Chapter Twenty-Four — Battle At Sea

Jon had wanted to see Tuwa again, but not under these circumstances. All the captives had been brought up on deck, awaiting separation and the ships that would take them to their new destinations. There was still no sign of Tam, of any rescue. Jon shivered in the warm breeze. He could feel that something was coming, but not what or from where, if it was a good thing or a terrible one. The luminous island off the starboard deck wasn’t softly glowing as before, but burning from the inside, and not with any visible kind of fire.

Temanava couldn’t seem to take her eyes off it. “I came here once, with the last Breath. I was very young, and the trees sang to me.” She paused, listening. “It’s very different now.”

“Can you tell what’s going to happen?”

“No.” Her voice was a whisper. “But I know now I won’t leave. I think I’m going to die here.”

“I don’t want that,” Jon whispered back.

“It’s not about wanting,” Temanava said sadly.

The last of the ships arrived as they watched, with names out of adventure stories; Scrivener, Duke’s Delight, Serenade, Black Waltz, Fair Rosaline, Hammerblow. So many ships, all bound for nightmares.

“Tam!” Jon thought frantically.

“Hold tight, we’ll be able to see you in a moment,” came the unexpected answer in his mind. Tam sounded as if he were holding onto horses trying to run in different directions.

Jon looked up, startled. Two ships rounded Tuwa, one from either side, surprising Hammerblow and Black Waltz, and catching them pointed in exactly the wrong way to use their cannons. The Land’s Wings had acquired cannons since he’d seen it last, Jon noted, as it and the captured pirate ship opened up with a high volley that took out masts and rigging on both vessels without damaging the holds and the people inside them. “They came!” he all but screeched at Temanava. “I knew it, I knew they would!”

“Get the merchandise below! Clear the decks!” the captain of the Scrivener bellowed.

Jon was yanked back toward the hold. He fought to stay, to watch. Before Serenade and Duke’s Delight could raise sails and get into position to fire, Land’s Wings and the captured ship, turning now so that the newly painted name Breath’s Ally was visible on its stern, came up on them with another volley. Serenade’s mast came down with a creaking crash. The cannonballs that hit Duke’s Delight exploded into copper shrapnel that swept through ropes and beams, reducing them to sprays of shavings.

The ships worked together in perfect concert, as if one person were giving orders to both, Jon realized. They crossed paths with each other, gliding past the scrambling ships they’d just hit, and coming up on either side of Scrivener, firing before Scrivener’s cannons could. Breath’s Ally hit high, showering the deck with a hail of broken wood and shreds of rope, while Land’s Wings hit low, in careful sequential shots that Jon recognized as copper, taking out Scrivener’s port cannons one by one. The men dragging the captives let go to avoid falling timbers, and Temanava grabbed Jon and they dodged away.

“Who’s captaining these?” the captain demanded. “Vasca didn’t say there was a new power in the area. What fool would risk Vasca’s wrath with just two ships?”

“This way.” Temanava issued orders to her girls, bringing them all stumbling to the side of the vessel that faced toward Tuwa.

The painter was there, ducking behind one of the drawn-up rowboats, along with the well-dressed men. The girls ignored them and set to work pushing one of the boats over the side. From here Jon could see the Breath’s Ally gliding so close he could make out familiar faces. There were sailors they had rescued, girls from the cave, and the Professor. Jon raised a hand to signal him.

“Anyone trying to go over the edge will be shot!” one of the pirates barked, swinging a rifle round to point at them.

The girls froze, and the painter made a distressed noise.

What happened next was a clear, nightmare cascade of events. Jon could see them unfold, but couldn’t move fast enough to stop them. Because he was staring at the man with the rifle, Jon saw the cannonball coming from Black Waltz. He saw it shatter through one rail of the Land’s Wings and bounce up in a sharp course change, blasting across the Scrivener’s deck to hit the main mast hard enough to shatter it into big flying shards. Jon pointed and shouted, but the rifleman wouldn’t turn. The broken mast struck the man in the back, and he fired involuntarily as he fell. Jon heard it hit with an awful noise directly to his left, and felt Temanava’s hand tighten and then go limp in his. There wasn’t time to turn his head to look as the barrage of wooden shrapnel sprayed across them.

He was blasted back with it, still holding tight to Temanava. He slid over the hull of the rowboat, and fell, just past the grasping fingers of some of the girls who were crouched there for cover. Jon saw their horrified faces as he and Temanava, both struck in a dozen places with huge wooden splinters, flew backward over the rail entirely. The last thing he saw before hitting the water was the Professor, diving down from his ship, empty leaf wrappings falling away from his hands. He had just taken the last of the Corta.

