rhione are all the officers I could find. Brele’s dead along with the Quartermaster.”

Dhith. Rhione’s heart squeezed with pain.

Sorry to hear, Rhione,” Captain Rhey said, her bony face trying to look sympathetic.

She don’t care. One less person that has to split the . . .

It’s all for naught.” A hysterical laugh bubbled out of Rhione’s lips. “The pirates took it all, didn’t they? Two years of Storm-damned work gone.”

Yes. And worse, the wind isn’t blowin’ us south towards Tlele or Tlovis, but southwest towards Eche. That’s over a day’s sailin’.”

So we’re dead,” muttered Xoar Whalesight. The scout straightened up and ran his fingers through his blond hair. “You still got that bottle of whiskey in here, Cap’n? Think I want to get drunk.”

That ain’t gonna help!” snapped the Captain, her shoulders swelling, her red eyes darting about as her bony fingers squeezed her arms. “We ain’t dead yet. We gots to keep focused. There gots to be a way to squeeze some speed out of the Arshion.” The Captain seized Rhione’s hands in a cold, clammy grip. “Right? You know the ship best.”

We need to lighten the ship,” Rhione whispered.

The Captain’s hands squeezed hard. “Right! Right!” She seized on Rhione’s words, clinging to them. “Lighten the ship. We run at full sails and lighten the ship. The mast’ll hold, right? Runnin’ at full sail won’t cause any problem?”

Unless we hit a squall,” Rhione nodded. “She’ll hold. Probably. I checked out both masts two days past. They’re both still solid and well anchored to the keel.”

Good, good! I need you and your carpenters to disassemble every bit of the ship we don’t need. We’re gonna dump everything over the side.”

Doesn’t matter, we’re dead,” laughed Xoar again as he opened up a cabinet. He found the bottle and ripped the cork off with his teeth. “Too far for me to fly Lucky to a skyland. We’re so dead.” Lucky Chemy was the ship’s only pegasus, and Xoar was the only one with the Blessing of Pressure. A pegasus had trouble flying with a full weight of an adult human, but with Pressure, lift could be generated beneath the mounts wings, letting the pegasus carry greater loads.

The Bosun stalked over, seized the bottle from Xoar’s hand, then marched to one of the porthole windows. He threw out the bottle. “Everythin’ needs to go. Food. Water barrels. Personal property. They’ll all gots to go, Cap’n.”

The Captain nodded at the Bosun. “Even the dead.”

But!” Rhione gasped. “If we don’t burn them, how can we send them to Riasruo?” How can I send Dhith . . .? She shook, a ragged sob ripping out of her throat.

Dhith wouldn’t want you or Chev to die just so he could be properly burned,” whispered the Bosun, putting a strong hand on her shoulder. “You gots to be strong for your boy.”

Rhione sniffed, pulling away from the Bosun. She pushed her grief down for Dhith, bottling it up inside her and sealing it with wax. Later. When Chev’s safe.

Okay, I’ll get to work on tearin’ the holds apart.” She took another breath, thinking about the problem. There was a lot of lumber on the ship that could be dismantled, and that didn’t even count the spare supplies for repairs: barrels of tar, bone nails, ceramic fittings, spare sail, and hemp rope. There was a lot of weight that could be tossed. Hope dawned inside her. “We need to get started right away. I’ll get this ship sailin’ as fast as a Sowerese rake.”

What about my pegasus?” Xoar asked.

We’ll keep her,” the Captain decided. “Just in case. Maybe you and another can fly off the ship if . . .”

I’ll go saddle her,” Xoar muttered. “And maybe pinch a ration of grog before you toss it over the side.”

Once you’re done saddlin’ that beast,” growled the Bosun, “you’ll be joinin’ the crew in tossin’ everythin’ overboard.”

Xoar gave a mocking salute—two fingers to his bushy, brown eyebrows—and pushed past the big Bosun.

Okay! Let’s do it!” the Captain said, rubbing her bony fingers together. “Let’s save my ship.”

Rhione couldn’t watch as the bodies were tossed over the side, so she quickly led her three carpenter mates and ten other sailors down into the holds, Chev at her side. She could only hope Dhith and the others were somehow able to ascend to Riasruo’s fiery sun and be bathed in her warm light forever.

The Arshion had two holds; the crew slept in the middle of the lowest deck on hammocks slung between beams. The ship’s stores of dried food and other goods were kept in the fore of the lower deck while the quartermaster supplies—spare lumber, tar, bone nails, canvas, rope, tools, and more—were kept in the aft. Beyond the quartermaster’s was the engine room where the ship’s heart pulsed. The upper hold was taken up by the storage tanks for the whale oil, the rendering ovens, the galley, and the menagerie where they stabled Lucky Chemy. It lay right under the Captain’s cabin in the aft of the ship. The stern of the ship could unfold, opening onto the skies to let Xoar fly his pegasus in and out of the ship.

Hurhen and Seyele, clear out the food stocks, then disassemble the deckin’. Sruthech and Arthen, start with the quartermaster supplies. Pitch it all over except a tool barrel. Then start rippin’ up the deckin’ in there and the engine room. The rest of us, we’re going to work on the crew’s stuff. Grab every trunk, sack, hammock, and bundle of clothin’. All of it is to be pitched over the side. Then we’ll rip up the deckin’ towards the stairs and move on to the upper hold.”

A fair wind blew as none of them objected. There wasn’t time to spend energy on fighting or bickering. She could see it in their eyes; a burning spark of hope was fueling them. They would work hard and fast, without the usual complaining and lollygagging she normally would expect out of the crew.

Chev was the first to grab a chest. He held it in his arms, carrying the wooden trunk up the stairs, straining to carry the heavy weight. The hammocks were unstrung as Rhione seized another chest, carrying it up the stairs after her son.

He was out of her sight for a moment; her heart beat faster.

Come on, you mottled ostriches!” bellowed the Bosun as she climbed up on deck. “Pitch it over. Clear the Stormin’ deck of everything.”

Chev walked to the gunwale and pitched his chest over the side. Rhione followed and hurtled her box down to the churning Storm below. She watched it dwindle then vanish into the dark-gray clouds, joining her husband in Theisseg’s tempestuous domain. Dhith deserved better than to spend his days at the Storm Goddess’s dark mercies.

Come on, Ma,” Chev said, tugging at her linen shirt sleeve.

Right.” Rhione didn’t have time to grieve. The dead could wait until tomorrow.

