The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LV - Night Hunting

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

Captain Tilly had known that sooner or later, they would run afoul of the Whalish blockade. That a single ship bore north toward them brought him no great alarm. A single ship they could avoid, possibly even outrun. So long as it remained a single ship he wouldn’t worry. But they couldn’t continue south.

“Prepare sails!” He shouted. “Steady men!” He spun the tiller, and the Tserclaes’s nose swung eastward. The mast followed the wind, timbers creaking and groaning as the weight shifted. The Tserclaes tilted heavily to one side, and Lindsey had to grab a bansiter to steady himself. Tilly smiled, the scent of salt rich in the air and the crash of waves into the hull a resounding clap of approval.

“Good,” he declared when the Tserclaes righted herself, the water churning as they drove forward. “We’re reaching with the wind now. This will take us out to sea where we can manoeuver.”

“Won’t there be more of them out to sea?” Lindsey asked.

Tilly snorted. “Of course! But the Tserclaes can outrun any of them. If we’re lucky, this one will not even see us. We’ll thread the needle with he none the wiser.”

Lindsey grunted and stroked his red beard. “I don’t like it. But you are the Captain and know these seas much better than I.”

“That is wisdom,” Tilly replied. He nodded to his first mate. “Take the helm. I am going below.”

Lindsey stammered and reached out a hand to stop him, but drew it back before he touched the Captain. “What? Shouldn’t you be on deck? What if we see more of them?”

“Then I will return here. But for now, I must consult my maps. Go assure your friends that nothing is amiss.”

Lindsey nodded and after one last look at the horizon — he certainly couldn’t see the other ship — he climbed down the steps into the hull and nearly tripped over Abafouq who was climbing up.

“Oh, forgive me!” the Binoq said in his queer voice. “I did not see you come down. I wanted to go taste the air after a long spell casting. Then we felt the ship turn. Is something wrong?”

Lindsey nodded. “Go back down. I don’t want to tell it five times.”

Abafouq nodded and the two of them entered the hull. Guernef stretched out to one side, his wings bracing boxes of foodstuffs stacked against the wall. Intricate designs were sketched across the floor, with the trinkets each of them donated in separate piles. The Nauh-kaee had a foul look in his golden eye, so Lindsey stepped past him, careful not to disturb any of the arcane symbols.

The Rheh stomped unhappily in their stalls, while Charles, James and Jerome tended to them, their eyes looking his way as he walked toward them. The kangaroo poked his head up from the bales of hay in the far back. Charles stood on his tiptoes and waved him closer. “We felt the turn. What’s happening up top?”

“Jessica sighted the Whalish Navy to the south.”

“Oh no!” James said, ears lifting high. “Are they chasing us?”

“It was just one ship heading north toward us. They probably haven’t seen us yet. Captain Tilly turned us east. He thinks in the open sea we’ll have a better chance of avoiding them.”

“He doesn’t want to be caught between the Whalish navy and the land,” Jerome suggested. “He’d definitely have nowhere to go then. I can take over keeping watch on him if you want.”

Lindsey nodded. “He went to look over his maps. Where’s Kayla? Qan-af?”

“In Captain Tilly’s quarters,” Habakkuk replied. “Kayla expressed interest in playing that game of his.”

“The one with the five thousand rules?” Lindsey asked. At the kangaroo’s amused nod, he rolled his eyes. “She’ll probably be thrilled to have something else to think about.”

Charles patted his Rheh and climbed over the paddock wall. “Well, I’m going to go topside. If we do have a Whalish vessel in sight, I want to see it. I hope we don’t have to fight, but I will be ready if we do.”

“You know the Captain doesn’t like to have us all on deck. You spook his crew.”

“Well if we have to fight a Whalish ship, they ought to be spooked! Maybe they’ll work faster.” The rat spun his Sondeshike a few times for emphasis. “James, are you coming?”

The donkey nodded. “Of course. Let me grab my sword belt.”

Abafouq tapped his thumbs together. “I am thinking they might need magic. I will lend what skills are mine.”

“And I shall stay below,” the Nauh-kaee squawked. “If they have need of my wind, send for me and I will come.”

Habakkuk and Lindsey remained below while Charles led Jerome, James, and the Binoq to the main deck. The rat shrunk his Sondesike down and swayed back and forth as a series of large waves rocked the Tserclaes up and down. All around them the sailors scurried through the rigging to keep the main sail held straight. The heavy cloth drew taut as it caught the starboard wind.

Kayla came from the Captain’s door, and her eyes found them immediately. “Charles! James! Have you heard?”

They nodded. Charles said, “There’s a Whalish vessel to the south.” He glanced over the starboard side and shrugged his shoulders. His ivy seemed to shrug too. “All I see are waves and clouds. But I trust Jessica.”

The skunk narrowed her eyes, then gave up. “I don’t see it either. Captain Tilly’s checking the coastline. He boasted about knowing it better than any man alive.”

