Nem jumped at the firing of the cannon. It was a sound Nem could never get used to hearing. The first mate, Jess Gower, suppressed a grin, but only after a quiet snort escaped as he stifled his chuckle.
The shot fell well short of their pursuer.
“Captain!” came the lookout’s voice, “They’re pullin’ a red flag on the deck!”
“Not surprised by that,” Geffen grumbled. He swung his spyglass to his eye and studied the ship chasing them. The pirates were lowering the black flag. He watched it disappear and swore again. Once raised, the red flag meant no quarter.
A cluster of men on the vessel’s foredeck caught his attention.
“They’re settin’ up a cannon in the bow,” he muttered. He turned to Gower. “They’ve just got th’ speed on us, Jess. I’m guessin’ they think we’re in their range. We can outmaneuver ‘em, but if we turn, we’ll be in their range long enough to hole our sails. They do that, we’re done for.”
“You want me to cast a vortex on them, Sir?” responded Gower.
“Aye, if we can slow ’em, or at least bollocks their course, we can make the reefs t’ th’ south.”
“Consider it so, Captain!”
“Five hundred meters, Mr. Gower,” Nem called out, using a range finder. As the ship’s hired navigator, there wasn’t much more he could do in battle.
“A bit out there, but I’m sure I can hit ‘em.”
“Mr. Aster,” Captain Geffen said, “if you’d stand by me, please. Don’t want you gettin’ blown overboard by Jess’ wind.”
Gower drew a large islander-style fan from a locker bolted to the aft deck. Unlike most fans made in the Southern Archipelago which were made from a paper-like cloth, this one Gower had fashioned using sailcloth for durability.
He pulled a slip of runed paper out of his pocket and held it to his forehead. He chanted the spell quietly and with a distinct motion moved the paper from his forehead to the grip of the fan. The paper created the magic lease between Gower and the fan, turning the fan into a magical weapon. If too much power was being drawn away from him, all Gower had to do was release the paper from the fan and the link would break.
Nem nodded his head. Jess was well skilled in magic use, he thought. He easily could have a career as a professional mage if he ever chose to leave working the seas.
Gower began preparing the actual spell, holding the fan on one hand and cupping his other hand over it. He chanted quietly and quickly. While it couldn’t be seen, Nem knew there was a spinning ball of air forming between Gower’s hand and fan.
With a smooth motion, Gower launched the ball of air at the other ship. As it left the fan, the ball grew rapidly making a sound like the tearing of cloth.
“Well done, Jess–!” began Geffen.
The vortex struck the other boat and– Nothing! The ship continued forward unaffected by the burst of wind.
Perturbed, Gower said, “I’ll try again.”
“Captain! There’s a second set of sails come over the horizon!” came a shout from the look out above. “They’re raisin’ a red flag, too!”
Geffen swore a few choice words. “Do it, Jess!”
Nem could feel his skin tingle from the power Gower was pushing out to redo his spell. There was much more than the first try. The ball of air formed was actually visible. Gower launched it and it roared loudly as it spread out and became a tornado-like vortex.
The second vortex struck the pirate ship and harmlessly broke apart. The pirates sailed forward unaffected.
Gower stood with his jaw down in astonishment. He readied for another try.
“Jess! Don’t bother,” Nem called out. “That ship has a charm on it—probably a powerful one at that. You’ll be wasting your energy.” He bowed his head to Geffen, “Sorry for speaking out of turn, Captain.”
“Twas a good call, Mr. Aster. I–”
“–Captain!” the lookout interrupted.
“What?” the captain responded with some heat.
“That second ship’s comin’ on us fast. They’re runnin’ a mage wind for sure!”
“They’re lightin’ a cannon!” came a second shout. There was a puff of smoke from the pirate ship. The cannonball’s path was so direct, they could see it as it sailed through the air toward them. The boom of the cannon followed a moment later. The shot fell just short of the Island Dancer.
Gower surrendered his position on the deck and approached Nem and the captain. “That should’ve reached us. Wet powder, probably. We got lucky. They’ll be on us by the time that second ship catches up.” He turned and studied their pursuer. “We won’t be able to make the reefs at this rate. If we turn to bear our guns on ‘em….”