The entire crew of the Arshion worked with purpose, tearing down the vast holding tanks that rose up through the well deck from the upper hold, the planks still greasy with traces of whale oil. Even Xoar pitched in, dragging out the frame of the captain’s bed and tossing it over the side. The Captain herself manned the wheel, her eye on the compass, keeping them pointed towards safety.

Sweat covered Rhione’s lean body. Her muscles ached. She ignored it. They couldn’t stop working. More sailors came down after the topside had been cleared, crowding the holds. They dragged up sacks of grain, barrels of grog, ceramic pots and pans, and the entire galley stove. Soon the decking was coming up, leaving the bones of the ship exposed. Then the wall compartmenting the engine came down, the amethyst gem pulsing like a beating heart, shining pale purple through the ship’s naked frames and supports.

The pulses grew slower as evening approached. The charge dwindled, died.

Let’s keep movin’!” bellowed the Bosun. “Still plenty of the ship to dump. Keep at it. If I see any of you minnows takin’ a breather, I’ll pitch you over. I’m lookin’ at you, Arthen! You wanna be dead weight?”

No, Bosun,” Arthen said, the sailor’s back snapping rigid. The Bosun stalked off as Arthen muttered out of the corner of his lips, “Stormin’ shark.”

Rhione didn’t say a word, just tossed the pile of lumber in her hands over the side.

Is the Storm goin’ by faster?

It was hard to tell as the sun sank, painting the dark gray cloud below with orange highlights. But it seemed like the writhing Storm was passing by faster than usual. She leaned on the gunwale, looking out to the southwest, trying to see if Eche was on the horizon. There was something dark, partly hidden by the setting sun.

She smiled, straightening and holding her own hand before the sun to get a better look at the skyland floating in above Theisseg’s eternal tempest.

It wasn’t Eche.

Skyreef!” she shouted.

No one manned on watch. Every member of the crew was needed to lighten the ship. A floating patch of rocks hung in the air before them, coming up fast as the Arshion knifed through the sky. Thugri Sound was plagued with the floating collections of rocks, some the size of a pig, others as big as the Arshion. They were the reason no ship ran the strait as fast as they were.

The skyreef stretched across the sky, dark splotches coming up fast. If they had a Windwarden, the ship could change altitude, ascending or descending to clear the obstacle, or the Windwarden could turn the ship faster with a cross wind, detouring the ship safely around the reef.

Skyreef!” she shouted again, racing for the port stairs up to the poop deck.

Ropes creaked and squeaked as the Captain strained to turn the wheel to port. Rhione reached the top of the deck. She seized one of the pegs-like handles protruding around the outside edge of the wheel, helping the Captain turn the helm. Ropes rasped against ceramic pulleys and wood groaned as the mast spars turned. But the strong wind fought them, the wheel bucking in their hands.

Theisseg damn those pirates,” the Captain hissed, sweat beading her wrinkled brow. “How am I supposed to turn this ship without a Windwarden?”

There’s a gap in it,” Rhione shouted. “See it?”

Yes, I see the Stormin’ gap!” snapped the Captain. “Why do you think I’m turnin’ the ship to port? But turnin’ the wheel ain’t gonna be enough. Not with how fast we’re goin’.” She looked down at the deck. “Do you see the channel, Bosun?”

Aye,” he muttered before blowing his whistle, signaling the crew to their stations.

Shouts of alarm rang out from the crew as they flooded out from below decks, swarming over to the two masts. Barefoot sailors scrambled up into the rigging with ease.

Change the riggin’!” the Bosun bellowed. “Quarter for a port turn! Now! We need to turn six more points to make that channel!”

Ma!” Chev looked up at her from the well deck.

Hold on to somethin’!” Rhione shouted.

The skyreef hurtled closer, the drifting stones growing larger, filling the sky before them. There was a gap between two large boulders that the Arshion’s bow was slowly turning to aim at. But she wasn’t a graceful ship, built wide and thick to hold as much whale oil as possible. Even with a Windwarden, she wallowed through the skies.

A grinding sound split the air. Two of the boulders collided then ground past each other. Smaller specks of rocks splintered off, hurtling out from the reef, sending a school of red-scaled fish scurrying away in a panic.

Please turn,” Rhione prayed, straining with the Captain to move the wheel even a little bit. She jerked. The wheel slipped another few fingerswidth to port, the ropes grinding against the pulleys. She strained to keep a tight grip as the wheel throbbed.

Brace!” the Bosun shouted. “Brace, you Storm-damned guppies!”

The bow turned another few points as the first boulders hurtled past. The Arshion was going far faster than any ship Rhione had ever sailed on. She looked ahead. The ship was almost pointed at the channel.

We’re gonna miss them,” the Captain whispered, her voice high and tight. “I think we’re gonna miss. I can’t lose my ship. We’re not gonna hit, right, Rhione?”

I don’t know,” Rhione gasped, her entire body a ball of tensed muscles.

The massive boulder on the starboard side slowly spun, the rock pitted and cragged by weather, full of jagged spires. The rigging and spars of the foremast was coming up fast to the side. Rhione seized her breath, holding on to the wheel.

The boulder missed the foremast.

But the mainmast’s spar was coming up next; it was wider than the fore. Rhione closed her eyes. She sucked in her breath, her fingers tight on the wheel’s handle.

The boat rocked. A loud, splintering crack resounded. The impact threw Rhione forward, her hand slipping from the wheel. She gasped as the railing of the stern deck slammed into her stomach, the air forced out of her lungs. The ship shuddered, wood snapping and grinding. And then they were past the massive rock.

That wasn’t the mast!” the captain yelled. “It must have hit the hull.”

Yeah,” Rhione croaked, pushing herself off the rail, coughing and struggling to breathe. “I’ll go inspect the damage.”

It was bad.

Rhione stared out the length of the starboard side hull, a massive, jagged hole torn into the ship, leaving splintered planks behind. The ship creaked and groaned as half the hull’s strength on the starboard side was gone. She looked down, the ship’s frames groaning and bowing, struggling to keep the vessel from ripping to pieces.

The Arshion was dead.

This is bad, Ma,” Chev whispered.

The lower half of the mainmast flexed before her. The mast was anchored at the keel at the bottom of the boat between two of the ship’s frames. And those two frames had been badly damaged in the collision. The stress placed upon the mast was normally transferred into those frames and spread out into the hull of the Arshion. That whole system had been disrupted by the impact. It was only a matter of time before the mast ripped free of its anchor.

When it ripped free, it would break the keel, the very backbone of the ship. There were too many damaged frames to keep the ship in one piece if that happened. The Arshion was doomed if the main sails weren’t reefed. The stress had to be eliminated.

