“It is not so easy a thing to match a legend with truth.”
—Minnow, Sage of Mearcentia
A BOY CRANED back his head, staring up, and farther still. Zoshi had seen the mythical tower every day of his life. It dominated the skyline. From as far away as Drivel, the tower was big, but up close—it hurt his head. Even with the crystal pinnacle lost to the night, he felt like he was falling.
He wiped the snow from his face, and focused on something he could comprehend. Four stone statues flanked the Storm Gate. Everlight flickered in sconces, casting an eerie glow over the stone.
He did not like those armored things.
The Wise Ones’ castle felt every bit as wrong as the pit where his brothers had been slaughtered. The boy tried not to think of that day, or the long days in the dungeon that had followed.
He shivered, and looked at his guards. They were all dapper and straight in the Wise Ones’ colors: crimson and black with an eye emblazoned on their cuirasses. One of them gripped the boy’s shoulder, keeping him in his place. Zoshi didn’t like guards. No street rat in his right mind would. And here he was now, recently freed from one dungeon, and handed to another set of bullies.
A lone black crow gave a rattling caw. The bird perched on one of the guardian statues, glaring at the Storm Gate. The thin old Wise One called him Crumpet. When Zoshi had first met the animal, Crumpet had been a mammoth; now he was a crow. The boy tried not to think about that.
He eyed the Storm Gate. It was made of dark wood. Someone had etched strange symbols on it, not the idle markings that he carved into posts, but harsh, cruel looking ones with a purpose. The street rat had survived eight years in the docks, and he knew what danger felt like. This was it. All prickling over his body, making his legs want to run.
The crow hopped to the ground, right in front of the gates. Crumpet tapped his beak on the strange wood, and then looked right at the boy. He croaked. Those beady black eyes shone with more wit than Zoshi had seen in most men.
Animals know more than we do most times. That’s what Zoshi’s mum would say. He tried not to think of his mum. Thoughts like that made his stomach twist with worry. When he saw her next, he’d have to tell her that Pip and Tuck were dead. The boy had tried, and failed, to save his brothers. And these men, in their fancy black and crimson armor, made him think of the soldiers who had murdered his kin.
The bird cawed again, a questioning sound. Zoshi did not speak Crow, but he understood the bird. Crumpet couldn’t open the gates. When the bird had been a mammoth, he likely could have done it. Being so small must be frustrating to the transformed animal.
Zoshi pulled down his hood, dislodging the snow that had piled on his fur mantle. Morigan had taken it from the manor, along with all manner of things. Food, for one, a waterskin, and a large pouch of coins. It was a fortune, to him at any rate.
Morigan was a lot like his mum, always taking care of others before herself. While they were in the dungeon, she had taken care of him, and now he worried about the kind woman.
The boy looked up at the forbidding gates. This time, the crow’s caw held a strong demand. Crumpet wanted to find his mistress: the thin old woman Thira. She terrified the boy. Still, he understood the bird’s worry. If things went badly, which they always did, who would watch out for Morigan? It was left to him.
Zoshi nodded to the crow. It took flight with a terrible screeching that drowned its flapping wings. The crow circled, and swooped, and went straight at the guard who held the boy’s shoulder. Claws and beak, and a great scraping rattle.
The guard let go of the boy to fight off the crow, and Zoshi ran straight for the Storm Gate. The handle was heavy, and the gate even more so. He tugged with all his might. It did not budge. And then the boy saw a smaller door hidden in the larger. A wicket gate, just like in Drivel. He cursed his slow wits and darted to the side, tugging on the door that was about his own size. He held it open, and the bird flew through on a swoosh of wings. He darted in after.
Zoshi shut the wicket door, lifted the heavy bar, and slid it into the brackets. He turned and tripped over his feet. The hall was massive. Larger than most big buildings in Drivel. Stars shone and twinkled in a clear night. He thought it was a window to the sky, but it was solid stone—a moving, shifting enchantment.
The guards banged on the gate.
Zoshi swallowed his amazement and ran after the flapping crow. He didn’t know where he was, wasn’t sure if he was inside or out, but he did know that this was no place for a street rat.