“That’s Captain Tilly,” Jerome remarked with an amused grin. “We’ve come up in case they need extra hands to defend.”

“If they have Fire,” Charles pointed out, “we won’t do much good, as we’ll have sunk before they close enough to board.”

“I hope they don’t have Fire,” the donkey said.

Abafouq rubbed his palms together. “There may be something I can do about that. Let me ponder it a time.”

Jerome and Abafouq climbed up to the aft castle, while Kayla, Charles, and James stayed close to the stairs, trying to keep out of everyone’s way. At the bow, they could see Andares still staring into the distance as if lost in dream. The sailors gave him a wide berth too.

Charles rolled the Sondeshike back and forth in his paws, his eyes watching the waves to the south as they rolled in. The ship was travelling parallel to the waves, and with little adjustments here and there, the first mate was steering them through a trough. Charles watched as the crest grew and fell, ever threatening to crash into their side, but never managing it.

Finally, he walked over to the side, followed closely by the skunk and donkey. He slipped the Sondeshike back in his tunic and braced his paws on the railing. He peered below, and smiled as he spied a pod of dolphins keeping pace with them. James stared at them with some horror. “What are they?”

“Dolphins. They often accompany ships as they sail. Sailors consider them a good omen. I think there’s one Keeper who has become a dolphin too, but he spends much of his time with the other fishermen in the southern part of the Valley.” Charles gestured to a pair that leapt through the waves. “See their tail fin? It lays flat instead of up and down. That’s how you know it’s not really a fish.”

James nodded, and then nearly jumped when the sharp cry of a hawk came from above. “That was just Jessica,” Kayla assured him, putting a paw on his shoulder to still the equine’s nerves. “I wonder what she’s seen?”

A moment later Captain Tilly stormed back on deck, his eyes looking to the crow’s nest above the main mast. A voice rang down from above. “Second ship! Due southeast! Bearing north with the wind!”

Tilly turned to the Keepers and glared at them. “What are you doing here? Clear the deck. Now we have to really run.” He vaulted up to the aft castle and shouted. “Ready the jib! We’re turning around!”

The Keepers held tight to the railing as the ship began turning to port. The ship tilted, driving them up higher and higher. James’s hooves began to give on the wood, and he had to wrap his arms twice around the railing to keep from sliding across the deck. The boom groaned, and then swung from one side to the other. James winced at the sound of the ropes snapping taut.

When the turn had finished, Charles spun his head until he found the sun ahead of them. “Steady as she goes,” Tilly shouted. He stomped back down the stairs and glowered at the Keepers. “Get below deck! I don’t need you spooking my men.”

“What’s happening?” Kayla asked. “Are we heading toward shore now?”

“Aye,” Tilly replied. His stern features grew darker. “Their ships are too close together. We now have to lose them in the shallows.”

“Won’t we be trapped between the shore?”

Tilly sneered. “I know this coast better than any! I will never be trapped there. Now get below deck until I need you!”

Chastened, the trio of Keepers headed for the stairs. A moment later, Abafouq, swearing in a tongue none of them knew, followed them back down into the hold.

The horizon to the northwest was uninteresting. That much Jessica knew. It was the closest to the land, and the least likely direction from which they could come under attack. Already from the south and southeast they had two ships of Whales bearing down on them. At first, both ships appeared to be conducting a routine patrol as they were sailing north with the wind. Bot now the ship to the southeast had shifted course, angling to the northwest to intercept them.

The unsavoury individual sharing the crow’s nest with her proved that he was not put up there because of his rank odour when he noted the second ship’s course correction only moments after Jessica did. From her perch at the highest point of the ship, the news seemed only to emboldened Captain Tilly. He stood at the wheel, hands gripped so tight that his fingertips were white despite the grime of the sea. His eyes stared forward, hard and resolute. His crew scrambled about, milling and yapping like so many dogs who’ve caught a scent but cannot find it. In the midst of them Tilly stood as a bulwark of certainty, the one calm in the storm that news of the Whalish fleet had brought to the Tserclaes.

Jessica scanned the horizon, looking for signs of any other ships. She stared eastward for some time, and also northward. But there was nothing there to see except more waves. She glanced to the northwest, then turned back south. They had two ships chasing them, but that was it.

Something didn’t feel right. The black-feathered hawk knew that Whales prided itself on superiority in its Naval training as well as its secret weapon, the Fire. But there was one other important detail that was often overlooked when it came to Whales — no ship could leave dock without their assigned mage. This was the reason they were able to communicate between ships and coordinate over vast distances. Against wizards, the only defence was more wizards.

She pondered what sort of strategies a fleet with wizards might use. Surely by now other ships apart from these two knew the Tserclaes was here and sailing towards Marzac. The Whalish fleet was extensive, so not every mage who rode with the Navy would be as talented as her master had been. In fact, she distinctly remembered Wessex refer to them as hedge wizards who mastered a few tricks and thought themselves all the cleverer for it. But even a trick would be enough against someone who wasn’t paying attention.