Get above deck right now!” she barked. “Tell the Cap’n and the Bosun to get down here!”

Yeah, Ma!”

And don’t come back down!”

The wood creaked again, the mast tearing at the frames and keel.

What’s the problem?” Captain Rhey asked, picking her away across the torn up decking of the upper hold, stepping from truss to truss.

The mainmast’s gonna rip free,” Rhione said. “Between the reef’s gouge and how much of the ship we’ve disassembled, there ain’t enough strength to hold her together.”

Patch it, then!”

Rhione looked at the captain, then at the massive hole in the ship’s side. “I can’t. Look at that! Riasruo bless us, that’s a good sixth of the hull gone. The Arshion’s like to rip herself to pieces if we don’t furl the mainsail.”

Patch it!” hissed the captain. “Add more support! Do whatever it takes!”

I can’t! We need to reef the sail right this moment.”

You’re gonna get us killed!” snarled the Bosun. “We need to keep runnin’ with full sails or we ain’t reachin’ Eche!”

Can’t you hear the creakin’? Look at the keel. It’s bucklin’! When that mainmast goes, it’s gonna rip the ship in half! Then we’re all gonna be plummetin’ down into the Storm Below!”

The Captain seized Rhione’s shoulders. “There has to be a way.” Fingernails dug into her flesh. “You gots to do something. We can’t die! No, no, no. We can’t die. I can’t die. My ship can’t die. We have supplies. So fix it!”

We threw the spare lumber overboard already,” Rhione whispered, her shoulders sagging. “And the barrels with the bone nails.”

How long until the keel snaps?” the Bosun asked.

Rhione opened her mouth to speak.

It won’t! She’ll fix it! I’m not losin’ my ship!” Spittle fell in Rhione’s face as the Captain screeched at her. “See that she repairs it now, Bosun. If she don’t, throw her off the ship.”

The Bosun looked up. “She’s right, Cap’n. Riasruo shine down on us, but she’s right. I’ve seen a mast uproot before. It’s bad when a ship don’t gots her guts ripped open. I agree with our carpenter; we need to furl the sails.”

Nonsense! The Arshion is a sturdy ship. Rhione’s just wantin’ to shirk on her duties! Everyone on this Riasruo-blessed ship wants to shirk!”

I’m gonna tell them to furl the sails to half,” muttered the Bosun. “Maybe it’ll be fine, and we’ll still make it to Eche.”

Where do you think you’re going?” screeched the Captain.

To save the ship, Cap’n,” the Bosun answered as he climbed up the stairs. “Someone gots to.”

The Captain followed after. “Hurhen, Seyele, seize the Bosun!” she screamed above deck.

What, Cap’n?” a confused sailor answered.

Rhione gained the deck. Chev’s lanky body trembled as he stared at the snarling Captain. The crew was gathered around the Captain and the Bosun. Rhione seized her son, pulling him behind her, trying not to shake. Beyond the crew, the mainmast flexed and torqued as the wind howled past.

It’s not going to be long,” she whispered. She had never seen a mast sway so much. The crow’s nest swayed at least three ropes, the height of a tall man, in length back and forth.

I gave you an order!” the Captain howled. “Seize the Bosun and throw him overboard. We don’t need his dead weight.”

The Bosun rounded on Captain Rhey, his body swelling with anger. “You filthy sow! The ship’s ‘bout to tear apart, and you wanna throw me overboard! I’m tryin’ to save your Storm-damned ship!”

He wants to furl the sails!” She pointed a bony finger at him. “If we do that, we ain’t gonna make it to Eche! He’s mutinying! And that’s death! So throw him over!”

The crew erupted into angry shouts. Hurhen seized the Bosun’s thick arm. The big man’s fist curled and he smashed it into Hurhen’s face; the sailor crumpled to the deck with a ruined nose. “Listen!” the Bosun bellowed over the crew’s roar, pushing another sailor off him. “The mast’s gonna buckle. We gots to trim the sails to half or the ship’s gonna rip apart! Now get movin’ and trim them or I’ll crack open every last one of your down-filled skulls!”

We’ll die if we don’t run at full sails!” cackled Three-Finger Thrash. “The engine ain’t gonna last ‘til dawn! You want to see us dragged down into Theisseg’s Storm!”

The Bosun wouldn’t get us killed!” snarled Seyele, pushing the old sailor back. “Look at the Cap’n. She’s lost it! I say we throw her overboard!”

Mutineer!” snarled the Captain. “Another Theisseg-damned traitor. You and the Bosun both. You’re trying to see me dead!”

The crew’s shouts grew louder, screaming at each other, fear thick in the air. Chev clung to Rhione’s side, his body trembling. She had to do something. They were all dead if the crew wouldn’t see reason.

He’s right!” Rhione found herself shouting, trying to make her voice heard over the roaring crew. “The hull’s badly damaged. The ship’s gonna rip herself apart. We gots to reef the sails! Believe me! I know the ship!”

No one heard her.

Throw the mutineers overboard!” shrilled the Captain. “Less weight to slow us down!”

The Bosun’s fist crashed into another sailor that tried to stop him from reaching the mast. The Bosun strode forward, pushing through the men. “I’ll storming do it myself!”

Stop him! Kill him! Do anything!” The Captain’s face was bloodless, her brown skin pulled tight over her bones. “We’ll die!”

Three-Finger Thrash’s bone dagger sank into the Bosun’s lower back. The big man roared, turning about. His fist crashed into the old sailor, knocking rotten teeth out as Thrash crumpled to the deck. The Bosun reached behind him and ripped out the bloody, hogbone dagger.

Downyheaded, sow-dung fool,” he muttered, the dagger falling from his fingers. He tried to turn to walk to the mast, but instead he collapsed like a felled tree, crashing to the deck.

Ma!” sobbed her son.

The crew stared at the dying Bosun as the Captain snarled and cackled, “Back to work. Clear the deck! We keep sailing! We’re gonna live!”

Stupid sow!” Seyele shouted and seized the Captain’s bony shoulder.

More bone blades flashed. More blood spilled upon the Arshion’s deck.

A great, shuddering crack snapped through the air ignored by the screaming mob. That sounded like a frame snapping, thought Rhione. It won’t be long now.

She had to act to save what she could. Rhione pushed her son towards the stairs to the hold. The Arshion was doomed. “Come with me,” she whispered, seizing her son’s hand and pulled him below deck.

Ma?” he asked. “What’s happening?”

She didn’t answer him. Her hand held his in a death grip, yanking him behind her.

Please, Ma?” He fought her, trying to pull away.