Geffen ran his fingers through his hair and paced briefly, gathering his thoughts. He turned to Nem. “Mr. Aster, that delicate matter we discussed when y’ signed aboard? I think th’ time has come to address your other talents.”
“Yes, Captain, I understand. It’ll take me a bit to prepare.”
“I think you’ll have th’ time. If needed, I’ll maneuver to give you any extra you might need. Use my quarters. Do whatever you have to, just make it happen! Mr. Gower, go with Mr. Aster and assist him.”
“Yes, Sir!” said Jess saluting.
They hurried below to the captain’s quarters. Nem closed the door behind them.
“Jess, would you draw the curtains tightly? I don’t want any sunlight getting in here,” Nem said. He proceeded to clear space on the table in the center of the room.
“So what’s this ‘delicate matter’ the captain spoke of?”
“Sorry we didn’t tell you—draw them as tightly as you can. Strong sunlight really messes with this—but we felt under the circumstances it was best not to let anyone know.”
Nem drew a key from inside his shirt and to Gower’s surprise, used it to open the captain’s private chest. He pulled out a satchel from the chest and closed it. Gower noted the satchel had Nem’s monogram on it. Nem took a leather wallet from the satchel.
“Jess, I need an arrow. Preferably without the head on it.”
Gower left the room, his question unanswered. He ignored the slight that a junior officer had a key to the captain’s private chest when he himself was not permitted such a privilege. On a ship where a sailor could leave his personal possessions out in the open and no one would even think of touching them, it struck him as a little strange that they were keeping something locked away. Gower shrugged it off. Nem was too good a young man to dislike. This merely piqued his curiosity about the Aborian.
Gower chose an arrow from the armory and snapped the head free with a pair of pliers. Inspecting the shaft to ensure it was undamaged, he made his way back to the captain’s quarters and entered after a quiet knock on the door.
The only light in the room came from the deck prisms embedded above. Gower cast a glance at them when Nem looked up from his work.
“Yeah, I’ll need those covered when I’m ready,” Nem acknowledged.
With a nod, Gower stepped out of the cabin again. He whistled a sailor to him, to avoid going on deck and getting sun blinded. “Tell the captain we need the deck prisms covered. I’ll signal when with three knocks to the deck.”
Gower returned and studied Nem and his work intently.
The wallet lay open, revealing a handful of delicate looking objects that Gower decided were tools of some sort. Not made of brass. From the gleam of the metal, it could only be pure gold. Even as the ship rocked, they didn’t move at all.
Nem was working intently on a diagram he had drawn out on a sheet of paper. The diagram was composed of groups of geometric patterns arranged on yet more geometric patterns, with lines of precise angles connecting them in various ways.
On the pattern, he started laying small crystals, some no bigger than a grain of sand. With each crystal, Gower got an increasingly eerie feeling. He had never seen anyone set up a spell in this way before.
A chill ran down his spine. This wasn’t magic!
“This is sorcery!” he blurted.
“Yes it is and don’t startle me. Fortunately, I’m not at the dangerous part yet,” Nem muttered, concentrating on his diagram. “Don’t try to copy this,” he added, “sorcery is something you do in your head, not in a spell or charm!”
Dangerous part? Gower’s blood ran cold at the words. He had heard enough tales of entire villages and small cities being wiped out by someone experimenting with sorcery. Very few people in the world practiced sorcery because very few survived their first attempt at it. Most places had laws against practicing sorcery due to the potential hazards of the craft.
“If it’s done in your head then why are you drawing a diagram?” Gower asked in a tense voice.
Nem nodded as he made a few more adjustments to his instruments. “Rather than cast this directly, I want to charge it into this crystal.” He tapped a tiny grain that wasn’t much more than a grain of sand. “I want to put the crystal on the end of an arrow and fire it at the pirates. When it’s activated, we’ll be out of range. To charge the crystal, I need things lined up as precisely as possible. The energy has to be put into the crystal in a certain way and the diagram helps me line it up. I could cast it directly in an instant, but that would make me the center of the effect area and we’d be caught in it.”
Jess wasn’t sure he wanted to know what ‘it’ meant.