Jessica turned about, eyes noting everything on the horizon in all directions. That’s when it occurred to her — she didn’t want to look to the northwest. Every time she peered that way, she felt an overwhelming sense of disinterest. Fighting the urge to turn aside, she peered not only at the choppy seas, but into the flow of magic. Before her a cloud of vapours surged closer and closer. With her wings, she drew runes, and let them float into that cloud. The haze began to disperse, fighting and trying to coalesce. But she tore at it with her magic, until at last it gave way.

The agony of disinterest gone, she turned her focus to piercing the veil that lay over the sea. She drew the runes with her wing claws, sending them into the sea where they boiled and churned. Her breath held tight in her chest, she glimpsed an image begin to appear behind the air, as if clouds passed before it but only now broke apart.

When she closed her eyes to the magic and stared northwest, she saw it clearly. There, beating against the wind and bearing straight for them, was a third ship of Whales. Unlike the others, this one would reach them in minutes.

She squawked furiously, leapt from the crow’s nest, and glided down to the aft deck. As she landed, she shifted into her most human shape. Captain Tilly eyed her unhappily. “What have you seen now?”

“To the northwest!” she squawked, pointing with her wing. “Behind a veil of magic, lies a third ship! They are almost upon us!”

“What?” the first mate asked incredulously. “I don’t see anything.”

“Show me through this veil,” Tilly said, giving his first mate a quick glare. “Show me this ship.”

“I may need help. Pardon me.” She took to the air again, and flew to the bow where Andares stood unmoving. The Åelf did not turn when she landed, but he did turn when she shouted his name. “Help me! There is a magical veil hiding a ship to the northwest.”

Andares turned to look that way, and fought to keep his eyes from sliding elsewhere. “You are right. It does not want to be seen. Together we can break this.” He held out his hand, and she laid her wing tip upon his fingers. They were soft and warm against her feathers, and she realized that she hadn’t ever held hands with one of his kind before. “Show me the spell,” he said. She opened her eyes to the magic. The veil which she had pierced for but a moment had reformed.

Before her a white sword took shape. A spectral hand grasped that blade and slowly it slid across the heavens. Jessica pondered its arc even as she poured all of her effort into holding that veil for him. She stretched out her wings, gripping its ends, keeping the miasma of disinterest at bay.

And then with one clean stroke, the sword drove downward, slicing through the veil and shattering it completely. Around her she heard the cries of the sailors as what had been invisible was made plain. Whales had found them and had nearly snuck upon them.

Andares sucked in his breath. “They will be on us in minutes. I must warn the others.” Jessica stared at the ship, so clear to her now that she could distinguish the sailors as they scrambled over the rigging like so many ants.

“I don’t care what Captain Tilly wants!” Charles declared angrily as he pushed past the Åelf. “I’m going on deck to help.”

Abafouq nodded. “If the ship is close as you say, my art may be of assistance.”

Lindsey grabbed his axe and hefted it in his meaty hands. “I hope I don’t have to use this, but you’re right. It’s time we did something too.”

Only Habakkuk and Guernef remained in the hold. The rest of them climbed to the aft deck, weapons in hand and paw. And as expected, Captain Tilly was not too happy to see them. He’d angled the Tserclaes to the southwest, but the Whalish vessel was bearing down on their stern. Charles climbed the railing and stared. “It looks to be gaining on us.”

“I could have told you that!” Tilly shouted back testily. “Unless you have some way to give speed to my sails, then I have no need of you.”

“If we could disrupt their wind,” Jerome mused, “we would have a better chance.”

Charles turned to his fellow Sondecki and shook his head. “How? Even if we throw our punches, they are too far. The force would dissipate at such a distance.”

“Aye, but it is all I can think of.”

Kayla gestured to the sails, “What if we could destroy them?” She glanced at Jessica who hopped back and forth on her talons. The aft deck had become quite crowded, and there was barely any space for her to stretch her wings. “Are there any spells you could cast?”

“They have a mage on board,” Jessica said. “I could try something, but I don’t think we want to start a war.”

“Well you had best do something!” Tilly snapped. “I may yet be able to outrun him, but he will trap us between those other two.”

Jerome rubbed his chin, eyes narrowed as he studied the ship approaching. “Wind... wind...” He tapped his foot and then snapped his fingers. “Guernef! Abafouq, go bring him. He may be able to do something.”

The little Binoq nodded and dashed down the steps to the hold. Tilly snapped, “That great winged beast? What can he do?”

“Amongst his people he is known as the Kakikagiget,” Andares explained. “In your tongue, you would call him the Seer of Winds.”

Tilly frowned but said nothing. He turned the wheel to wind his way between the wave crests. The Whalish vessel followed, nearing with every moment. Charles could even see the individual sailors now. He recognized the blue uniforms of their navy, and the orange of their marines who waited to board them. In the midst of the aft castle he saw the sombre glow that spoke of a fire cannon.