She whirled around, seizing his shoulders. “You’re gonna fly off on Lucky Chemy.”

But, what about the others?”

They’re dead. “They’ll be fine once they’ve calmed down. But we need to lose more weight, so the pegasus gots to go. You’ll fly her to Eche.”

She pushed her son through the door to the small menagerie. The pegasus greeted them with a nervous whinny, stamping her piebald forelock and rustling her gray-feathered wings. She was a Chuthi, a breed that could cover long distances, but she was small and couldn’t bear much weight without the right Blessing; Rhione only had Mist. Pressure was needed to increase the lift the beast generated with her wings, allowing the pegasus to fly through the skies with more weight.

Though Xoar was the only crew that had Moderate Pressure, Chev was small and light. The pegasus should be able to bear him. Rhione had to believe that.

Just me?” Chev asked. “I ain’t never flown one, ma. Why not have Xoar fly her?”

Yes, why not Xoar?”

Rhione spun about. Xoar stood in the doorway, his long, curved bone knife in hand, his eyes hard, green stones. The boat shuddered and groaned as Rhione moved between Xoar and her son, eyeing his dagger.

Will you fly my son to safety?” she asked him, pleading with his eyes.

He shook his head. “Too far. Even with my Pressure, I can’t afford the extra weight. Sorry.”

Anger flared inside her. “Open the rear of the ship, Chev.”

Ma?” His voice quavered.

Rhione pushed her son back towards the pegasus. “Just do it! Then you fly her southwest. Lucky’ll help you out. She’ll know how to find a skyland.”

You touch my pegasus and I’ll gut you like—”

With a screech, Rhione leapt at Xoar, seizing his knife hand. She’d been a sailor for too long not to know how to brawl. Xoar crashed into the door, grunting in surprise. His hand strained to press the knife towards her belly.

Mount up, Chev!” she screamed as she struggled against the man. Her heart thudded, fear pumping through her veins. Chev was the only part of Dhith left.

Sow’s dung!” hissed Xoar, seizing her blonde hair with his free hand and jerking her head back; pain burned across her scalp. “I ain’t dying on this worthless boat!”

Ma!”

You do what you’re told, Chev! Or I’ll whoop you so hard! Now go! Fly!”

Air whistled as the back of the ship opened up, a pair of hemp cables unfolding the stern hull.

I’ll kill your ma if you don’t stop!” Xoar snarled, pressing harder with his knife, the tip brushing her linen shirt.

Rhione screamed and hooked her foot around his ankle. They fell into a heap on the rush covered floor. Sour dung filled her nose as they rolled and cursed. The pegasus whinnied, her hoofs pounding on the deck.

I can’t leave you, Ma!”

You gots to.” The dagger moved closer to Rhione’s stomach, her sweaty hands slipping on Xoar’s wrist. “You will mind me! So fly away right now!”

The dagger sank into her guts.

Cold pain lanced through her. Her hands lost their strength. Xoar rose, ripping the dagger from her stomach. His face twisted into something monstrous. He would kill her son. She forced her arms to move, pushing down the lethargy sinking through her, weighing down every bit of her body.

Let go of my pegasus, or I’ll give you the same, boy!”

No!” she shouted and lunged for Xoar’s ankle. Ignoring the pain roaring in her side, she jerked him back. “You got to go, Chev. I love you! Now go!”

Her son scrambled onto the back of the pegasus, staring back at her. His red eyes—like his pa’s—were wet with pain. She saw so much of Dhith in his face: his bulbous nose, the cleft chin, his brown hair. But not her son’s ears, those were her own small lobes.

Please, go!”

Sow’s spawn!” Xoar’s foot crashed into her face. She held on.

Go!” she sobbed, her mouth full of blood, her lips split and crack. “Please!”

Xoar kicked her again. She would not relent. She would save her son. Xoar, cursing, stabbed the knife down into her left arm, cutting sinew. She didn’t feel the pain as her left arm fell useless from his leg. She only held on even harder with her right hand.

Don’t you hurt her!” Chev shouted, his voice warbling.

She couldn’t stop Xoar much longer. She stared at her son, pleading with her eyes for him to abandon her. He listened and began frantically strapping himself into the saddle, cinching the leather straps tight about his legs.

Xoar stepped forward, dragging her body. Darkness danced in her eyes as she struggled to hold on, fighting against blissful lethargy.

Goodbye, Ma!” Chev heeled the pegasus.

Lucky Chemy neighed and galloped forward. She leaped out the back of the ship, her gray wings spreading wide. The pegasus and Chev dropped out of sight, falling down towards the Storm Below. For a moment, fear gripped her heart, but then the pegasus rose into view, banking on the wind. She had one final glimpse at her son on the beast’s back, and she held onto the memory: brown hair rustling, his gangly legs strapped tight to the saddle, his hands clutching the saddle’s pommel. Then he was gone.

The knife dropped from Xoar’s hand, the blade snapping on the deck. He fell to his knees. She let him go, rolling on to her back. The ship shuddered and groaned beneath her, wood cracking as the keel snapped, the force vibrating through the entire ship.

The crew screamed as the mast crashed down above deck.

She didn’t care any longer. Her body was too cold to care about much of anything.

You killed me,” Xoar whispered.

I saved him,” she answered.

Xoar looked at her, his green eyes lost, and then he laughed, “Why did the Bosun have to throw out the whiskey? Riasruo Above, but I could use a drink.”

Yeah,” Rhione croaked. It was getting harder to talk, to think.

The last frames keeping the ship together failed with a mighty, tearing snap. Her body slid along the blood-soaked deck, then everything became strangely weightless. Rhione lifted up from the deck and rotated about in a slow spiral, bits of straw tumbling with her. Out the back of the ship, the dark sky whirled past, stars flashing, then the darkness of the Storm Below filled the opening.

I saved our son, Dhith,” she whispered as the Arshion plunged into Theisseg’s cruel domain.

The END

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If you enjoyed this story and like to support my writing, you can leave a review or buy  Reflections of Eternity from Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon GermanyAmazon Japan, Amazon Italy, Amazon Spain, Amazon France, Amazon NetherlandsAmazon India, Amazon Brazil, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Kobo, and Smashword!

The Plight of the Arshion takes place in the universe of my novel, Above the Storm!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

If you love the works of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and Steven Erikson, then check out my first ever Fantasy novel!

You do not want to miss out on this awesome adventure!

You can buy or burrow Above the Storm today!