Nem reached for a long flat tool and began to fiddle with it. The center slid out and he adjusted a sliding part back and forth for a moment. He jotted down the number on the diagram and repeated the process. Gower leaned over the table for a better look at the instrument Nem was holding. It was covered with numbers and very fine lines that looked similar to a measuring stick, but the markings would bunch together in one direction.
“What is that?” he asked absently.
“Number stick. Great for calculating complex numbers. I’ll show you how to use it when we’re done with all this. Now hush!”
Referencing the numbers, Nem next grabbed a pair of compasses and a protractor and made careful points on the diagram. He carefully nudged crystals onto each of the points. He placed a couple prisms on stands and positioned them just as carefully. The targeted crystal was carefully placed in a small clamp and positioned in the center.
“Now, this is the dangerous part,” Nem announced. He nodded to Gower. “Jess, I need those lights out.”
Gower banged on the ceiling of the cabin three times with the pommel of his sword. There was a muffled shout above and three crates were pushed over the deck prisms, dropping the room into near darkness.
“It’s usually best to do this by moonlight. Sunlight is too energetic and tends to scramble the energies. Seeing as we don’t have a moon, I’ll just have to make do,” Nem muttered.
Make do?, Gower thought, breaking into a cold sweat. He held his tongue. As frightened as he was, his fascination and curiosity about what was happening was far greater.
Nem reached behind his head to draw the sword from the scabbard he wore on his back. The sword came out. Not with the snick and ring of steel being drawn against its scabbard, but with a sound like an enormous rock being dragged across the floor of a cavern.
It was not a natural sound.
The sword glowed with a pale, bluish grey light. He wasn’t sure of what material it was made, but it did not look like metal. What light there was didn’t seem to reflect off it. It had more of a shimmer, like a dark grey pearl.
“What kind of sword is that?” Gower asked.
“It’s called Dragonclaw. Now hush!”
Nem struck two tuning forks together and placed them together in a stand. He waited until their harmonics had settled down some. He swung the sword so it glowed into one of the prisms.
The harmonic sound of the tuning forks overwhelmed all other sound. The sounds of the ship—men moving on deck, creaking, the water rushing by—were gone and silenced. Gower could feel the hum of the forks right through his body.
There was power all around. It wasn’t emanating from any focused point. It was everywhere, as though the very air itself was a fluid medium of that power. Gower, trained and sensitive to magic, could feel the energies flowing around the crystals laid out on the diagram but he couldn’t bring them to focus in his mind’s eye. The pressure of the power felt solid, squeezing him from all around. He felt as though the world was slipping away from him. Or perhaps, it was the other way around.
It was hard to breathe. His chest felt heavy; pressed by some kind of pressure he couldn’t physically feel.
The harmonic sound of the tuning forks faded like the peal of a bell echoing distantly through a long valley. Then it was gone.
The sound of his breath as Gowen inhaled seemed like a roar.
Nem carefully placed the sword on the table and used it as a light as he assembled the warhead for the arrow. He cautiously plucked the tiny crystal from the clamp with tweezers and pushed it into a dab of resin at the end of a short wire. The wire and the larger crystal were glued into two caps, and those were glued together to make a capsule half the size of his thumb.
With a quick spell—well, after several tries—Nem created a tiny flame between his fingers and lit an oil lamp. He heated a stick of pitch over the flame, and guided the drop into the insert of the arrow shaft, then fixed the capsule to the arrow. It stuck fast.
“So? What did you think?” Nem asked as he quickly wound a cord over the insert to better hold the capsule to the shaft.
Gower shook his head, feeling stupid. “I don’t know how to say it. It felt like the sound was pushing the light and the light was pushing some kind of power like a current in the ocean.”
Nem nodded. “You know, Jess, if you were that aware of what was happening, then you might have a talent for sorcery, after all.”
The sounds of the ship were back. A loud THUNK made them both jump as something struck the hull of the Island Dancer. Their ears rang from the impact.
They rushed from the cabin for the deck. Nem grabbed a bow from its stowage and they climbed onto the aft castle. They both had to stand for a few moments as they were blinded by the bright tropical sun.
The pirate ship had halved the distance between them. The second ship was still a thousand meters behind and closing. A third ship had appeared over the horizon, but was not moving as quickly as the second.