Crumpet flew through a long row of columns that were as thick as a castle wall. Zoshi slowed, and put his back against marble, edging around a column. More sleek marble, open space, and doors. But in this side hall, stars didn’t sparkle from the ceiling; instead, a storm of energy churned overhead. The crow flew around the whirlpool of lightning, and Zoshi followed the bird’s lead, skirting the unstable weave.
Crumpet landed in front of another large set of doors. The crow croaked, and waited. Zoshi tiptoed towards the door. He felt exposed out in the open, and when he got to the wall, he put his back against the stone, gazing out into the massive space. The emptiness made his head swim.
Crumpet tapped an impatient talon.
Swallowing a well of unease, the boy eyed the handle to the large doors. The moment Zoshi wrapped his hand around the handle, the doors flew open. It happened so fast that they hit the boy square, knocking him flat. A blizzard of ice howled from the opening, pushing him back. Soldiers and robed ones charged from the doorway, tripping over each other as they tried to flee. Snow howled over his head, and ice crept over the marble, cracking and growing, reaching towards the boy.
His breath froze. Zoshi couldn’t breathe. With ice pelting their backs, soldiers turned on each other, and so did the Wise Ones. Energy lashed and a clash of blades burst into the chamber. He scrambled backwards, trying to escape the chaos. It was worse than a tavern brawl.
A fluff of black in the white caught his eye. The boy slipped and crawled towards the crow. Crumpet flapped uselessly on the floor. One of his wings was bent at an odd angle.
Zoshi picked up the crow, tucked him under his arm, and ran, weaving through fighters and sliding under legs, ducking and dodging dying men.
The air at his back stirred with power and screams. He raced towards an open pair of doors at the end of the grand hall. Zoshi did not look back.
A great rasp and creak drowned out the screams. The boy quickened his pace, flying past a pair of mongrel statues. The chamber beyond was all black. Terror scratched at the inside of his skull. The boy kept running. With ice and wind blowing hard at his back, he darted through another gate.
Zoshi hid behind a pillar. Heart thundering, throat dry, he clamped a hand over his own mouth and pulled his legs close.
This new hall was even bigger than the first. The pillars were like trunks in a forest, and furious sounds echoed in the cavernous hall. Crumpet opened his beak, and Zoshi clamped it shut, glaring.
A decisive bang silenced the tumult. Was that the sound of a closing door? Had the gates between the mongrel statues been closed?
Zoshi closed his eyes, willing himself to disappear. He did not want to be trapped in here. Mutilated stone faces ringed each column. Every face was caught in a scream, but eyes had been gouged, noses broken, and tongues crushed. Zoshi rubbed his throat. He knew what it was like to be Silenced, and he didn’t much care for it. No, he could not stay here. Gathering courage, he stuffed the wounded crow under his mantle, freeing up both hands.
With slow care, he edged around the pillar, trying to gain a better vantage point. A harsh, obsidian throne sat at the far end of the great hall. It was as black and dark as the room that he had ran through. Zoshi kept edging around, until he could see the twining gate. It was closed, but he could see through the metal vines. A sleek man, wearing crimson robes, stood alone in the room of black. Zoshi’s breath caught; he knew that man. He was the one who had stood in the ritual circle in the dungeon, the one who had ordered his brothers’ death.
Crumpet poked his head up through his collar, gazing at the man in the room. Zoshi reached for a dagger, but the bird bit his cheek, and he stifled back a cry.
The man extended an arm and turned his hand. The obsidian rock rippled. Zoshi could feel it in the stone beneath his feet, in the air around him, and even in his mind. He backed up a step, and then stopped, rooted in place.
Mist and darkness seeped from the room. It slowly filled the cavernous hall. A multitude of whispering voices tickled his ears. All hushed and sinister, speaking of wicked things.
Blue light flared in the dark, streaming through the stained glass windows high overhead. But when the light hit the sickly fog, it fractured, lighting the mist with an eerie glow.