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Review: Darkblade Justice (Hero of Darkness 7)

Darkblade Justice (Hero of Darkness 7)

by Andy Peloquin

Reviewed by JMD Reid

In Praamis, a series of strange murders are occurring and the king is blaming the Night Guild. Illanna, now leader of the guild, has to figure out what is going on and how to stop it. At the same time, the Hunter has arrived in his goal to destroy all the demons in the world.

Two years after the events of Enarium, the Hunter has found no lead on his daughter, but he is still hunting those demons who wanted to destroy the world. But will his presence in Praamis only make things worst?

Things spiral out of control. Will Illana and the Hunter clash while the real threat escapes their notice?

Peloquin is bringing his two series together once more. The Hunter and Illana are about to cross paths and meet. The stakes are high as they both blame the other for what is going on. This series has Peloquin’s fast-paced and exciting style, mixing characters you’ve grown to enjoy over nine novels and a novella.

If you’re a fan of fast-paced, exciting fantasy, you have to check out Peloquin’s series. He has created a rich world full of the possibilities. I’m eager to see where he goes next with this series!

You can buy Darkblade Justice from Amazon. Check out Andy Peloquin’s website, connect on Linked In, follow him on Google Plus, like him on Twitter @AndyPeloquin, and like him on Facebook.

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Snippet 3 – Reavers of the Tempest (Book Two of the Storm Below)

For all my amazing fans…

Here is a snippet of Reavers of the Tempest, the sequel to my dark epic fantasy novel!

Chapter Two

Vel stumbled away from the village of Shon down the road towards Camp Chubris, the bag of poison clutched in his hand. The turmoil of his emotions kept him from noticing the autumn-ripe fields he passed.

Well, he wasn’t afraid.” Chaylene’s voice echoed in his mind. Since her rejection, her words beat at the inside of his skull. “He loved me first. He loved me more than you did. Find another woman to love. You lost me. I’m sorry.”

The words whipped him to finally put aside his fear. Vel wanted nothing more than to possess Chaylene. He loved her. He burned to hold her ebony body in his arms, to run his brown fingers through her blonde hair, to feel the heat of her flesh beneath him as he took her. No woman had ever refused him. No woman had ever possessed his soul more than her.

He burned to have her.

He would have her.

He loved her.

And she loved him.

To get her, he had to murder his former friend. His cowardice had let the brutish boar seize her. She didn’t resist, thinking she possessed only one suitor. She’d made herself love Ary and now it was too late. Understanding shone through Vel’s mind as clear as the first ray of Riasruo’s sun cresting over the skyland’s edge.

Chaylene would never break her marriage vows.

She was too good a woman to soil her word. She wanted to. He could feel that fire burning in her, her ardor bleeding out of her. Beneath her pain-filled words, he felt her love. She wanted to drive him away to protect him from her husband’s brutal anger. She was trapped. To have her, he must widow her.

His hand tightened on the poison. I have to kill Ary, he thought for the dozenth time. It daunted him. For most of his life, he’d admired Ary, played with him, took joy in his company. Once, they were friends. It’s the only way. He’s a brute. He hurts her. She’s sad all the time. Wriavia’s right. The only way to have Chaylene is to remove her husband.

I’m saving her.

Vel had discovered a new friend in the Luastria merchant these last few months. Wriavia understood the pain gripping Vel’s heart. Like him, Wriavia had fallen in love with a married hen. He’d won her by killing her husband.

I’ll be doing Chaylene a service. She’ll be free of her vow. Free to love me and be with me.

I just have to kill Ary.

Memories of his childhood weakened Vel’s resolve. He, Ary, and Chaylene had been inseparable in their youth. Ary had dragged Vel to play games or skip school while an eager Chaylene followed. The trio ran through fields together, fought with sticks, played tag in the Snakewood, chased ducks up the Bluesnake, and fished by the Watch.

Then one night, Vel noticed Chaylene had developed into a woman. Painted by moonlight, she’d stolen his heart.

Ary had also noticed Chaylene’s changes. The bold brute claimed her, staking his plot with threatening looks and meaty fists. Vel tried to find delight in other girls. He seduced more than a few with his handsome smile and beautiful eyes, but never the girl he wanted.

Fear held him back. He always found reasons not to tell Chaylene how he felt. Ary scared him. Ary wasn’t the tallest youth from the farming village of Isfe, but doing a man’s work had given him shoulders as broad as a bristleback boar with a temper just as vile. Any boy who mocked Ary, repeating the accusations of his ma, would find Ary’s fist smashed into their face. He thrashed them all, even boys older than him. Ary lacked fear, shrugging off blows which should incapacitate him, battering his fists over and over, his face twisted in bestial rage.

Vel had witnessed Ary’s wrath clear as day two years ago.

*

The Skyland of Vesche – Neiddoa 7th, 396 VF (1959 SR)

Vel savored the wet heat he found between Iatlisa’s thighs and the way she trembled beneath him on the pile of hay in her father’s barn. She moaned into his lips, kissing him with aggression. The tightness in his britches swelled. She wasn’t Chaylene—no girl in Isfe compared to her ebony ripeness—but Iatlisa would do to relieve his ache.

His fingers sank into the girl, knowing she would—

“Theisseg’s cursed Storm!” a voice bellowed behind Vel.

His head snapped up. Fear congealed the molten passion pumping through his veins into goopy syrup. Thush Shardhin, the older brother of the girl quivering around Vel’s probing digits, stood thunder-faced over them, hands folded into meaty fists.

“Thush!” the girl gasped, pulling her sky-blue bonnet over her darkening cheeks. “Go away!”

“So this little crow can peck at your flower?”

Murder sparked in Thush’s gaze. Vel’s innards liquefied. With a curse, he darted to his feet and charged for the open barn doors beyond Thush. The older boy snarled and lunged at Vel. He ducked a hard punch and darted past Thush. Vel reached his full speed by the time he burst out of the barn into daylight.

“Veneth!” Thush bellowed, thundering after him. “Huchen! Get that slimy runt!”

Vel pounded across the farmyard for the lane that led to the Quarry Road and back to Isfe. His long legs carried him on swift strides. Terror constricted about his heart, convulsing in a frantic beat. Thush Shardhin’s clenched fists burned in his thoughts.

Heavy footsteps thudded behind him. More than one set. Vel risked a glance. Wished he hadn’t.

He groaned at the sight of Thush’s brother, Veneth, and their cousin, Huchen, racing in pursuit. The Shardhin boys battered every youth they thought even looked cross-eyed at Iatlisa. The risk sweetened the thrill of cozying up to her in the barn. To have bedded Iatlisa Shardhin without her brothers and cousin knowing put an ache in Vel’s root.

