The wicked heroine, p.70
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.70
 

           Jasmine Giacomo

  ~~~

  Geret dashed down the corridor and rammed open the door to the powder magazine with his shoulder. Salvor hurried after him.

  “So the oil, I get,” he said to Geret. “Why the powder?”

  “I want to get that thing off the ship quickly. A quick exit needs a quick fire.” Geret hefted a small barrel of powder from the floor and tossed it to Salvor, who caught it with a stagger. “A quick fire needs a quick start, and I don’t know anything that burns as fast as this,” he added, picking up his own barrel and heading back toward the door. “Besides,” he grinned, meeting Salvor’s eyes, “didn’t you ever just want to blow something up?”

  Salvor glared. “No,” he growled, “I’m more of a stab-it-to-death type of fellow.”

  “Ah. Maybe that’s why we haven’t gotten along.” Geret lifted a small lamp off its hook and ran back up the corridor with his barrel. Salvor was right behind him.

  When they gained the upper deck once again, they saw sailors forming a line across the angled deck. It extended from where Meena stood, on the stump of the broken fourth mast, toward a smaller staircase that led down to the fire deck. Salvor and Geret made their way toward her.

  The ship bucked in response to another nudge from the hunting sea creature in the water, this time at the bow. Salvor stumbled and dropped his barrel. It cracked upon impact and rolled down the deck, spraying bits of powder, until one of the sailors stopped it with his foot. Geret managed to dance around and keep his footing, very mindful that he was holding both a very explosive powder and a live flame. Salvor retrieved his barrel and they caught up to Meena.

  “The oil’s coming, Geret. Where do you want it?” she greeted them, eyeing the foredeck from her higher vantage point. The enormous camouflaged cephalopod was lurking quietly a few dozen paces away, still matching the deck in shade and texture, if not in shape.

  “Right in front of it,” Geret responded, setting down his barrel and pointing to the deck where the creature’s thick arms were tightly tucked together.

  “You heard the man,” she called to the sailors.

  Geret took Salvor’s damaged barrel and hefted it, guessing how much powder remained inside. “How far do you think you can throw this?” he asked him.

  Salvor judged the distance to the creature. “Not that far.”

  “Me either,” said Geret. He bolted for the creature.

  “Folly take your eyes, Geret Valan!” Salvor shouted angrily, running to stop him. But Geret only ran about half the distance separating them from the monster, then pivoted and flung the barrel from his arms like a stone from a sling. He stopped to watch it arc through the air, and as it landed and splintered a few feet shy of the monster, Salvor caught up to him and grabbed him by the collar.

  “You are getting to be more trouble than you’re worth,” he growled, yanking Geret back in the direction of Meena and the sailors.

  Geret merely grinned cockily. He wasn’t about to mention that the creature’s tentacles could easily kill them all even at their “safe” distance. This was his first experience with epic death, and he was enjoying himself immensely.

  Sanych skidded down the deck as Salvor pulled Geret through the line of sailors. “I told the captain your plan, Geret,” she panted, eyes wide at her proximity to the sea monster. “He’s quite furious that you’re planning on burning his ship, but he’s too busy trying to keep it from sinking at the moment to stop you. He says he’ll either hang you or give you his oldest daughter’s hand in marriage, if you manage to succeed. I think he’s serious.”

  While she was speaking, buckets began arriving from the fire deck below, brigade-style; each was half full of oil, and the last several men in line started throwing their contents on the deck close to their feet. Others ran the empties back.

  “No, throw it on him,” Geret instructed. “And on the deck beside him! His only way out must be back to the sea!”

  The men did as he asked. At first the creature didn’t respond to the viscous liquid splashing onto its skin, but after a dozen or so buckets, it flicked a suddenly bright-red arm out and knocked two sailors across the deck about twenty feet. Everyone froze, waiting. The creature merely tucked its arm back into place, resuming its brown shade. The two sailors struggled to their feet, and the oiling continued.

  The creature twitched in irritation a few more times, reddening its skin for a moment and scattering sailors about. Geret started to feel antsy.

  “All right, everyone back up,” he called, stepping forward with the lamp. The sailors obeyed with alacrity, some limping or walking gingerly.

  “I should do that,” Meena said, hopping down from her mast-stump. Geret held the lamp out to her.

  The creature in the sea bit the ship’s bow and shook it. Its predator too close for comfort, the cephalopod on deck raised its top two arms up in a threatening position, turning them a flashing combination of red and white. It also raised its head up on the rest of its arms and shot a glowing liquid from the enormous siphon on the underside of its body. The substance arced out and landed on the deck in front of the ship’s defenders, splattering them heavily. It smelled of fish and organic chemicals.