And then, all around them echoed a voice. The mage. “Ship of Pyralis! You are sailing into forbidden waters. Turn about and head north at once!”

Tilly sneered and hunched over his wheel. Charles fidgeted, glancing at Kayla and Jessica. The skunk stared at nothing he could see, while the hawk continued to bounce back and forth on her talons. Jerome paced lost in thought, his hands grasping at things unseen. James and Lindsey waited and watched the others, unable to do anything themselves. Andares had the placid expression of a man undisturbed by the storm raging around him.

As Guernef worked his large body up through the stairwell onto the main deck, the Whalish voice cried out again. “If you do not desist in your course, we shall launch our fire and sink you. Come about at once!”

“Whalish dogs,” Tilly muttered. To his men he shouted, “Keep the sail in the wind! We will outrun them yet!”

“Not for long,” Jerome whispered to Charles. “I’d say they will be able to launch their fire in perhaps a minute or two.”

“Aye.” The rat turned to Jessica. “We need to divert the fire somehow. Can you do it?”

She stared at the ship for a moment, and then nodded. “I think so. Andares, can you help again?”

The Åelf nodded slowly. “I may.” He drew his ivory-handled blade and angled it toward the Whalish vessel. Charles had no idea how this was going to help, but he trusted that it would.

The voice of Tilly shouting made them all turn. “No! You are not coming up here! Get back down to the hold!”

Guernef ignored him, and leapt up the steps to the aft deck. The first mate backed into the railing and nearly toppled overboard. Tilly swore again, but his tongue stilled in his throat when the Nauh-kaee turned his predatory stare upon the flabbergasted Captain.

“This is your last warning,” the Whalish mage cried. “Come about or we will launch our fire.”

“Are you ready?” Jessica asked. The Åelf nodded.

“Whatever you are going to do,” Tilly said, his voice subdued but hard, “you had better do it now.” To the rest of his men he shouted, “Make ready to bank!”

Charles rubbed his paws together and then put them on the railing, steadying himself. He turned to James and nodded toward the railing. “You better steady yourself.” The donkey grunted and did like the rat.

“There it comes!” Jerome shouted, pointing at a ball of fire arcing from the Whalish ship. It lifted high into the sky, a brilliant sun of red and orange. Jessica spread her wings, while Andares followed the ball of flame with the point of his sword. The Keepers watched them, and watched the fire as it began to turn in the sky, no longer rising but descending towards them.

Jessica drew her wings closed before her, the black feathers stretched out like guidelines for the flame. Her beak cracked open slightly, and her tongue rasped, “Now!” Andares dipped his sword low, the flat of the blade gliding up underneath where they saw the ball of fire. And then, all perspective distorted, Andares turned his blade and actually moved the ball of flame as if it were but a pebble. He swung his sword to one side, and the flame shot out to the east, before splashing and sizzling beneath the waves. It still glowed a brilliant scarlet as it sunk into the depths.

The sailors cheered at the sight, while those on the Whalish vessel scrambled. Their sails furled, and they reached with the wind. Charles saw them preparing another volley. He turned to Jessica, “Can you both do that again?”

“Maybe,” the hawk admitted, her eyes weary. “But we caught them off guard. The mage will try to protect their flame this time.”

“Can you destroy their sails?”

“The mage has them protected against flame.”

“But against pure wind and force?” Jerome asked. He glanced at Charles, and then to the Nauh-kaee. “Could you give speed to our power?”

Charles stood taller, knowing what his fellow Sondecki meant. “The Longfugos technique? Aye! Can you project our force on your wind?”

Guernef pondered for a moment then nodded. He spread his wings wide, nearly pushing Kayla off the deck in the process. The skunk scrambled aside, as did James and Lindsey. He cracked his beak and glared at the hawk and the Åelf. “You’ll want to move.”

Neither wasted any time. Charles and Jerome stood in front of the Nauh-kaee, arms over their heads. The rat felt his Sondeck flowing in his arms, drawing strength from that reservoir inside. Before them, the Whalish ship began to turn to intercept them. On the main deck the fire cannon readied the next volley. He saw the mage drawing runes upon the cannon’s surface. Behind him he heard the rasping chant of the white gryphon.

“Now!” Jerome shouted. As one, Charles and Jerome flung their arms down in a “V”. Behind them Guernef thrust his wings forward. A burst of air rushed from behind them so powerfully that Charles was flung off his paws. He grabbed the railing as he sailed through the air, claws digging into the wood as he slammed against the side of the aft castle. Jerome reached down and hauled him back up.

Charles turned and watched that torrent of air pummel through the sky. The mage jumped from the cannon and sketched runes in the sky. The sailors screamed and dove aside, one of them struggling to free himself from the rigging. Charles swallowed, hoping that he’d make it in time. And then, just as the man fell to the deck, the force rent through the main sail and cracked the main mast in half. More screams echoed as the top half of the mast collapsed into the aft castle. A trio of sailors furiously closed the fire cannon before being buried in the shattered remnants of sail and wood.