He ran with everything he possessed, the road ahead. Exertion’s fires burned in his thighs. A sharp ache stabbed into his side. A tangy, blood-like flavor filled his mouth as he gasped and wheezed. The drumming of pursuing feet filled his sails with a powerful wind. He pushed through the fatigue as the Quarry Road loomed nearer. He had to keep running longer than the lumbering boars behind him.

He risked a look.

Veneth Shardhin had closed to only fifty ropes, his meaty arms pumping as his thick legs stretched out before him. A choked whimper burst from Vel’s throat. Fear’s wind blew harder, hurtling him swifter towards the road. He reached it and darted to his right without thought.

The Quarry Road stretched out before him, the barley field streaking by as he raced in the direction of Ahly’s Watch. Not towards Isfe and Vel’s own house, but Vesche’s sparely populated edge.

He groaned.

The footsteps drumming on the hard-packed earth of the road sounded nearer. He threw another look. Veneth now narrowed the distance to ten ropes, his face burnished-bronzed, drenched in sweat. His rage swallowed any vestiges of humanity, leaving behind boarish fury.

“Riasruo Above!” Vel squealed like a piglet searching the muck for a sow’s teat to suckle. “Ary!”

He screamed the name of his greatest friend and the person he hated the most. Ary had Chaylene wrapped about his fingers. The blonde, dark-skinned maiden fluttered around him like a remora sucking on the belly of a mighty shark.

“Ary!”

The Jayne farm loomed ahead, its barley fields green with spring growth.

“Ary!”

His hoarse throat burned, fear strangling his words. The gate lay only thirty ropes down the road. He could reach it, dash up the hill towards the farmhouse. Ary could fight at his side. The brute possessed one good quality: strength. Ary feared no one, let alone the older Shardhin boys.

Vel’s heart thudded with hope. He focused on that gate. On his salva—

“Got you, sow!”

A hand clamped down on his shoulder, grabbing the coarse linen of his shirt. Cloth tore as the hand jerked Vel back. His feet came out from beneath him. He slammed into the ground at the feet of Veneth Shardhin. The back of his head cracked into the road, thoughts fuzzing. The older boy grinned, teeth stained, one missing. Hands formed brick-thick fists.

“Knock the slimy runt’s teeth out!” Thush Shardhin bellowed, lumbering up the road with their cousin.

“A-Ary!” Vel gasped as Veneth hauled him to his feet.

Vel raised his arms in a pathetic attempt to block the fist hurtling at his face. Terror squeezed his eyes shut. Pain exploded across his mouth. His head snapped back. His mind reeled, bouncing around inside his skull. He lurched, the world swaying around him. He opened his eyes; the drainage ditch beside the road yawned before him.

He gave a startled gasp and plunged into the muddy bottom.

His lip throbbed as brackish water swept over his face. It soaked into his clothing and filled his mouth with a sour broth. His legs refused to work right as he scrambled in the muck, boots slipping as he struggled to gain purchase.

“Rooting in . . . the pigpen . . . hey, sow?” Thush, doubled over and clutching his thighs, grunted through deep breaths. “Let me just . . . get my wind . . . and I’ll pummel . . . you.”

“Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers!” Vel cursed. Blood trickled from his swollen lips as he cowered against the far side of the ditch.

“You ain’t getting away from us this—”

Veneth’s words cut off as a huge shape slammed into him from behind. Ary’s body slam sent Veneth crashing to his knees. Fists balled, he gave a bullish snort at the other two Shardhin boys moved to surround him.

“You don’t want any of this, Ary,” Thush warned as Veneth scrabbled to his feet. “That sow was diddlin’ our sister.”

“And?” Ary growled, facing the three older boys without flinching. His wide face grew as hard as the stony road.

The Shardhin boys charged.

Vel’s jaw dropped. He’d seen Ary fight, but never three at once. The Shardhin boys’ punches landed on Ary’s broad chest and thick arms. Ary staggered, protecting his face with raised forearms. They pummeled him from all sides, Vel flinching as he rubbed his split lip. They circled Ary like a frenzy of sharks scenting blood on the wind. Ary staggered beneath the onslaught. He bellowed like a harness-maddened boar, taking blows to his sides and back that made Vel wince.

The pain throbbing in Vel’s lip faded as he watched in fearful awe. It was inhuman. Ary should have collapsed to his knees. No one could withstand such an assault. He felt the blows—jaw clenched against the pain, grunting with each blow—but his body didn’t surrender to them. He withstood their punishment.

And fought back.

Ary threw a punch, catching Huchen in the chest. The older youth grunted, clutching his sternum. The attack left Ary open; Thush landed a hard blow. Ary’s head snapped back. Blood flew in a crimson arch from a broken nose. Cursing, pain contorting his face, Ary ducked a hard punch from Veneth and planted his fist into his attacker’s floating rib. Vel winced as the air whooshed from Veneth’s lungs. He bent over as Ary drew back and slammed his fist into Veneth’s temple. The older boy collapsed into a limp heap. Vel clutched his own right hand, positive Ary must have broken every finger he possessed.

Ary flexed stiff fingers as he turned. Thush’s punch landed in the middle of Ary’s back. He grunted, stumbling forward. A second blow hit him in the kidney. He gritted his teeth and howled like a boar, spine contorting backward. Huchen darted in. Vel’s stomach clenched as Ary staggered.

“Theisseg’s scrawny tail feathers!” Ary bellowed, somehow still standing. He punched. He slammed his fist into Huchen’s throat. The older youth stumbled back, coughing and choking. Ary rounded on Thush. They traded blows, Ary grunting as his body absorbed the punishment. He didn’t defend himself, but attacked. Vel flinched as if he received each of Thush’s powerful blows.

How can he take it? Vel asked.

Ary staggered, his body slowing, but he punched back, sustained by an inhuman inner fire. Ary’s frenzied onslaught drove Thush into a retreat, Ary’s fists landing over and over. With a hard punch to Thush’s chin, Ary sent the older youth sprawling to the ground in a spray of blood and spit.

Horror gripped Vel. He wanted Chaylene, ached to possess her, but if he tried, Ary would crush him with ease.

Bestial fury twisted Ary’s face as he flung himself on the prone Thush. Ary’s fists battered over and over into Thush’s head, mighty blows thrown with inhuman strength. He reduced Thush to mangled, swollen flesh spitting blood and teeth. Huchen, britches wet, fled down the road. Vel witnessed murder in his friend’s eyes. A rage seethed in Ary, a vast, black storm ravaging Thush. Vel dreaded unleashing it. He knew he wouldn’t survive it.