The crow cawed in warning, loud and obnoxious. Zoshi shushed the dumb bird, but it was too late. Whispers drowned out his heartbeat, filling his mind. Forms materialized in the fog. They were thin and fragile, like shadows at the edge of his mind, fleeting and indistinct. Long limbs reached for the boy. He ran through the gloom, but the floor shuddered, knocking him off his feet. He slipped, skidded, and hit a pillar.
Zoshi blinked away dark spots, trying to move his arms and legs. A blinding brightness filled his vision. The pulse of light chased away the reaching forms and hit his chest, slamming right into the crow. A crack echoed in his ears, and the boy remembered nothing more.
A SINGLE DROP formed between a crack in the wood. It shimmered in darkness, shaped by the weight of the earth and pulled into a perfect tear. For a breath, the drop clung to its perch.
Time stopped, and stared.
Marsais zar’Vaylin peered into the shimmer. A man stared back—roguish and unkempt, his long lanky body sprawled in a hammock. Snow-like hair spread across the dingy canvas and a scruffy goatee jutted from his chin. Three small coins were woven into his hair. The fragments were all that was left of a shattered realm; that, and a broken god.
Time blinked, and the world rushed in.
Drip. Cool water touched his forehead. The drop slid to the right, into his eye, pooled like a tear, and rolled down his unshaven cheek. Another formed, the hammock swayed, and the next drop missed. Back and forth he swung as tiny arrows of liquid salt pelted his skin. But there was no pitter-pattering of water, nor moaning wood—only a constant roar.
Time had been lost in the storm’s fury. The world churned, and it was exhausting.
A sailor rushed by, bumping his hammock, knocking it to the side with a wild swing. The howling sea drowned the sailor’s frantic shouts, and Marsais closed his eyes, listening to a plea that haunted the storm.
‘Grant me peace,’ the voice whispered.
In the vast and endless hallways of memory, Marsais stared into the pleading eyes of a girl, the chained Scryer in the Ardmoor’s fortress. He felt leather in his palm; felt her parting skin as he slid the blade across her throat. In that moment, peace entered her eyes.
“Grant me peace,” he begged. But there was no one standing over him with a blade. No matter how much he dreamed.
Something tapped his forehead.
Marsais opened his eyes to a brilliant splash of scarlet in the dark world of salt and sweat. A parrot perched on his head. Emerald eyes stared into his own. Marsais blinked, and in the flutter of lash, the bird vanished.
He squinted at empty air. “Madness dreaming,” he chuckled, and roused himself, struggling upward to look over the edge of the hammock. His head gave an alarming throb and his stomach heaved with the ship.
A swirl of seawater churned on the deck. When the water remained water and the ship continued to rock, Marsais collapsed back into the hammock. He was not dreaming. His fingers curled around a flask, and he brought it to his cracked lips. It was empty.
With a muttered oath, he tossed it away. Inevitably, his hand strayed to his bare chest, scratching at the burning scar that slashed from shoulder to hip, always healing and yet never healed.
A soft vibration emanated from his chin, but the coins’ warning chime were lost in the wind. In his mind’s eye, he glimpsed angry men descending on his hammock. Marsais cackled at the vision. He did not move, only lay swinging, waiting for the future to catch up with him. When it came, he surrendered to Fate.
Desperate men surrounded his bed. The hammock turned, rolling him inside. Ropes twined around his body and rough hands hoisted him like a spare sail. Yelling would be useless, so he continued his mad cackle, joining the whispering voice on the wind. ‘Grant me peace.’
The deck lurched, and the men lost their footing. Marsais thudded to the ground, sliding back down the companionway. Wrapped in a cocoon of canvas and rum, the knock to his head felt more like a caress. Strong hands hoisted him again and his abductors made another dash at the companionway stairs.
A wash of water hit his body, diving down his throat. He stopped laughing. There was something he had left to do. One last thing.
Marsais cursed his memory, searching through the dense fog that clouded his mind as his body was carried towards a watery grave. He needed a higher perch. Wings. A door opened in the maze of his mind. Water turned to fire; the realm burned, and the Void swallowed the coals.