Then everything was a blast of roiling bubbles and breathlessness and the realization of pain. He tried to hold on to Temanava but she wasn’t holding his hand back, and bits of wood were in his arms and chest and it hurt to move. Plumes of red flowed past his water-blinded eyes and he grasped weakly at Temanava’s slipping fingers. There was a deep, terrible rumble coming from everywhere, and he wished he could just breathe once more, and see Tam again.

*     *     *

“What are they doing now?” Kara demanded, wide-eyed. She sat on Rades’s broad shoulders with both hands spread against the shivering door.

“That’s not them.” Djaren stared at the trembling floor and walls. “This is an earthquake. Leave the door and get into the inner courtyard!” He grabbed up Ellea and stumbled to follow Rades, Kara, and the other fleeing refugees while the floor bucked and jumped beneath him and ceiling plaster rained down in white streams. He tripped, fell, and recovered, helped along now by Isakoa, who was carrying a refugee child. They made the courtyard in time to see ominous plumes of ash rising from the north.

“Not just an earthquake,” Isakoa said, face blanching. “The holy mountain is doing this.”

“The volcano,” Djaren said.

“If it is that, nowhere in Trimela is safe.” Isakoa left the child with its parents and took to the stairs. Djaren followed after him, leaving Ellea. It wasn’t easy, with the stairs cracking and leaping, and Kara and Rades shouting up after them not to be stupid and to get clear of the building. They reached the top story, the worst place to be in an earthquake, but the only place from which to see the northern slopes. The rumbling subsided, then came back stronger as they gripped shuddering windowsills. A huge column of gray and white ash was rising from the mountain.

“What happened?” Djaren asked, trying to pull memories about prevailing winds and lava flows and super-heated steam and how to get away from it all while trapped in a besieged building.

“Something must have happened to the Breath,” Isakoa said, looking up numbly as the first bright sprays of molten rock breached the clouds.

“So the island is just going to let everybody die?”

“I don’t know,” Isakoa said. “Is your sister still prophesying?”

“Only one way to find out.” Djaren turned and raced back down the shivering stairs, pausing to grab hold of railings when the world shook too badly.

Ellea was sitting up when they got back to the courtyard, attended by Melya and a stirring Hirnar. Kara swore at Djaren from Rades’s shoulders. “It’s not fair you running off when I can’t follow you.”

“What’s happened and why is the world ending?” Ellea demanded weakly. “Someone drugged me, and then something borrowed my mouth and now the world’s ending, or sinking, or rising, and the whole island’s like a giant bee sting, and I’m very cross about it.”

“Are you all right?” Djaren asked.

“No! I’ve just told you. Father’s trying to do something, but I’ve no idea what. Mother’s shooting pirates, and Tam says ‘Not now,’ and Jon is hurt and drowning, and the Professor’s poisoned himself and gone overboard. I’m out a few hours and everyone goes mad!”

“The volcano,” Isakoa said, coming down the stairs, “is definitely erupting now.”

“Not acceptable,” Ellea said, with a little kick to the floor. “Make it stop at once!”

“Can you?” Kara asked. “Because that would be handy right now.”

“I don’t speak volcano!” Ellea shouted.

“We’re all going to die in lava,” Kara said.

“Maybe we won’t,” Djaren said, not mentioning five ways they were much more likely to die before lava reached them.

“I want to live,” Isakoa said, “and go to Cambriol, and return a wise king to unite and protect my people.” He turned to Djaren. “If we live, I ask that you come with me.”

*     *     *

Jon’s pain began to lessen about the same time he discovered he could breathe again. The second was very startling, as he was still underwater. His sight was clearer now, too, and the first thing he saw was the bright glass sea bond on its cord descending over his head. The Professor’s hand trailed light along his left arm. Jon turned and saw him pushing down, following Temanava deeper under. Jon grabbed at him, kicking hard at the water, not wanting to be separated again. He had to share the sea bond, he was sure. Last time they’d survived by all holding it.

He stretched his hand to grasp the Professor’s and reached it at last, lacing his fingers through the Professor’s and holding tight. At once, something odd happened. It was the hand that held his artifact, and the lines flowed out in bright silver filigree, up Jon’s arm and over his shoulder. The light mingled with the filtered sun and made the sea glow all around them. Temanava came visible, suspended in red clouds. No bubbles streamed from her lips, and her wide eyes were blank, unseeing.

