Just then, a rogue gust shot across the bow from the cliffs to the west. The wooden masts creaked heavily under the strain, forcing the ship to heave far to starboard. Aybel grabbed Gideon’s arm to keep from losing her balance, even as she shot a worried glance back toward the cockpit. Gideon’s eyes followed hers. Captain Quigly was not at the helm, but his bondmate was, cursing the wind with a zeal that matched—or perhaps surpassed— her strained determination to hold the wheel on course. Like the captain, she was excessively squat, with a barrel-shaped torso and legs so short as to be almost nonexistent. But her arms were of normal length and as thickly muscled as any man’s, and with them she latched onto the wheel and leaned her stumpy frame heavily to port. The curses continued unabated, but the wheel held steady.
Ajel had told him that the unusual physical traits of the Captain and his bondmate were common to all the Sea Folk, and uniquely suited them to life on the open sea. Maybe so, Gideon had replied. But it certainly didn’t make them easy on the eyes.
A few seconds later the wind subsided, and the deck rolled quietly back to its former position.
“Well. That was weird,” said Gideon, looking at Aybel.
Her hand lingered on his arm. When her eyes met his, they seemed full of questions, but not about the wind. “Gideon, there’s something—“
“You must take your staff now, Waymaker.” Gideon glanced over his shoulder to see Telus looming over him, thrusting the almond wood staff out toward the Waymaker like a scepter.
“What for?” asked Gideon. She called me Gideon.
“It was an ill wind,” replied Telus. “Sa’lei has been spoken. I sense it.”
“That wind was Worded?” asked Gideon.
Aybel released his arm and stepped toward the companionway. “Revel, Kyrintha,” she called. “You’re needed.”
“I cannot say with certainty,” continued Telus. “But Sa’lei has been spoken nearby.” His sinewy silver-gray arm extended toward Gideon a second time. “Take it,” he said. “You may have need of it.”
Gideon frowned. After Telus had freed Gideon from the dungeons of Phallenar and carried him to safety at Gideon’s Fall, the Raanthan left him alone for a time while they waited for the Endurant to find them. When he returned, he carried with him the gilded almond wood staff, looking more like a flimsy twig in his overly-large hand, as well as a new set of clothes. Gideon took the garments, but refused to touch the staff. He did not ask how Telus knew where to find it or how he came by the clothes, nor did he wish to know how the Raanthan retrieved the items from Phallenar without being seen. He didn’t care. He knew only that he did not want to be reminded of the staff right then. He didn’t even want to look at it.
In truth, his strong reaction to the staff surprised him. He’d never been afraid of it before. Even when the power overtook him on the Plain of Dreams, where Lord Bentel perished in a flash of brilliant blue, it felt like the most natural thing in the world—just holding the staff as he did; and letting it hold him.
But now he knew too much to be so naïve. He was the Waymaker. He could no longer pretend that the staff of almond wood was merely a token of the world he’d left behind, a miraculous talisman endowed with power by some fluke of magic or circumstance he did not understand. It was—had always been, really—a symbol; a sign of the calling the prophecies of this world had ordained for him.
It wasn’t that he had changed his mind about pursuing the course Telus had laid out for him. Far from it. From someplace deep within the dark pit of his soul, he knew it was more than simple choice that prompted him to say yes to his unlikely calling as Waymaker. It was need. He needed to walk out this path, to discover, for himself, where it might lead. He ached for the mystery of it and all the unknown perils it invoked. He craved it as a man might crave riches or a woman’s touch…though he couldn’t explain why, not even to himself.
Still, a part of him held back. Perhaps it was just his stubbornness, that fractious aspect of his character that instinctively grated against all attempts to steer him against his will. Or perhaps it was his reluctance to abandon all the practiced years of self-imposed isolation, to break out of that comfortable cocoon of familiarity that concealed his broken vulnerability from the world.
Ultimately, however, he realized neither of these things kept him from the staff. Instead, it was fear. Simple, unadulterated fear. For somewhere in the deepest part of his soul, he realized he did know one thing about the path ahead—it was a one-way trip. Once he took the staff in his hands again, somewhere a door would close forever. There would be no chances to change his mind after that, no room for barter or appeal. Once he took the staff, there would be no turning back.
Thankfully, Telus did not force the issue. But the staff had not left the Raanthan’s steely grip from that first moment to this, and in all that time the Raanthan had not once left Gideon’s side. And so the staff was ever before him.
“I don’t even know how to use it,” Gideon said finally.
“You will.” The Raanthan smiled. Or perhaps he frowned. With that tiny sliver of a mouth, it was never easy to tell.