The Breckarin crew cheered again as they watched the destruction. Charles felt sick to his stomach. He shook his arms as if he’d dipped them in a particularly foul oil. To the north, the Whalish ship began foundering on the waves. He hoped they could still make port.

“Well,” Captain Tilly crowed. “Forgive my brusqueness of earlier. If you can do that again, you are more than welcome to stay on my bridge.”

“We still have two ships sailing in from the south,” Jessica pointed out. “And they have a mage on every ship. They’ll know to expect it next time.”

Tilly nodded towards the sun. Already it kissed the horizon. “It will be night soon. And I know this coast-line better than them! What you just did will give them second thoughts about getting too close.”

“I doubt it,” the rat muttered. He and Jerome rubbed each other’s arms, the same look of revulsion on their faces.

By the time they caught sight of the shore, the sun had set and the night stars were in full splendour above. The two Whalish vessels had lit lamps and stood out like bright beacons behind them. Tilly ordered all of their lights doused, and had taken down all but their smallest sails. They crept south along the shoreline, his eyes ever on the faint line that marked the boundary between land and sea. Though the moon had risen a couple hours before sunset, the eastern sky had grown choked with clouds and kept it blocked from view.

Of the Keepers, Tilly had sent all but the mages below decks for now. Even Charles and Jerome had been dismissed after Tilly had learned that their trick would not likely succeed a second time. So they sat in Tilly’s chambers with Qan-af-årael who sat pondering a game board as if the events of the last few hours had never occurred. When informed of them, he smiled and assured them that he trusted them completely.

Those who stayed top-side were each put to work. Jessica and Guernef watched the two ships chasing them. A few spells allowed both of them to see with the clarity of an owl in the darkness, and they watched those ships intently, taking short breaks every few minutes to make sure that no other vessels followed them. Abafouq, Andares, and Kayla quietly discussed ways they might cripple the last two ships, all the while knowing that they would be harassed all the way down then coast until they were captured or they had gone farther than the Whalish fleet dared.

The Pyralian coast comprised thick stretches of forest broken only by the occasional plain. Jessica could see a paved road a mile inland, though only when the trees broke long enough for her to catch its faint sheen. Squalid shacks occasionally appeared amidst the thickets and reeds along the shore-line, but otherwise the area was empty of human inhabitation. And those few humans who did live here made no sign of themselves that night. If they heard the Tserclaes pass, neither Jessica nor the crew would ever know.

The two Whalish ships were still farther off than the one that Charles and Jerome had crippled with their Sondecki powers. But they were close enough that Jessica could see the difference between the Captain, the mage, and the rest of the crew. The southernmost ship also had a fire cannon, but the northern did not. It surprised her that they did not bother dousing their lights, but she supposed they had some reason. Surely they could not be so foolish as to expect to sneak up on them now.

And then, just as the thought came to her, both ships doused their lights. “Captain!” she cried.

When he turned, he blinked and asked, “Where did they go?”

“They’ve doused their lights.”

“Can you still see them?” She nodded. “Then alert me when they change course. They would only risk the darkness if that was their intent.”

“Where are we going?” Kayla asked, nervously staring at the coastline. Her eyesight was better than most at night, but even she had a hard time telling just how close the Tserclaes came to the water’s edge. If Tilly wasn’t careful, he would ground the ship and then they would be forced to disembark in lands where the Marquis’s forces still held sway.

“Another mile and you will see,” Tilly replied. He turned the wheel slightly to the left, and the ship pulled out from the coast. Kayla saw a rock rippling just beneath the surface, one that she could never have seen from the aft deck. How had Tilly? As if sensing the skunk’s question he said, “I told you, I know the coasts of Pyralis. I can tell you that not three miles inland is a village with an Inn known in western Pyralis for frying crawfish in nearly every meal.”

Kayla had eaten crawfish a time or two before with Rickkter when he’d treated her to a very good meal. Her stomach growled at the mere mention of fried crawfish, much to her chagrin.

Seeing that she could do nothing, she turned back to Andares and Abafouq who sat on deck, their heads low in conversation. Abafouq smiled to her and waved her closer. She crept carefully on the planks, and rubbed her sensitive nose for the five hundredth time since they’d set sail. “Have you any ideas?”

“They will chase us until they capture us or destroy us,” Andares replied solemnly. “And we should not seek to destroy them. Just breaking the mast of the third ship rendered the Sondeckis ill.”

“They violated their magic,” Abafouq said. “Charles told me that the Sondeck can only be used for just ends, else it turns on its user.”

“Just so.” Andares laid his sword in his lap and ran one finger along its length. Kayla felt a throbbing at her hip and put one paw on the katana. Clymaethera, the dragon in the sword, was restless. She’d barely used her when they’d been ambushed in the forest north of Breckaris, and here, with the threat of action imminent, she had to remain untouched. No wonder the dragon was irritable!