Three ships in chase! Nem wondered what was so compelling that the pirates would be chasing them so doggedly.
There were holes in Island Dancer’s sails, caused by projectiles fired from the pirate ship’s cannon. Nem could hear the fabric tearing little by little under the relentless pressure from the wind. They didn’t dare slack the sails and lose speed.
Nem stood himself at the railing of the aft castle and balanced himself to the rolling of the ship. He notched the arrow and drew the bow partially.
He aimed at the pirate ship and waited, feeling the pitching and rolling of the deck to learn the rhythm of it. At the right moment, he drew the bow fully and let the arrow fly.
Gower lowered a spyglass he’d been watching through and groaned. “I saw it hit, but it bounced off!”
“No! It’s good,” Nem exclaimed, relieved that the arrow found its target. “All it had to do was hit the ship to activate that crystal.”
A mist began to form around the hull of the pirate ship. Several breaths later, it seemed to slow in the water. A white glow appeared rapidly growing in the water around the ship. The pirate ship gave a shudder and came to a stop, listing slightly.
The white color below the water rapidly spread out from the hobbled ship, and loud cracking could be heard. The ship rose out of the water, stuck fast in a rapidly growing iceberg. With a roar, the iceberg rolled, slamming the ship into the water and shattering it.
“Helm! Twenty degrees port,” the captain shouted. “Let’s make for that reef while those pirates tend to their friends! We’ll make it before that third ship gets close enough to do harm.” He turned to Nem and grinned wickedly. “That was a fine piece of work there, Nem. Just what did that do?”
Nem watched the process carefully before answering. “It made the ship a negative energy locus and sucked all the heat out of the water.” He smiled. “I made in instant iceberg. It’ll probably take a few weeks for that thing to melt, so you may want to warn the islanders when we make port.”
“That I’ll do. If you could make more of those, I’d give ya’ three gold for each–”
“Captain! They’re still coming!” the lookout shouted.
The second ship rounded the wreck of the first and still drove for them. The captain swore and shouted for all hands to prepare for battle.
“There’s a mage on that ship!” shouted Gower. Nem could feel the energy from the magic use as well, even though he wasn’t as sensitive to it as Gower.
Nem slipped out of the strapping for his sword’s scabbard and carefully placed it on the deck, then began stripping off his clothing. Both Gower and Geffen cast him a crazy look.
“Captain, I’ve got an idea,” he said as he disrobed. “I’m going to cut open their hull. I’d appreciate it if you could swing back and come get me.”
“Can you do that?” Geffen glanced at the iceberg. “Well, after seein’ your work–” He pointed at the iceberg. “–I am inclined to think you can.” He gave some thought to Nem’s idea. “Nem, I don’t know if we can take the time to snatch you out of the water. With our sails torn–” He turned to Gower, “Jess! Put a sea anchor on the skiff and cast it off! Nem, it’s Aborian design. Will that do?”
“Good enough! But I don’t know the reef like you do, so I’ll sail north to the shipping lanes before turning east to Grand Isle. I’ll see you there in a few days.”
“Steer the ship so they follow us straight on, Captain. I need them to run me over so I can get their hull.”
Geffen nodded. “Godspeed, Nem!” He clasped his arm, then turned to the helm.
Stripped to better facilitate swimming, Nem kept his arm guard on his left arm. He drew Dragonclaw from its scabbard and left the scabbard with his clothes. He stepped up to the gunnel and studied the pirate ship.
It was a large galleon, bearing down on them at an unnatural speed, its sails filled with a mage wind. The figurehead was a disturbing and realistic carving of a sea hag. Her face, scowling permanently at the seas before her.
Archers on the bow of the galleon let loose with a volley of arrows. Nem stood stoically in the path of one of them. It bounced harmlessly off his arm guard. Nothing made by man could penetrate the scales of a dragon unless it had been magically altered by the most powerful of mages.
Grinning at his subterfuge, Nem folded his body and dropped from the Island Dancer into the sea. He gripped his sword tightly as the water closed around him.
Kicking to the surface and grabbing a quick breath, he found himself perfectly centered in the course of the pirate galleon. He was prepared to duck in case they tried firing an arrow at him. Instead, he heard their jeers and cheers as the ship bore down on him.