“Rollers Ho! Astern! Astern!”
It was Quigly, standing on the stern, gesturing angrily toward the waters behind them. “Man the spars, you landers, if you care at all for Quigly’s boat,” he bellowed. “Woman, secure that wheel and help me trim the sails!”
Everyone jumped into action. Revel and Kyrintha, having just emerged from the companionway, dashed to either side of the deck and unstrapped the longpoles secured along its borders. Aybel ran to amidships, with Gideon close on her heels.
“What is it?” Gideon asked.
She flung her arm out toward the south. “Something comes.” She snatched one of the longpoles from Kyrintha’s hand and thrust it toward Gideon. “Take this. Man the starboard bow. Don’t let them near the hull.” She grabbed another pole, then spun back toward Gideon, who still stared at her in confusion. “Go!” she commanded. “And tell that silvery ghost of yours to either take a spar or be tossed overboard to fight them by hand!”
Aybel’s tone made it clear that she would brook no further discussion on the matter. So Gideon took the spar, and a second one for Telus, then ran back to the foredeck where the Raanthan calmly stood, seemingly unaware that anything out of the ordinary was going on around him. “Take this,” Gideon said, holding out the longpole. “Whatever’s coming, Aybel wants us to keep it from touching the hull. You can watch the port bow. I’ll watch the starboard.”
The Raanthan’s liquid bronze eyes stared down at the spar dispassionately. “I cannot slay them,” he said. “It is not permitted.”
“What?” asked Gideon. “What are you talking about?”
Telus blinked. “I cannot slay them,” he repeated.
“You don’t even know what they are! Wait, do you?”
“Even so, I cannot.”
Gideon shook his head in frustration. “Fine!” he growled, thrusting the spar toward Telus’ face. “Do you see any spear points on these? You don’t have to kill them, whatever they are. Just keep them away from the ship.” He threw the spar down on the deck, then turned to take his position along the railing just to the right of the bow. After a moment he glanced over his shoulder to see Telus slowly reaching down toward the longpole, fingering it dubitably as though the thing might rear up and bite him. What is his problem?
But there were more pressing matters now than unraveling Telus’ odd reluctance to help. Once Gideon positioned his spar over the water, he looked astern to see if he could get some idea of what had inspired such a panic. Behind him, some ten feet or so, stood the underlord, spar in hand, looking something like a misplaced princess with her disheveled blond hair and her dark green gown, now torn along the side—the same gown she had worn since the night he first laid eyes on her in the dingy torchlight within the Wall. Beyond her stood Aybel, leaning anxiously over the stern like a huntress from the Amazon. But what was she hunting? In the waters beyond them both, there were no monsters that he could see.
There were only waves. Deep rolling mounds of blackish blue, smooth as glass, advancing toward the ship like lethargic torpedoes.
“Woman, what’s the count of them?” Quigly barked from his perch at the wheel.
“A dozen at least,” she called back, rather matter-of-factly it seemed to Gideon. “Maybe more.”
“More,” echoed Revel, who stood opposite Kyrintha at amidships.
Captain Quigly grunted in disapproval. “And I s’pose you can tell us which ones are pregnant while you’re at it, too.” He spit. “Landers.”
Gideon glanced over his shoulder. The Raanthan’s back was to him, his waist-long fine spun hair swirling around him like a glistening silver shroud. But at least he was holding the spar now. And his eyes scanned the waters behind them, seemingly intent on the approaching threat.
“What are we running from?” Gideon called out. “All I see are waves.”
“Sound Ho!” cried Captain Quigly. “Sound Ho! Hold your spars a’ready, my landers. My fine lady may save your arses twice this week!”
Gideon turned to look ahead. A half mile away, the red cliffs of the Gorge seemed to melt away, opening the horizon to a broad expanse of blue as deep and peaceful as the azure sky.
“Won’t they follow us into the Sound?” asked Gideon.
“They don’t like the taste of unsullied waters,” replied Quigly. “I’ve never known a Barrens beast to swim beyond the cliffs.”
“What ‘Barrens beast’?” Gideon asked again. “What are they?”
“What matters in a name, lander?” Quigly snapped. “They’ll eat my ship if given the chance, and swallow you with it! That’s all you need to know. Stop jabbering and set your eye on the task.”
Gideon grimaced. He didn’t like not knowing what he was up against, even if it was just a name.
The underlord leaned in toward Gideon. “If you must know, sojourner, I believe they are viperon,” she said, keeping her eyes on the water. “I’ve seen them on occasion on the plains from my perch within the Tower. Though I never thought I’d have the misfortune of encountering one up close.”