Jon kicked harder, trying to propel himself and the Professor closer to her. The Professor wasn’t helping. He was limp in the water, too, lost in the Corta again, or in newly remembered pain. Jon swung him round and down with all his strength, a big arc to send him bumping into Temanava, trying to make two wrong things right by the collision. He succeeded mostly into swinging himself deeper under. The Professor brushed past Temanava and then further down, pulling Jon after him. Jon grabbed at Temanava’s skirt, and finally managed to bring all three of them close together, touching the sea bond. As he did so, the sea spoke.

I need your help, but you are all very broken,” it observed, one voice and many, the one very beautiful, and a lady’s. She was young and old, grave and bubbling, the most alien and yet mostly warmly familiar thing Jon had ever sensed. She didn’t use words so much as images that rose like bright bubbles in his mind, translating into words only on breaking.

I’m trying to fix us,” Jon thought at the sea.

Your guardian healer has been cursed and enchanted,” the sea told him, showing him the Professor.

I don’t know how to fix that,” Jon told her, them.

Water curled around him, with shapes inside it, living currents, flowing hair, a face. It seemed to examine the Professor. “He’s been used as a sacrifice, innocent blood. The demons taught someone to do this. Perhaps that twisted little shaper, Vashiel. He did something like this before, to make a weapon. I told the ravens to hide it. The Vessel lived on as a child again with my help.” Jon’s inner eye saw an older, greener world, and a young man with dark chin-length sheets of hair, and ears like the Professor’s. A shadowy, awful thing was pulled from the boy’s chest and he changed, grew younger, and screamed. Jon shivered. Huge ravens with bright, intelligent eyes spread wings over the pulsing thing of nothingness.

It felt like a very old story Jon already knew. Half her words were right out of Shandorian fairy tales. “Who are you?” he asked.

Your folk and names. I had many when I was of Land. Now I am the Sea, and Not-Alone. And I need your help. The island is destroying many things in its grief. You can protect the lives of creatures that will otherwise be lost. Will you help me save them?”

She was an old fairy tale, too, a real one, names floating about her like bubbles. One-Alone. The Keeper. Jon knew what you did if the Keeper appeared on a hillside and asked a favor of you. “I will help you if I can. Can you save my friends?”

I can’t fix everything, but I can give them both a new chance.”

“Show me what to do, ma’am.”

They had settled now on the ocean floor, amid the spars of a shipwreck, which lit and glowed at the touch of the Professor’s bare feet, reforming and rising all round them as the sea danced in a flurry of silvery bubbles.

Jon saw that Temanava wasn’t surrounded in red any longer. Her eyes were closed, and she floated quietly, hair whirling up, breathing water as if it were air. All the bits of wood were pushing out of her, and him as well. Jon felt cold tingles, but no more pain. The Professor, though, was shuddering like he had when he’d first taken Corta, but the spasms seemed to shake the very shape of his body this time, and he writhed with silent screams. Jon couldn’t keep hold of him.

The poison is deep, and must be removed so that his body can renovate as his lost gift will let it,” the sea explained. Dark shards were erupting all over the Professor’s body. Little slivers like crystal pushed out from hands, arms, chest, legs, back. He was like the child from the story, it seemed, for the more dark slivers that broke loose, the smaller he grew.

His power and your shield, combined with my ability, may guard many of the sea’s children as the world is remade. I’ll teach you,” the sea said. Jon’s eyes saw glowing timbers forming on the ocean’s bed, the Professor’s spilling power pulling a vessel into being around them, while in his mind the sea showed him a new, or very old world.

He saw a girl who wasn’t just a girl, followed by floating stones, moss, and wind-songs. She looked down at the ruins of a white city in a canyon so green and luminous it could have been drawn with Tuwa’s colors. She picked up something silver from the ground, and it was an interesting little puzzle to her. She made it part of her a moment and understood its complex workings, the sounds and thoughts and directions of mind that unlocked it into a thousand things meant as tools to defend and ward. She dropped it then, knowing it to be a pretty trifle, and unimportant to her work. Something huge, indescribable, and beautiful flew overhead, all feathers and scales and coils. It shrieked a chord that filled the mind as well as the ears and shook the mountains underfoot, and the sound was heartbreak. The girl felt another mountain moving, about to burst forth in fire and the Land’s blood, and so she took to the sky, too, turning to mist, air, and light.

Jon gasped as the vision went away abruptly.

Do you understand?”


I mean the tool, the shield you hold.”

Yes.” The memories were still in his mind, so different from how he usually saw or carried memory. Every smell and odd heartbeat was clear and immediate in his mind.

We must work at once.”