“So how do we rid ourselves of those ships if they will chase us anywhere?” Kayla blinked and then began to smile. A sudden memory of Rickkter’s pupil, the one who had also been a skunk and she’d always thought had a special fondness for her, showed her the answer. Murikeer, her lover’s student, had been especially gifted with illusions.

Patting the katana and churring she motioned them both closer. “Illusion! What if they see us sailing north, or perhaps striking out between them? Won’t they follow the illusion?”

Abafouq pondered it but didn’t sound convinced. “They have mages, and I am thinking they will see through any illusion.”

“Not if it’s strong enough,” Kayla insisted. “Surely your master can effect such a charm.” She turned to the Åelf and stared at him with eager eyes.

He returned her gaze with unperturbed calm. With one hand he pulled back his black hair, better exposing his pearl-grey skin to the feeble light of the stars. He leaned back his head, and if not for his closed eyes, it appeared that he studied the heavens intently to find an answer to some cosmic question.

Finally, he looked back at the two of them and shook his head. “Yes, he could do this very easily, but his strength must be held for only those times when we alone cannot act. The five of us must be enough.”

Abafouq reached into his bet pouch and removed a small pellet. He rolled it around in his hand and then turned to the man at the wheel. “Captain Tilly. I would like to ask a question of you.”

Tilly didn’t turn, but he did nod. “Go ahead.”

“We are thinking of using an illusion to make your boat... how would you say it... appear elsewhere? Yes, we want to make this boat seem to be elsewhere. For that, we need to draw on your deck.”

“Spells? Draw what you wish. But I have my own plan to lose them.”

Jessica turned from her observation of the two ships and asked, “What’s that?”

Tilly pointed ahead towards a dense thicket of trees. Jessica peered closer and could see a narrow river emptying out into the sea. A little further down the coast she saw another. It took her a moment to realize what she was looking at. “A river delta?”

Tilly nodded. “We can hide there and they won’t find us. And they don’t dare use their fire. If they will face us, they face us hand to hand.”

“We are not trying to start a war,” Kayla reminded him, far too much heat in her voice. “Hide if you will, but we are going to use an illusion.”

While Abafouq began sketching along the deck with his marking stone, explaining to the skunk in a quiet whisper what each line signified, Jessica returned her gaze to the two ships. The northern ship had changed course, turning slightly south to avoid nearing the coast. The southern ship continued west, but it would need to change course soon.

Jessica swivelled her head to warn the Captain, but held her tongue when she saw him concentrate on the wheel. Tilly angled the ship away from the shore. In a moment he’d take them into the delta. Now she’d risk interrupting him. “Captain? The northern ship has turned south.”

“How far are they from shore?”

“A quarter of a mile. Maybe a third.” Jessica shook her head. “It’s hard to tell, even with my eyes.”

“How goes your illusion?”

Abafouq piped up, “Ready soon, ready very soon.”

“Hold on, I’m taking us into the delta.” Tilly spun the wheel, and the ship groaned as it banked to the right. The world twisted around them, the dark stands of trees rising up out of the churning froth. Abafouq swore under his breath, but he managed not to stumble over his lines. The sailors seemed to know what to do, as they formed in lines along either railing and extended oars. As the last of the sail was brought in, the sailors began to row against the river’s current. With each stroke, the Tserclaes pushed further into the river delta.

On every side the trees began to spread their leafy boughs around them. Jessica cursed to herself as she lost sight of both vessels. She shifted down to her animal form and flew up to the crow’s nest. From there she could see them, but only barely. The tree tops were tall enough that they would effectively hide their ship.

But she saw something more. It was faint at first, but as Abafouq continued his enchantment, a spectral image began to emerge at the delta’s mouth. Lines cris-crossed and swelled, eventually settling into the familiar shape of the Tserclaes, still sailing dark, but now turning in the opposite direction, away from the coastline and back out to sea.

Jessica could feel the illusion gain strength and saw the efforts of Andares and Kayla join in. But it wasn’t until the Nauh-kaee spread wide his wings and add his will that the ship truly began to look like a ship. Jessica felt all their concentration go into it, and even the images of the sailors on board moved to manipulate the rigging. Soon, the vessel sailed eastward at a steady clip.

The real Tserclaes came to a gentle halt against one bank of the river, completely hidden from the sea by the trees. Even the crow’s nest fell behind a particularly tall stand of trees. Jessica was forced to launch herself from the ship and take up a perch in the trees to watch the Whalish vessels to see how they would react.

Her heart beat quickly as she peered, trying to see if the illusion would falter. The southern ship turned first, and she hopped back and forth in eager delight. This one had the fire cannon, and it believed the illusion! She felt immense relief as it completed its turn and began to race to intercept the Tserclaes. As if her friends could sense that their plan was working, they gave an extra boost of speed to the illusion. Now the Whalish ship wouldn’t be able to keep up!