Vel cowered in the muck. I can’t ever let him know I love Chaylene.

“You okay?” Ary asked when it was over, Veneth dragging away the senseless Thush.

“Mostly.” Vel forced out a laugh, ignoring the sharp pain of his lips. He had to be Ary’s friend. He had to fake it. In that moment, soaked by the mud, Vel realized his path to Chaylene: doubt. He had to undermine Ary’s faith in Chaylene, chip away at his attachment.

So Vel asked, “Do you think she’s only marrying you because no other goodwife would let her son marry her?”

*

As Vel blinked out of his memory, bitter gall swirled through him. His first plan had failed. He never managed to chip away at Ary’s desire for Chaylene, the boar too dense to think about any of the needling questions or sly comments Vel made. By the time he realized Chaylene needed him to be bold, Ary had married her. His next path, seducing her, had also failed.

Chaylene’s own innate sense of honor prevented that.

Vel clutched the sack with the powder, feeling the poison through the felt. Wriavia had given Vel a third path. His stomach curdled with fear. He fought against it, pushing down the lingering traces of affection for his old friend. He needed to be strong to save Chaylene.

*

Wriavia winged through the skies over the skyland of Les, fleeing Shon.

His gizzard churned with bitter failure.

The night air flowed cool over his dark wing feathers left exposed by the simple, brown robe he wore over his downy body. He kept his scaled legs, a purple so dark it verged on black, tucked tight against his breast. Moonlight caught in the brilliant green of his eyes and highlighted the dull-red feathers circling his keen orbs. Pain throbbed at his throat, bruised by Briaris Jayne’s final attack.

Every time his gizzard contracted, it reminded the assassin of his failure.

He flapped every dozenth heartbeat to maintain his lift as he glided north, slowed by the pack strapped to his back. Beneath, the farms of southern Les drifted past, fields ripening towards harvest. On the horizon, a glow beckoned: the lights of Selech, a moderately sized town and home of one of the famed shipyards of the Autonomy. There, a century or more ago, the first of the rebellious Autonomy’s warships were built to challenge the might of the Vaarckthian Empire.

Wriavia’s talons clenched in frustration. He had come so close to killing Briaris Jayne. Desperation had driven him to attack after two months of failing to kill his target. Such an open assault went against his training. Despite the risk, he’d achieved surprise. Wriavia knew his talons had severed Briaris’s tendons in his opening attack, which should have permanently crippled the man.

And yet he rose and fought me.

His plan was simple, direct, and utterly inelegant. A diving swoop ending with his claws slashing down the marine’s back, buttocks, and thighs to disable him. Then he’d launched at Briaris’s wife, Chaylene, expecting to kill her with ease. But she’d surprised Wriavia. She fought with more skill than Wriavia had expected. The Luastria assassin did not realize Autonomy Scouts were trained to use their Blessing of Moderate Pressure as a shield.

There are definite holes in the instruction at the Aerie . . .

Wriavia pushed that thought away. It wasn’t the Skein of Adjudication’s fault he’d failed. Surprises happened in the field. A skein needed to be prepared to adjust to them, reacting to ever-changing circumstances.

And I failed.

Worse, the assassin was exposed. His throat throbbed again. Only the engine powering his shader, a cloak that shrouded the assassin in mist, had blocked Briaris’s sword swipe. But it had been destroyed by the blow, exposing his appearance. Chaylene had recognized him from the market.

Wriavia’s orders from the Bishriarch were clear: Briaris Jayne must die. But the Church’s feathers must remain clean. Now Briaris knew a Luastria sought his death. The Autonomy would flood southern Les to search for the attacker. For Wriavia.

Refuge waited in Selech. The town held a small Temple to Riasruo. The priestess would have to aid him. From there, he could send a letter to the Bishriarch and the Synod. He needed to warn the Church about his failure and potential exposure, though Wriavia could remember no clues to lead back to the Church. He possessed no insignia, adornments, or scraps of parchment mentioning either the Church of Riasruo nor the Skein of Adjudication. As far as Briaris could discover, he was simply a merchant.

A merchant who tried to kill him. That will spark questions.

Wriavia could do nothing about that, so he plotted his next move. Killing Briaris would be more difficult. In two days, the Dauntless would sail to Onhur to defend against Agerzak pirates in Thugri Sound. It would limit his options.

As he wracked his brain for new plans, he couldn’t shake what had happened in the fight. His thoughts kept sailing back to his plunging dive. He remembered his claws raking through Briaris’s back and legs. The Human’s blood still stained his talons.

I cut him. He collapsed. How did he move with severed tendons? He had one answer: I failed to sever his tendons. I missed my target.

The assassin clucked his dull-yellow beak in annoyance.

But how? I was so sure I hit.

Wriavia closed his eyes and pictured Briaris. He stood shorter than other males, but built like a stout wall. He wore the red coat of an Autonomy Marine, a sabre belted to his side—and not a bone sabre, but a looted Stormrider’s blade. Blue trousers clad his legs. His wife strolled beside him in her light-blue scout jacket, a simple bone knife tucked into her boot. Wriavia’s first swipe landed high, his left talons cutting through Briaris’s back and buttocks. But his right talons connected lower, a powerful swipe across the back of the Human’s knees.

I was so sure that’s where I hit. The assassin studied the anatomy of all the races who dwelt in the sky: Humans, his own Luastria, the lizard-like Gezitziz, and the mole-like Zalg. A deep cut across the back of a Human’s knees severed tendons necessary for standing.

Ary collapsed like Wriavia had expected.

The assassin had landed, flapped his wings to spin around and plant a solid kick to Chaylene’s chest before she could react. His main target disabled, Wriavia assumed she would die quickly. But human Females were not as delicate as Luastria hens. With her Pressure and combat training, she’d held Wriavia off long enough for Briaris to recover. Human bodies were built for labor. Wriavia possessed delicate, hollow bones. He moved with grace and fluidity that no Human could hope to match; he lacked the strength and skill to duel a pair of armed and trained warriors.

He’d fled.

“Failure doesn’t matter,” Wriavia sang to himself. “The past is lost to the Storm. Like anything that has fallen from the skyland, that moment is gone. I need to focus on the moments to come.”

Wriavia pictured his swooping dive again, unable to stop his thoughts from dwelling in the past.

It was only the sight of Selech’s gray buildings drifting below him that snapped him out of his looping memory. The horizon lightened to the east, the Storm growing pink as Riasruo prepared to rise and shine Her glory upon Her children.