Jon could feel, as the memory girl had, that the world was reshaping beneath him. He held the Professor tight with his shield hand, and with his other hand he held Temanava’s. The ocean swirled around them. Temanava was blinking now, in confusion and wonder. Jon squeezed her hand and, following the strange directions of the sea, he asked his seal to spread and join, to shield all that was loved. The ocean loved many things, it seemed. Silver light and tracery spilled across the ocean floor, touching coral, fish, and the hulls of two ships far above. All the plants and sea animals were covered with silvery bubbles of shielding light. No sooner had the bubbles formed than dark cracks appeared in the sea bed, venting jets of steam that boiled the water. Protected by a silver shell of old magic, Jon watched the sea boil and churn, watched fragile things rise, protected, on new spires of rock, watched the world change shape as some of the burning rocks jetted upward, and others fell into new, deep canyons.

Not-Alone, still with them, and yet over there, and there, too, danced with the steam, rode the jets up high and tumbled down, whirling and playing, younger and older than anything.

In each protected bubble, things were changing. Coral grew, tiny creatures unfurled their limbs, and the scarring on a shark faded away, leaving only sleek, leathery hide. Everything was healing and thriving, inches from where land and ocean burned. Temanava looked dazed. Her lips moved as if she were speaking, but Jon didn’t know to what.

The Professor’s hand felt strange in his, and Jon turned to look at him. He was barely a grown-up any longer. He gasped water as naturally as air, still shedding painful shards. Jon hugged him close, pulling Temanava closer, too. “Hold on.”

*     *     *

Tam leaned forward over the bow, staring down into churning ocean and then up at the giant plume of black smoke where the island of Tinaro was exploding. “They’re alive down there,” he told Hellin, a bright splash of color on a deck over there, and a brighter voice in his mind. “Jon’s talking to something that doesn’t make any sense at all, and the Professor . . . honestly, ma’am, I’m not near sure what’s happening with him. But they aren’t boiled up, and neither are any of our people overboard, so far as I know.

Thank the One for unexpected allies,” Hellin said. “Corin’s helping channel the island’s power into shape. He’ll try to protect us, but he warns that it’s far more than he can fully control. Brace for heavy waves.”

The ship lurched violently as a sudden wash of water roared in from port, where a new spire of coral rose skyward, gleaming with silver light. Reefs lifted under one of the pirate ships, grounding her where she sat and splitting the hull. Cargo and people spilled out to find themselves only waist deep in silvery water.

A revolt seemed to have taken place on the ship with the girls. Pirates tumbled overboard amid gunfire. Another ship was sinking, its hull crushed by something unseen. Pirates rowed away in smaller boats which threatened to capsize in the heavy chop. On the horizon a line of rocky reefs surged upward, girdling the sea in a wide arc. Tam could tell Corin was there, though not what shape he was currently being. The view was quickly obscured by rising plumes of steam where molten rock was becoming small islands and spikes of stone.

They’re so old-fashioned, those two. I hope this really is best for the islanders,” Hellin said.

What, ah, are they doing?” Tam asked.

Channeling the eruptions to create a natural blockade. They’re making all the Tembelaka Islands unnavigable to large ships. Cutting them off from the world again.”

Do they want that? Will it make all the foreigners go away and leave them alone?”

It will, to an extent. As for what they want? At least we’re saving Tinaro from becoming a lava field.

Tam could hear Djaren, Ellea, and Anna changing in pitch from fear to wonder. “I think it must be working.”

*     *     *

“What,” said Kara, “is going on?”

One wing of the school—happily, one they’d already evacuated—had collapsed, leaving the courtyard with a view of the burning city and the bay beyond. They were no longer under siege. The armies had scattered. They’d transposed themselves with the Kaunatoan warriors, who were gathering on the lawn, looking up past the school at the mountain. In the distance, out on the ocean, plumes of steam were rising, and within them odd, twisty, gleaming spires.

Isakoa stared up at the mountain as well. “That, I think, is a sign.”

Djaren had to agree. The smoking peak had erupted with a few arcs of burning rock, which had cooled with unnatural speed into an even more unnatural shape. Coiled around the edge of the mountain was a monumental, sizzling stone shape of a creature with tattered, half-formed wings, and a long rearing neck and head. The fire within it lit cracks all through, and gave it glowing eyes.

“Your island is a shaper,” Djaren breathed. “That makes sense.”

“Someday you will have to explain how that makes sense,” Isakoa said, still staring. “Maybe at Cambriol.”

“We’re going to live,” said Anna. “There’ll be a lot of cleaning up to do.”

Nearly all of the ramshackle, filthy town had burned down, leaving the slopes in a bright green contrast. The school was rubble as well, its whitewashed halls, smoke-seared saints, and floral new gods all buried in plaster, beams, uniforms, and textbooks.