Jessica turned her attention on the northern ship. For several minutes more it followed the coastline, and she felt her anxiety return. Why wasn’t this one following the illusion? Couldn’t they see it?

She opened her eyes to the magic, scanning the shoreline and the illusion. To her surprise, the illusion did not appear to be magical at all. Whatever they were doing to hide its magical nature went beyond her skills. But there was something that shocked her below. How could they have missed it? Attached to the stern was a tracer spell, and it drew out a faint line that the northern ship followed.

Jessica jumped from the tree and flew down to the stern where her friends kept the illusion alive. She perched on the railing and leaned forward, trying to stay as balanced as she could. The spell was a simple one, and used such little power that it would not have been easily seen if they weren’t looking for it.

Jessica spread her wings and lifted one talon, prying at the magical strands. She pecked it with her beak, digging in and clawing the treads loose like a common knot. Harder and harder she pressed, until finally, the knot dissolved. Their path began to dissipate, leaving nothing but empty water below.

She wasted no time, flying back to the tree and watching the northern ship. The mage cast a few more spells, but nothing seemed to do any good. Jessica waited, talons digging into the bark. After a minute’s examination, the mage gave up, and the northern ship turned eastwards as well. It worked!

By the time the moon emerged from the clouds and shone brightly upon them, both Whalish ships had chased the illusion beyond the horizon. A very tired crew rowed the Tserclaes back into the sea and unfurled the sails. Jessica sat in the crow’s nest and did her best not to fall asleep. On the aft deck, only Guernef and Andares remained awake in magical ecstasy to continue guiding the illusion.

A weary Captain Tilly stayed at the helm, whistling a tuneless song. He grinned though, the grin of a man who’d beaten his enemies yet again.

“Thou must!” Kaspel insisted, struggling to break free of Chamag’s firm grip on his arms. The archer coughed and spat up more of his meal. “‘Twill pass! I art well!”

“Nae, thou needest thy rest,” Chamag insisted, holding him even tighter. “Gelel, bring the wine. It’ll help him sleep.”

Kaspel continued to struggle, but with Chamag holding his arms, Pelgan his mouth, and Gelel pouring wine down his throat, he eventually weakened and hung limply like a rag doll. Nemgas stirred the coals with a stick he’d taken from a nearby stand of trees. Amile cleaned out the cooking pot and shook her head. Gamran stood atop the wagon keeping a watch on the darkening horizon.

It had been two weeks now since they’d left Cheskych, and what had seemed like brief bouts of weakness had now become an obvious case of sickness. Nemgas chided himself for letting Kaspel continue to maintain the night watch so long. Clearly so much exposure to the night air had taken its toll on the archer. Compounded with his grief over Berkon’s death, it was sure to lead him to illness.

“I shalt watch o’er him this night,” Nemgas said after tossing the stick into the smouldering flames. “Who wilt take the watch?”

Pelgan let go of Kaspel’s mouth as the archer stared blearily at him, muttering more protests. He turned and nodded to Kaspel. “I wilt take the watch.” He smiled to Amile. “Wouldst thee care to stay up with me this night?”

Amile raised one eyebrow and stared at him amused. “I wilt, after taking a short rest. I hath worked this day.”

Gamran and Gelel laughed behind their hands. While Chamag carried Kaspel into the wagon with Gelel’s help, Nemgas looked up at the little thief. “Hast thee seen anything on the horizon?”

“Nae,” Gamran replied with a quick shake of his head. He spread his arms wide and spun on his heel. “‘Tis the Steppe! It hath been empty ere our parents wert born and it shalt be empty long after our children hath followed us into the grave.” He stared to the east for a moment, noting the impressive peaks of the Vysehrad. Ever since they’d left Cheskych Nemgas had led them a few miles from its hilly base, but still it dominated their right flank.

With dusk so soon at hand, the mountains brooded like a dog guarding a choice treat with its paw. Gamran frowned and then jumped down. “Well, enough of that. My dear, allow me to help thee with that pot.” Nemgas left them to tend to the cook pot, and climbed into the wagon.

Chamag and Gelel had lain Kaspel in the comfortable bed. The archer scratched idly with one hand at his neck. Gelel had already climbed into his bed, but Chamag was still up. “Wouldst thee rather I stay with him? Shouldst he try to rise, I couldst stop him more easily.”

“Nae, I wilt do it. I shouldst hath made him come off the watch sooner.” Nemgas grabbed the three-legged stool and set it near Kaspel’s head. He sat down facing the archer, so his one arm could easily pin him if he needed to.

“Wake me if thee dost need me,” Chamag said before sliding into his bottom bunk.

A moment later Gamran and Amile carried the pot into the back of the wagon. Nemgas scooted the seat a little closer so they could slip past to their beds. Amile prepared a damp cloth for Kaspel’s fever, and Nemgas laid it across his forehead. Still Kaspel scratched at his neck, but when Nemgas came closer, he laid his palm flat against his neck. Odd, but Kaspel had just imbibed a great quantity of wine.

