The blinding knife, p.1
Table of Contents
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For my wife, Kristi,
And for all the others who keep faith
when the time for giving up seems long past.
Gavin Guile lay on his back on a narrow skimmer floating in the middle of the sea. It was a tiny craft with low sides. Lying on his back like this, he’d once almost believed he was one with the sea. Now the dome of the heavens above him was a lid, and he a crab in the cauldron, heat rising.
Two hours before noon, here on the southern rim of the Cerulean Sea, the waters should be a stunning deep blue-green. The sky above, cloudless, mist burned off, should be a peaceful, vibrant sapphire.
But he couldn’t see it. Since he’d lost the Battle of Garriston four days ago, wherever there was blue, he saw gray. He couldn’t even see that much unless he concentrated. Robbed of its blue, the sea looked like thin, gray-green broth.
His fleet was waiting. Hard to relax when thousands of people were waiting for you and only you, but he needed this measure of peace.
He looked to the heavens, arms spread, touching the waves with his fingertips.
Lucidonius, were you here? Were you even real? Did this happen to you, too?
Something hissed in the water, a sound like a boat cutting through the waves.
Gavin sat up on his skimmer. Then stood.
Fifty paces behind him, something disappeared under the waves, something big enough to cause its own swell. It could have been a whale.
Except whales usually surface to breathe. There was no spray hanging in the air, no whoosh of expelled breath. And from fifty paces, for Gavin to have heard the hiss of a sea creature cutting through the water, it would have to be massive. His heart leapt to his throat.
He began sucking in light to draft his oar apparatus—and froze. Right beneath his tiny craft, something was moving through the water. It was like watching the landscape speed by when you’re riding in a carriage, but Gavin wasn’t moving. The rushing body was huge, many times the width of his craft, and it was undulating closer and closer to the surface, closer to his own little boat. A sea demon.
And it glowed. A peaceful, warm radiance like the sun itself on this cool morning.
Gavin had never heard of such a thing. Sea demons were monsters, the purest, craziest form of fury known to mankind. They burned red, boiled the seas, left fires floating in their wake. Not carnivores, so far as the old books guessed, but fiercely territorial—and any interloper that disrupted their seas was to be crushed. Interlopers like ships.
This light was different than that rage. A peaceful luminescence, the sea demon no vicious destroyer but a leviathan traversing the seas, leaving barely a ripple to note his passing. The colors shimmered through the waves, grew brighter as the undulation brought the body close.
Unthinking, Gavin knelt as the creature’s back broke the surface of the water right underneath his boat. Before the boat slid away from the swell, he reached out and touched the sea demon’s skin. He expected a creature that slid through the waves to be slimy, but the skin was surprisingly rough, muscular, warm.
For one precious moment, Gavin was not. There was no Gavin Guile, no Dazen Guile, no High Luxlord Prism, no scraping sniveling dignitaries devoid of dignity, no lies, no satraps to be bullied, no Spectrum councilors to manipulate, no lovers, no bastards, no power except the power before his eyes. He felt small, staring into incomprehensible vastness.
Cooled by the gentle morning breeze, warmed by the twin suns, one in the sky, one beneath the waves, Gavin was serene. It was the closest thing to a holy moment he had ever experienced.
And then he realized the sea demon was swimming toward his fleet.
The green hell was calling him to madness. The dead man was back in the reflective wall, luminous, grinning at Dazen, features squeezed skeleton-thin by the curving walls of the spherical green cell.
The key was to not draft. After sixteen years of drafting only blue, of altering mind and damaging body with that loathsome cerulean serenity, now having escaped the blue cell, Dazen wanted nothing more than to gorge on some other color. It was like he’d eaten breakfast gruel morning, noon, and night for six thousand days, and now someone was offering him a rasher of bacon.
He hadn’t even liked bacon, back when he’d been free. Now it sounded lovely. He wondered if that was the fever, turning his thoughts to sludge and emotion.
Funny how he thought that: ‘Back when he’d been free.’ Not ‘Back when he’d been Prism.’
He wasn’t sure if it was because he was still telling himself that he was the Prism whether he was in royal robes or rancid rags, or if it simply didn’t matter anymore.
Dazen tried to look away, but everything was green. To have his eyes open was to be dipping his feet in green. No, he was up to his neck in water and trying to get dry. There was no hope of dryness. He had to know that and accept it. The only question wasn’t if he was going to get his hair wet, it was if he was going to drown.
Green was all wildness, freedom. That logical part of Dazen that had basked in blue’s orderliness knew that sucking up pure wildness while locked up in this luxin cage would lead to madness. Within days he’d claw out his own throat. Pure wildness, here, would be death. He would finally accomplish his brother’s objective for him.
He needed to be patient. He needed to think, and thinking was hard right now. He examined his body slowly, carefully. His hands and knees were lacerated from his crawl through the hellstone tunnel. The bumps and bruises from his fall through the trapdoor and into this cell he could ignore. They were painful, but inconsequential. Most worrisome was the inflamed, infected slash across his chest. It nauseated him just looking at it, oozing pus and promises of death.