Meister Feinhardt and Sister Agata stared at the mess. Sister Marda retrieved a saint’s broken hand, grumbling to herself, and tucked it away in a pocket.

“Well,” said Feinhardt, “this will mean rearranging some lesson plans.”

“All our work . . .” Sister Agata said.

“Is them, not this,” Feinhardt pointed away from the rubble, at the children.

“What are you going to build here?” Djaren asked Isakoa.

“Something better,” Isakoa said, and walked out to the Kaunatoan warriors, flanked by his bodyguards with their war clubs. He pulled away the collar of his shirt to reveal more tattoos there. “My people,” he called out, “we have work to do.”

*     *     *

Jon rose up on the whole and gleaming deck of the Flying Hindleman, as schools of bright fish hurried past and little crabs skittered away over the decks as they neared the surface. He met Temanava’s wide, bright eyes, and shared his hold of the sea bond.

You made this, didn’t you?” he asked Not-Alone. “The Keeper forged a bond between Land and sea, and took to the waters, and there were no more like her upon the Land.”

“Yes, I made this,” Not-Alone agreed, swooping about them. Gleaming fingers touched the glass lightly, and drew it apart into two bubbles, both exactly alike. She let the one fall back to Jon, and put the other in Temanava’s hands. “Visit me again,” she told her.

She guided Jon’s hand with the sea bond to the Professor’s still-shaking chest. “Someone gave him this to protect him. I am glad he has friends. It is sad to be the last, to be alone. He can’t go back home. But there are so many lights. He can’t sense them, but you can. Help him find them.”

With Not-Alone’s touch, Jon could see an immense constellation of light and dark around them, stretching farther away than anyone could see, and in the expanse beyond there were roiling beings of fire and light. Tiny sparks gleamed in the distance, treasures, secrets, and stirrings of darkness. Over that way, Shandor lay like an exposed, cracked gem, while across the world pulsing, fiery rings of islands were sleeping. Jon saw in that glance a world of wonders, buried mysteries, hidden things whispering and dancing.

Not-Alone seemed to share his delight. “And that’s just this world,” she whispered, directing his gaze up to a sky so overwhelming with visions that it made Jon feel tiny. He would have been lost but for the anchoring pull of Tam, drawing nearer, warm and solid and bright, even in a world of shimmering magnitude.

Tiny never means unimportant,” Not-Alone said, as the Hindleman broke the surface and rose, trailing waterfalls, into the world of air again. The deck spilled with light, new sails above raining rivulets and rainbows.

Jon stood beside Temanava, staring with wonder at the bright, new world of the surface. One of the pirate ships was over fifty feet in the air, skewered on a spire of rock. As they watched, sea grass and rock crabs spilled, verdant and wild, from its splitting joints. Reefs gleamed close to the port side, with coral growing, visibly and impossibly, as they watched. New islands appeared in the distance, and a jagged sea wall that looked almost like stone waves. The Land’s Wings and the Breath’s Ally were mostly undamaged, decks crowded with rescued captives and happy reunions.

Jon! You’re all right. Look sharp at the Professor, something’s wrong!” Tam told him, in his mind.

Stricken with guilt and worry, Jon dropped to his knees beside the Professor. He wasn’t shivering any longer. A large crystal pierced halfway out of his throat and seemed to have stopped there. He wasn’t breathing.

“No!” Jon cried. “What do we do?”

“Everything’s stopped growing,” Temanava reported, looking over the deck.

“No, no, no.” Jon took hold of the crystal with his seal hand, and the silver gleamed bright there, wrapping the dark thing. He pulled carefully, and watched, horrified, as the piece came free from a deep hole welling too fast with blood. He threw the crystal overboard, and set his shield hand over the wound, willing it to staunch the blood, to do something, anything, to save the Professor. The boy on the deck didn’t look like the Professor any longer. His hands were only a little bigger than Jon’s. He looked Djaren’s age, young and pale and dying.

Under the silver, the wound began slowly, so slowly, to pull together, the last of the Corta fueling the Professor’s gift to heal one final wound. He took a breath, gurgling and terrible, then another that sounded a little better, until finally there was only a new raw scar at his throat and he breathed almost without rattling. He still had all his old scars, a little fainter now, a paler tracery compared to the new ones: the sunburst of a bullet wound from their first run-in with the pirates, the scar where he’d been stabbed, and the new scar at his throat. He didn’t wake up.

“I think things are beginning to settle,” Temanava said. “The island is quiet again.”

4 thoughts on “Chapter Twenty-Four — Battle At Sea

  1. I think this installment was the most complex so far- I found myself re-reading several times as so much is happening at once. Jon has had an unexpected pivotal role in the events!

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