Aborian youth had a sport—rather frowned upon by their elders—ghoulishly called ‘keelhauling’, after the ancient sailors’ penalty. On a smaller boat, one would slip over the gunnel, grab the dagger board of the boat and make one’s way to the other side underneath while the boat was moving. On larger boats, one would slide off the bow and slide along the bottom of the boat to grab onto the stern.
The pirates’ ship was much bigger than any boat Nem had tried.
Catching a deep breath while he could, he swung his feet up to catch the hull. There was a cheer from above as he disappeared from their sight.
The impact was more than he expected, and he nearly bounced away from the hull. He drove Dragonclaw into the wood and held on with all his might. With a quick twist, the blade went parallel to the flow of the water and it cut through the hull as Nem was dragged along by the water.
The bottom of the ship was fouled with barnacles, making it painful on his feet and free hand. He twisted the sword, turning the blade perpendicular to his motion and stopped. He was just under the front end of the ship.
He gripped the keel with his legs, and in a quick motion slipped his sword free, slid it into the hull and cut in a circle. He let go and slid away. The cut released with a bang, and debris began spilling out of the ballast of the ship as water poured in. He dragged Dragonclaw along the hull as the ship moved past him.
He was rewarded with ever increasing sounds of the wood groaning and splintering. The hull was under a lot of strain from being pushed so hard by the mage wind.
He grabbed onto the keel again and cut a notch in it. He stopped and made another hole in the hull, larger than the first. As it gave way, the water nearly sucked him in, but the slipstream as the ship drove through the water pulled him away.
His lungs burned for air as he grabbed on one last time and carved a third hole out of the ship’s hull.
He let and let himself drift as the ship sailed away. A large dark mass beside him moved into his blurry vision and he realized it was the rudder. He swung at it wildly with Dragonclaw and sliced through the thick structure. A chunk of it broke free even before he had cut all the way through and created a vortex that spun him about wildly.
Nem sputtered to the surface and gasped for air.
Loud shouts came from the pirate ship as it sailed away. He wondered if they just noticed the water flowing into the hull.
Nem looked up and met the eyes of a man at the back of the pirate ship. The man stared at Nem with astonishment. There was another shout from the ship. The man gave a panicked look over his shoulder and flung himself into the ocean.
Behind Nem, the Island Dancer’s skiff sat just two ship-lengths away. Fortunately, he was windward of it, which would make for a more leisurely swim. Much further beyond the skiff was the white peak of the iceberg he had created only minutes before.
More shouts erupted from the galleon. Nem ignored the yells and focused on reaching the skiff. A loud bang rang out from the pirate ship as they fired one of their cannons. Nem felt the concussion from the cannon through the water. The cannonball struck the water near the skiff and skipped.
Why would they fire on the skiff? He turned and looked.
The ships were farther away than he expected. The Island Dancer had swung west. The pirate galleon had tried to do so only to discover their rudder was compromised. The mage wind still filled its sails, driving it on, continuing to put stress on the ship’s structure. But it was no longer gaining on its intended prey. The masts were starting to lean in different directions, hinting that the structure of the ship was beginning to come apart. And yet–
They were coming about! How were they able to turn the ship so effectively with a damaged rudder?
Splashing nearby was the jumper from the ship, swimming toward him.
No! Not toward him! To the skiff!
Without a second thought, he let go of Dragonclaw, releasing it to the depths below. A strong swimmer, Nem made the skiff in only a short time, leaving the pirate well behind him.
There was another shot from the pirate ship at the skiff. The shot went wide.
Moving to the stern of the skiff, he climbed over the transom into the boat. With a quick glance at the pirate, he reached over the side, focusing into the deep water and said, “Come to me.”
The swimming pirate closed on the skiff. Nem didn’t dare break his concentration. He focused on wanting Dragonclaw back in his hand.
The pirate was beginning to flounder.
Dragonclaw finally exploded out of the water and into Nem’s hand. He swung around standing naked and pointed the sword at the floundering pirate.
“Halt!” he shouted.
“Mercy! I beg of you! Mercy!” cried the man, coughing out a mouthful of water.
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