Worst was the fever, corrupting his very blood, making him stupid, irrational, sapping his will.
But Dazen had escaped the blue prison, and that prison had changed him. His brother had crafted these prisons quickly, and probably put most of his efforts into that first, blue one. Every prison had a flaw.
The blue prison had made him the perfect man to find it. Death or freedom.
In his reflective green wall, the dead man said, “You taking bets?”
Gavin sucked in light to start making his rowing apparatus. Unthinking, he tried to draft blue. While brittle, blue’s stiff, slick, smooth structure made it ideal for parts that didn’t undergo sideways stresses. For a futile moment, Gavin tried to force it, again. He was a Prism made flesh; alone out of all drafters, he could split light within himself. The blue was there—he knew it was there, and maybe knowing it was there, even though he couldn’t see, might be enough.
For Orholam’s sake, if you could find your chamber pot in the middle of the night and, despite that you couldn’t see it, the damned thing was still there, why couldn’t this be the same?
Nothing. No rush of harmonious logic, no cool rationality, no stained blue skin, no drafting whatsoever. For the first time since he was a boy, he felt helpless. Like a natural man. Like a peasant.
Gavin screamed at his helplessness. It was too late for the oars anyway. T
He drafted the scoops and the reeds. Blue worked better to make the jets for a skimmer, but naturally flexible green could serve if he made it thick enough. The rough green luxin was heavier and created more drag against the water, so he was slower, but he didn’t have the time or attention to make it from yellow. Precious seconds passed while he prepared his skimmer.
Then the scoops were in hand and he began throwing luxin down into the jets, blasting air and water out the back of his little craft and propelling himself forward. He leaned far forward, shoulders knotting with the effort; then, as he picked up speed, the effort eased. Soon his craft was hissing across the waves.
The fleet arose in the distance, the sails of the tallest ships first. But at Gavin’s speed, it wasn’t long before he could see all of them. There were hundreds of ships now: from sailing dinghies to galleasses to the square-rigged three-masted ship of the line with forty-eight guns that Gavin had taken from the Ruthgari governor to be his flagship. They’d left Garriston with over a hundred ships, but hundreds more that had gotten out earlier had joined them within days for protection from the pirates who lay thick in these waters. Last, he saw the great luxin barges, barely seaworthy. He himself had created those four great open boats to hold as many refugees as possible. If he hadn’t, thousands of people would have died.
And now they would die regardless, if Gavin didn’t turn the sea demon.
As he sped closer, he caught sight of the sea demon again, a hump cresting six feet out of the water. Its skin was still placidly luminous, and by some good fortune it wasn’t actually cutting straight toward the fleet. Its path would take it perhaps a thousand paces in front of the lead ship.
Of course, the ships themselves were plowing slow furrows forward, closing that gap, but the sea demon was moving so quickly, Gavin dared to hope that it wouldn’t matter. He had no idea how keen the sea demon’s senses were, but if it kept going in the same direction, they might well make it.
Gavin couldn’t take his hands away from the skimmer’s jets without losing precious speed, and he didn’t know how he would deliver a signal that said, “Don’t Do Anything Stupid!” to the whole fleet at once even if he did. He followed directly behind the sea demon, closer now.
He’d been wrong; the sea demon was going to cut perhaps five hundred paces from the lead ship. A bad estimate, or was the creature turning toward the fleet?
Gavin could see lookouts in the crow’s nests waving their hands violently to those on the decks below them. Doubtless shouting, though Gavin was too far away to hear them. He sped closer, saw men running on the decks.
The emergency was on the fleet far faster than any of them could have expected. In the normal order of things, enemies might appear on the horizon and give chase. Storms could blow out of nowhere in half an hour—but this had happened in minutes, and some ships were only seeing the twin wonders now—a boat traveling faster across the waves than anyone had ever seen in their lives, and the huge dark shadow in front of it that could only be a sea demon.
Be smart, Orholam damn you all, be smart or be too terrified to do anything at all. Please!
Cannons took time to load and couldn’t be left armed because the powder could go bad. Some idiot might shoot a musket at the passing form, but that should be too small a disturbance for the monster to notice.
The sea demon bulled through the waters four hundred paces in front of the fleet and kept going straight.
Gavin could hear the shouts from the ships now. The man in the crow’s nest of Gavin’s flagship was holding his hands to his head in disbelief, but no one did anything stupid.
Orholam, just one more minute. Just—
A signal mortar cracked the morning, and Gavin’s hopes bellyflopped in the sea. He swore that all the shouting on every ship in the fleet stopped at once. And then began again a moment later, as the experienced sailors screamed in disbelief at the terrified idiot captain who’d probably just killed them all.
Gavin had eyes only for the sea demon. Its wake went straight, hissing bubbles and great undulations, another hundred paces. Another hundred. Maybe it hadn’t heard.
Then his skimmer jetted right past the entire beast as the sea demon doubled back on itself faster than Gavin would have believed possible.