A few minutes more and only a single lantern brought any light to the wagon. He heard Pelgan climb atop, and a moment later even Kaspel’s twitching ceased. All grew quiet as the Steppe fell into night.

The first couple hours passed by eventually. Magyars were used to long waits with nothing to do but live in their own thoughts and stare at the never-ending grasses of the Steppe. Over time, they each developed a sort of zone in which they let their mind freely wander while still paying close attention to everything around them. Pelgan found his zone after perhaps ten minutes, but the night still seemed to crawl past.

He thought the night unusually quiet, but otherwise nothing seemed to stand out as worrisome. The grasses bent with the wind, the air felt cool on his face, and the stars shone above. The moon rose and brightened the night even more, giving everything a pearly cast. He even found himself whistling a faint tune to himself as he watched all the word slumber.

Pelgan turned and felt a smile creasing his lips. Towards the eastern hills he heard his whistling echo back to him. So curious, it even seem to harmonize his music. His heart lifted, and he seemed to feel a cool hand glide down his back. Slowly, he stretched out his legs and climbed down from the wagon’s roof. With careful steps, he walked past the glowing remnants of the fire and into the hills.

Something lay in the slight depression beyond. The figure was man-shaped, laying down, and it played some instrument. Pelgan whistled to the tune, his body growing ever colder the closer he stepped. His hands rested at his hips, fingers touching the daggers reflexively, but he could not summon the strength to draw them. Instinct assured him he should, but the song persuaded him that this was a friend.

And then the figure shifted, and the light of the moon fell upon him. Apart from the beastly shape of his left leg, covered in putrid red fur and proportioned wrong, it was his dear friend Berkon. Pelgan blinked, tongue moving between his teeth, but it felt so bloated that he could make no words sound. Berkon nodded and smiled to him.

“Welcome, Pelgan. Thou art my friend, and thou wishest to be with me?”

Pelgan felt his head begin to nod. Something was wrong. Wasn’t Berkon dead? But despite himself, he found his legs beginning to give out. Very slowly, he started to lay down on the grasses. Berkon shifted and with his arms, dragged himself over to Pelgan’s side. His hands pressed into Pelgan’s chest, gently easing him down. His touch was colder than iron, and Pelgan shivered.

Berkon’s voice continued to sing in his mind. “Nae, ‘twill be well. Give thyself to me and ‘twill be well.”

Pelgan nodded and leaned his head to one side, hands palsied as they lay incapable against his daggers.

And then somebody screamed.

The song cut in twain, Pelgan felt his muscles come back to him. He dew his dagger and pushed to one side, while the figure of Berkon hissed with a rage that made him yearn to cry like a wounded animal. Standing atop the hill was Amile, the moon reflecting in the whites of her eyes so that she seemed half a spirit come back from the dead.

The wagon door banged open a moment later and Nemgas rushed out, followed quickly by Chamag and Gamran. Pelgan held up his knives and rushed to Amile’s side. The thing that had looked like Berkon slunk back into the shadows. Just before it disappeared over the next hill, it turned back to glare at him. Pelgan felt his heart tugged once more by that gaze. And then it was gone and he felt himself collapse against the still screaming Amile.

“What be it?” Nemgas shouted as he rushed to their side, his jewelled Sathmoran blade in hand.

Pelgan wrapped his arms around Amile and kissed her face several times. “Thou hast saved me,” he said to her. “Thou hast saved me. Hush now.” Amile did subside, but her chest heaved from the fright. Pelgan glanced at Nemgas and tried his hardest to hide the tears. “‘Twas Berkon, or some foul thing in his body.”

“Berkon?” Nemgas trembled. “What didst he want?”

“For me to give myself to him. If not for Amile screaming, I wouldst have done so.”

From the wagon, Gelel shouted something unintelligible. The back door opened, and Kaspel leapt out, falling down in a tangle of sheets. He got to his feet and began limping away from the wagon shouting, “Take me! Take me!”

They raced to his side and grabbed him by his arms, dragging the struggling archer to the ground. Even as Kaspel continued to cry out, Nemgas yanked his collar aside. From two small holes, blood began to drain. It smelled foul in a way that seemed all too familiar. “Gelel, bring the lantern!” Nemgas shouted. The youth did so, and they could see that the blood was marred by a malodorous black pus.

“‘Tis the poison that felled Berkon!” Chamag exclaimed.

“Aye,” Nemgas replied. “Get him back to the wagon. From now on, two must keep watch. Berkon hast been poisoning Kaspel for some time now.”

Gamran shuddered and stared at the horizon. “Canst we save him?”

“Maybe. Only if we reach Dazheen and the others in time.”

“But wilt we?”

Nemgas had no answer. After putting Kaspel back in the wagon, Pelgan and Amile took up the watch together. Neither of them went into their zone all the rest of that night.

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

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