“Come now, wind, come on,” called Quigly, half grumble and half chant. “Kiss my lady’s sails. Kiss ‘em sweet, kiss ‘em hard. That’s how they like it.” He spun his barrel shape toward the stern. “If you Remnant folk are so blessed with lordly powers, why don’t you call a stronger wind to blow us on?”
“The Words have little strength so close to the Barrens,” replied Aybel. “We must rely on what wind the Giver has provided.”
Quigly spit again, and shook his head. “Let’s hope the Giver put some secret strength in those spindly arms of yours, then. We’ll need it.”
“They come!” cried Revel. Gideon peered down the length of the ship. But the silken waves were gone.
“Where are they?” he cried.
“Get your spars down, landers!” barked Quigly irritably. “Get ‘em down! It won’t do no good to swat ‘em like mosquitoes, will it? When you see the rainbows, stab ‘em in the heart.”
“Rainbows?” mumbled Gideon. “What rainbows?”
But them he saw them. About twenty fathoms down, directly beneath the hull—bursts of color, like prisms swimming in chaotic patterns. Suddenly, he heard an owlish screech behind him, and turned to see Telus reared back on his gangly heels, frantically thrusting his spar into the air, high above the water. The air before him flashed white and blue with hints of rust, like a mosaic of mirrored tiles slithering madly in the breeze. Then, just as it hit the water, Gideon caught a glimpse of its true form. A serpentine shape nearly as big as a whale, covered tip to tip in scales as smooth as glass.
The tremendous splash from the beast nearly knocked Gideon over the railing. But he held his footing somehow. And when he looked back, Telus was still standing too, his spar held high and defiant.
No sooner had he resumed his stance than the waters beneath the Endurant began churning on all sides. Gideon pointed his spar straight down. This time, he saw no rainbows at all. Only teeth. Rows and rows of shark-like teeth, spinning in circles like a top, and rising fast.
“Thrust ‘em down, landers! Quickly!” cried Quigly. “Thrust toward the keel! They’re aiming to latch on beneath us!”
With a fervor inspired by blind panic, Gideon pointed his spar toward the murky shadows under the ship and plunged it downward with all his might. Instantly, he struck something hard—and so solid the impact stung his hands. Even so, the hardness bucked against the stabbing force for only a moment before giving way.
“Again! Again!” cried Quigly. “We’re almost to the Sound.”
Gideon lifted the spar and plunged again, and again, each time striking something hard, each time pushing the mysterious creatures reluctantly away. His arms began to ache from the effort, and he cursed the shadows beneath the ship for obscuring the view. If only he could see them, he could aim the spar to stab their eyes. Provided they had eyes, that is.
A wave of stench-filled water knocked him momentarily off balance, forcing him to grab the railing for support. By the time he blinked the sting away, Captain Quigly was screaming.
“Strike it, lander! Are you daft? Strike it! Or you’ll kill us all!”
Gideon looked up. Some ten feet above his head a mouth hovered, perfectly round and pulsing with multiple rows of razor-sharp teeth. There must have been hundreds of them. Thousands. Beneath them writhed a form suggestive of a snake, but ultimately lost in a torrent of glassy scales, each flashing its deceptive image in his eyes.
There wasn’t time to think. Instinctively, he thrust the spar up toward the mouth, and jammed it hard right into the center. The pole went deep, and the mouth collapsed around it like a carnivorous flower sealing in its prey. The longpole lurched from his hands, and for a moment seemed to dance madly through the air, with nothing to propel it but a sinuous spout of mirrors. Then there was a crack, and the pole’s protruding end splashed limply to the waves. The scales shimmered in the air a moment more, then whirled madly as the beast dove back beneath the surface.
“Grab another spar!” yelled Quigly. “The Sound is upon us. Don’t lay back until you see me stand down from the wheel!”
Gideon slipped another longpole from the loops along the deck. Just before positioning it over the rail, he stole a quick glance around the ship. The beasts were everywhere, flying through the air like glassy serpents, churning the water’s surface with rainbows left and right, and charging the hull like cloaked torpedoes. Spars were flying too. Poking, jamming, flinging madly at the prism lights wherever they appeared. But at least everyone was still accounted for. They were clearly tired, panicked perhaps. But no one had been lost.
Gideon turned to face the waters once again. Just as he did, a ferocious wave erupted from below, followed by a stream of colors hurtling so fast they bled together in a blur. A wall of scales that felt something like polished tin slammed him hard onto the deck. He heard a scream, and Captain Quigly cursed. And when he looked up, he saw a massive serpent coiling on the deck, mirroring the sunshine in its scales like the angel of death itself.
And at that moment, everything went silent.