As it completed its turn, its tail broke the surface of the water. It moved too fast for Gavin to make out details. Only that it was burning red-hot, the color of iron angry from the forge, and when that span—surely thirty paces long—hit the water, the concussion made the signal mortar’s report sound tinny and small.
Giant swells rolled out from the spot its tail had hit. From his dead stop, Gavin was barely able to turn his skimmer before the waves reached him. He dipped deep into the first wave and hurriedly threw green luxin forward, making the front of his craft wider and longer. He was shot upward by the next swell and flung into the air.
The skimmer’s prow hit the next giant swell at too great of an angle and went straight into it. Gavin was ripped off the skimmer and plunged into the waves.
The Cerulean Sea was a warm wet mouth. It took Gavin in whole, chomped his breath out of him, rolled him over with its tongue, disorienting him, made a play at swallowing him, and when he fought, finally let him go.
Gavin surfaced and quickly found the fleet. He didn’t have time to draft an entire new skimmer, so he drafted smaller scoops around his arms, sucked in as much light as he could hold, threw his arms down to his sides, and pointed his head toward the sea demon. He threw luxin down and it threw him forward.
The pressure of the waves was incredible. It obliterated sight, blotted out sound, but Gavin didn’t slow. With a body made so hard by years of working a skimmer that he could cross the sea in a day, and a will made implacable by years of being Prism and forcing the world to conform to his wishes, he pushed.
He felt himself slide into the sea demon’s slipstream: the pressure suddenly eased and his speed doubled. Using his legs to aim, Gavin turned himself deeper into the water, then jetted toward the surface.
He shot into the air. Not a moment too soon.
He shouldn’t have been able to see much of anything, gasping in air and light, water streaming off his entire body. But the tableau froze, and he saw everything. The sea demon’s head was halfway out of the water, its cruciform mouth drawn shut so its knobby, spiky hammerhead could smash the flagship to kindling. Its body was at least twenty paces across, and only fifty paces now from the ship.
Men were standing on the port rail, matchlocks in hand. Black smoke billowed thick from a few. Others flared as the matches ignited powder in the pans in the instant before they fired. Commander Ironfist and Karris both stood, braced, fearless, glowing luxin forming missiles in their hands. In the gun decks, Gavin saw men tamping powder into the cannons for shots they would never get off in time.
The other ships in the fleet were crowding around like kids around a fistfight, men perched on gunwales, mouths agape, all too few even loading their muskets.
Dozens of men were turning from looking at the monster approaching to see what fresh horror this could be shooting into the air—and gaping, bewildered. A man in the crow’s nest was pointing at him, shouting.
And Gavin hung in midair, disaster and mutilation only seconds away from his compatriots—and threw all he had at the sea demon.
A coruscating, twisting wall of multicolored light blew out of Gavin, streaking toward the creature.
Gavin didn’t see what it did when it struck the sea demon, or even if he hit it at all.
There was an old Parian saying that Gavin had heard but never paid attention to: “When you hurl a mountain, the mountain hurls you back.”
Time resumed, unpleasantly quickly. Gavin felt like he’d been walloped with a club bigger than his own body. He was launched backward, stars exploding in front of his eyes, clawing catlike, twisting, trying to turn—and splashing in the water with another jarring slap, twenty paces
Light is life. Years of war had taught Gavin never to leave yourself unarmed; vulnerability is a prelude to death. He found the surface and began drafting instantly. In the years he’d spent failing thousands of times while perfecting his skimmer, he’d also perfected methods of getting out of the water and creating a boat—not an easy task. Drafters were always terrified of falling in the water and not being able to get out again.
So within seconds Gavin was standing on the deck of a new skimmer, already drafting the scoops as he tried to assess what had happened.
The flagship was still floating, one railing knocked off, huge scrapes across the wood of the port side. So the sea demon must have turned, must have barely glanced off the boat. It had slapped its tail down again as it turned, though, because a few of the small sailing dinghies nearby had been swamped, and men were jumping into the water, other ships already heading toward them to pluck them from the sea’s jaws.
And where the hell was the sea demon?
Men were screaming on the decks—not shouts of adulation, but alarm. They were pointing—
Gavin began throwing luxin down the reeds as fast as possible. But the skimmer always started slow.
The giant steaming red-hot hammerhead surfaced not twenty paces away, coming fast. Gavin was accelerating and he caught the shockwave caused by such a massive, blunt shape pushing through the seas. The front of the head was a wall, a knobby, spiky wall.
But with the swell of the shockwave helping him, Gavin began to pull away.
And then the cruciform mouth opened, splitting that entire front hammerhead wide in four directions. As the sea demon began sucking water in rather than pushing it in front of it, the shockwave disappeared abruptly. And Gavin’s skimmer lurched back into the mouth.
Fully into the mouth. The open mouth was easily two or three times as wide as Gavin was tall. Sea demons swallowed the seas entire. The body convulsed in rhythm, a circle that squeezed tighter and then opened wider, jetting water past gills and out the back almost the same way Gavin’s skimmer did.