The vision crumbled to ash and Marsais jerked, thrashing in the confines of his canvas net. Long and wiry as he was, the seer moved like a python in the sailors’ hands. The sudden burst of movement surprised the men. They dropped him on deck.
A wave reached over the bulwark, slamming into him. Marsais slid across the deck, and came to an abrupt stop. The air fled his lungs as water swirled all around, crushing him against the bulwark. The cutter tilted with a wave, climbing, and the water carried him aft. Marsais twisted and strained, clawing at the hammock from the inside, until his head was free from the canvas cocoon. He sucked in a breath.
The wind howled, and lightning split the night. His abductors scrambled to their feet, moving over the slick deck.
The ship tilted forward, speeding down a wave. As he was carried by the sea towards the rail, Marsais freed his arms.
A shadow emerged from the spray. A fist dropped a seaman, and another crashing wave swallowed Marsais, stealing his sight. The sea sought to swallow him and the sailors were keen on chucking him down its gullet.
Marsais scrambled for purchase, reaching out for anything solid. A coil of rope brushed his fingers and he snatched it.
When the wave subsided, the hulking shadow took shape. Over seven feet of Nuthaanian muscle stood on deck, one hand on the rigging and the other latched onto a sailor’s ankle. Oenghus squinted at the leg, then his gaze traveled to the face. It wasn’t the person he wanted. Alarm flashed across his eyes, and he let the man go.
Marsais wiggled out of the hammock. A wave hit him again, and the rope slipped through his fingers. He clawed and floundered in the swirling cold until a steel-like grip latched around his wrist, holding him fast.
“Get on your feet, you drunk bastard!” Oenghus bellowed. The water ebbed. Marsais spluttered and coughed, slipping on deck before Oenghus yanked him towards the poop deck.
Captain Carvil stood at the helm, wrestling with the wheel. A knot of Windtalkers stood close by. The sea-shamans had abandoned their drums, and their voices rose in a beseeching chant as they tried to calm the sea god. But Nereus would not be soothed.
“Did you order your men to throw him overboard?” Oenghus yelled at the captain.
Marsais tried to shake off the berserker’s grip, but it was firm.
“Look!” Captain Carvil thrust his chin forward.
Marsais blinked past the sleet. The sea was black, slashed with towering white crests, and the seafarers, to a man, had the look of men marching proudly to their deaths.
A wave roiled, the ship tilted, and the fore of the ship disappeared beneath the sea before bursting through. Marsais would have been washed off his feet if not for the unrelenting hand on his arm.
Beyond the waves, beyond the black sky, there was a horizon. A clear, starlit night with a silver moon. As fast as he glimpsed it, the calm was washed out by another wave.
This storm was not natural. Marsais took advantage of Oenghus’ distraction. He shook off the giant’s grip and slipped towards the bulwark, catching the rail to look overboard. He saw a fitful sea of whirlpools.
A hand gripped his waistband, and Oenghus bellowed about Marsais’ mental state. He ignored the man. His fingers flashed, layering one rune over another, drawing the moon’s silver light to his fingertips. He chanted the Lore for control—for emphasis. With a final sweep of his hand, he Bound a message to the water, and hurled it down like a spear. The weave of runes collided with the sea and rippled outwards with a boom.
A slice of lightning touched the foremast. Timber cracked, and rigging snapped, flapping in the storm. And then the sea went still. Storm clouds fled, and moon and stars appeared, reflected in the water’s surface.
The clipper bobbed like a cork, until finally, it settled.
The silence was deafening. Slowly, the crew began to move; a tentative touch over a heart; a hand pushing back wet hair; or a tap of a foot to check if the deck was still there. It might have been a dream save for the splintered masts and dripping sails.
“What did you do?” Captain Carvil’s voice bounced off the water.
Marsais turned to face his wary shipmates. “I sent a message.”
“What kind of message?” Acacia asked, climbing the companionway stairs.
“The reasonable kind.” Marsais waved a distracted hand. His coins chimed, his features sagged, and he threw himself forward. But rum ran through his veins and slowed his reaction. A tentacle whipped over the bulwark, wrapped around his neck, and yanked him backwards.
The seer disappeared overboard.