“That is Whom you serve,” Wriavia clucked as he watched the growing dawn. “That is Whom you failed. She requires success.”

The town of Selech passed beneath him as he descended. It superficially resembled a larger version of Shon, the village near Camp Chubris. Only Shon had the look of a camp; its buildings housed the merchants, laborers, and whores were only occupied for three months, giving them an ephemeral quality, not quite permanent despite being built of wood and stone. Selech felt inhabited year-round. Permanent. The stone buildings with slate roofs spread out from the harbor before dwindling into the autumn-ripe fields which fed the inhabitants. Great shipyards dominated the northern end of the docks. Vast piles of white cedar logs, chopped from deeper in the skyland’s interior and carted to the shipyards, lay in thick stacks waiting to be hewn and shaped into the frame and decking of Vionese ships. Three ships lay under construction, the first only a skeleton, the mere suggestion of a boat; the second half was built, its hull coming into shape from its narrowing point at the bow to its wide stern; and the third neared completion. All three possessed the wide girth of a Vionese whaler, built broad to hold as much oil as possible. On the southern docks, fisherman readied to sail out into the skies on their small skiffs. The Temple of Riasruo, constructed from a yellow stone, lay on a bluff near the skyland’s edge, a promontory overlooking Selech. Blue and red coral grew up the skyland’s side, stopping at the lip of the cliff and the manicured lawn of the temple. A tower rose over the courtyard where the priestess would perform the yearly Rosy Prayer.

Wriavia alighted on its parapet, flapping hard to kill his descent. He folded his wings before stepping through the doorway. He descended the spiral stairs into to the main temple, greeted by the familiar scents of smoke and incense. He found the priestess and her acolyte in the Solar, the heart of the temple, lighting the braziers that poured sweet-scented incense up to Riasruo. They ringed the central fire pit laid with fresh logs for the Dawnsday service to be held in a few hours. Wriavia inhaled the sandalwood and myrrh, savoring the heady scents. The spice reminded him of home, the Aerie of the Skein of Adjudication.

Many different skeins existed, monastic orders Luastria drakes joined, dedicating their lives to Riasruo. Some served the poor, others helped the sick. The smallest, Wriavia’s, adjudicated any problems besetting the faith.

The priestess let out a startled chirp when she noticed him. Her red silk robes, proclaiming her rank in the church, rustled as she flapped her wings. She was approaching her middle years, the dull-brown feathers of her face groomed, her yellow beak waxed to a gleam. She fixed piercing, golden eyes on Wriavia and clucked, “Who are you? How did you enter the temple?”

“My apologies, priestess,” Wriavia said with deference, lowering his head. “I am Skein Wriavia of the Order of Adjudication.”

“Really?” Wriavia heard the doubt filling the priestess’s song. “Dressed like . . . that?”

“Yes, Priestess. I am on pressing business of the Synod and need parchment and pen.”

“Priestess Srioatrii?” the acolyte chirped, a young, handsome hen in orange robes, her purple-black claws clicking against the stone floor.

“Quiet,” chirped Srioatrii, her eyes still fixed on Wriavia. “Continue lighting the incense.”

“Yes, Priestess.” The acolyte moved onto the next brazer, clutching a smoking brand with the distal feathers of her right wing. The prehensile feathers operated much like fingers of a Human or a Gezitziz, allowing the Luastria to manipulate the world around them with delicate precision.

“Do you have any proof of your claims, Skein?”

“I’m afraid I do not. My mission is of the greatest sensitivity.”

“What mission could the Skein of Adjudication have here?”

Wriavia’s gizzard twisted as he readied his lie. To the outside world, the Skein of Adjudication was the least needed of all the monastic order, a vestige clinging to the skies. Centuries ago, when the Age of Isolation ended, a myriad of sects, many embracing heresy, had sprouted like the chaotic coral on the side of a skyland. The Church created Wriavia’s skein to bridge the differences and convince them to bow down to the rightful voice of Riasruo—the Bishriarch. Sometimes those sects proved stubborn. Other ways of adjudicating the differences were discovered; the first assassinations needed. Now his order trained to eliminate those who threatened the harmony of the skies.

“A heretical sect is rumored to be forming among the farmers of Southern Les,” Wriavia lied. “I was sent to ascertain the truth. I spent many weeks disguised as a merchant traveling among them, trying to win their confidence.”

“Heretical sect?” Srioatrii gasped. “My acolytes have heard no such thing.”

There were never enough priestesses or temples in the far-flung reaches of the skies. The Autonomy of Les-Vion and the Tribes of Zzuk had the smallest concentration of churches. Here, acolytes roamed between villages on circuits to preach, teach, and cleanse the sins of the common rabble.

“This sect doesn’t trust Luastria priestesses. The Humans are growing . . . mistrustful of us. They are jealous of the Luastria’s exalted position in our Goddess’s feathery light.”

Srioatrii’s head twitched from side to side, her talons clicking on the floor. “This is . . . disturbing.”

“I need to write my findings to the Synod,” Wriavia continued. “I humbly request parchment and pen.”

“Very well. Bwuoutria!”

“Yes, Priestess,” the acolyte squawked.

“Lead the skein to my study. When he has written the letter, head to the docks and find a ship to deliver it.”

“Right away, Priestess.”

Wriavia followed the slim acolyte from the Solar, ignoring her trilling, excited questions. In his mind, he’d already composed his humiliating letter. The acolyte ushered him into a small, round room with several perches for visitors before a wooden desk strewn with parchment. Shelves lined with religious manuscripts covered one wall while a window, looking out at the courtyard and several persimmon trees, pierced the other. Wriavia mounted the perch, stout wood thrusting up from a wide base. It had a thick dowel running horizontally through the top, allowing a Luastria’s feet to grip it in comfort. Wriavia folded his legs against his breast and shook his feathers as he settled himself. He’d missed having a proper perch in Shon.

“Do you require anything else?” the acolyte asked.

“Privacy. My words are for the Bishriarch and the Synod.”

The chick left Wriavia to stare down at the blank, yellow-white parchment before him. His gizzard threatened to rebel and expunge his stone. A tremble shook through him. But Wriavia knew his duty and reached for the quill. As it scratched across the paper, painting the large, flowing letters of Luastria script, Wriavia planned his next step.

I need to reach Tlele. The Dauntless will sail out of the port of Onhur. Hopefully, Vel will use the choking plague, but Briaris has Theisseg’s dark chance protecting him.

As he wrote, he plotted how to destroy an Autonomy naval ship. Wriavia would not fail again.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To save the skies, Ary must die!

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