  Geret dropped the lamp trying to protect his face, and several people were knocked over by the force of the splatter. An enormous swath of the deck was now aglow with a lemon-yellow chemical light.

  Sanych spat some of the foul-tasting stuff out of her mouth and murmured, “Amazing.”

  Salvor helped her stand again and brushed some more of it off her face with a dry part of his sleeve cuff. “If you say so,” he said.

  The creature sensed that it had fired its defensive liquid in the wrong direction. It humped around with its arms, dragging its back half, until it had shifted its body to face the bow. Deck boards cracked en masse under its enormous weight, and even the numerous support struts creaked; some shattered completely. It angled itself over the prow of the ship and fired its goo again, down into the sea. The ship’s shaking stopped immediately.

  “Folly’s bastards!” Geret cursed, sieving glowing goo out of his hair with his fingers. “Now it’s turned the wrong way, and we’re out of fire.”

  Meena jogged past him, a lamp in one hand, and the remaining powder barrel balanced on one shoulder; Geret had not realized she had momentarily left them. She had somehow managed to avoid getting slimed as well.

  Not only heroic, but clean and stylish, he thought, grinning.

  The creature’s long, delicate tail flicked angrily in their direction, knocking several sailors to the deck even at this distance.

  “Everyone back!” he called, and the large group of defenders fell back past the center mast of the ship.

  Meena ran right up to the edge of the oil slick, which the creature had spread everywhere with its flailing, and hurled the lamp onto Geret’s earlier powder spill.

  Instantly, white-hot fire blazed up, cooling to yellow flames as the oil caught fire as well, and the deck began to burn in an arc nearly thirty paces wide, trapping the creature at the bow of the ship. Meena quickly darted toward the starboard rail.

  The creature flopped back around to get a better look at this strange phenomenon, and did not understand what it saw. It flared red and white with thin blue ripples along its entire skin. It bent its long, slender, spineless body away from the prow and pulled itself directly toward Meena with its suckered arms, recognizing her, a living creature, as more of a threat than the fire. The extreme front end of the foredeck cracked heavily, and Meena could see that some areas in the monster’s trail had absolutely no decking remaining, and the support beams were pulverized.

  Meena shifted the heavy barrel in her grip and examined the deck, the rail, the splintered bow. Amidships, she saw the anxious sailors, some with fire hoses and seawater pumps, ready to put out the flames. The creature wasn’t intimidated enough by the fire; it was staying to fight rather than taking its chances with its predator below. At this rate, the ship would burn down to the point of usele
ssness before the monster returned to the sea. It just needed a little encouragement.

  She thought for a moment she could see Sanych’s face, even at this distance.

  “See you later, Sanych,” she murmured. She waded into the fire arc at the starboard rail, the powder barrel balanced on her head.

  “What is she doing?” Sanych cried, lurching forward. Salvor grasped her shoulders and held her tightly against him, his eyes locked on Meena’s distant figure in the licking flames.

  The cephalopod did not like this small creature approaching it through the strange yellow heat. It waved its red-and-white arms at her for a few moments, clicking its enormous white beak. When she did not stop, it launched its tentacles out, piercing her body with the long bony hooks on its wedge-shaped pads. It paid no mind to the small cylinder that toppled from her head into the inferno as it pulled her into its open beak.

  Sanych screamed, a long, terrified note of despair. Geret and Salvor swore in astonishment. The sailors swore as well, or called out in shock, in several languages.

  The barrel cracked and exploded, sending a plume of roiling smoke high into the darkening sky. The creature flinched and lurched away from the sudden explosion. Its weight on the heavily damaged bow was too much for the support beams. With the shriek and crunch of tearing wood, the Kazhak’s bow collapsed onto the fire deck below, and the monstrous creature toppled, arms flailing madly, into the sea.

  The sailors immediately raised a cheer, despite the ship’s hefty rocking. Sanych tore loose from Salvor and bolted down the deck, and he and Geret followed her. The oil fire had spread far too widely to simply leap over, however, and they could not reach what remained of the bow until the sailors caught up with them, bringing the fire hoses and pumps. Siphoning water directly from the sea through long hoses, they pumped as quickly as they could, while Sanych wrung her hands impatiently, biting her lower lip and trying not to cry. As soon as there was a clear path, she dashed ahead through the crushed deck boards and scorched areas to kneel down at the shattered edge of the bow. Geret, Salvor, and many of the sailors joined her.

  The surface of the water below was still.

  Sanych gripped a broken support beam and squeezed it hard, unmindful of splinters. Her entire body tense, she willed Meena to surface. Tears formed in her eyes, but did not fall; she didn’t want to blink.

  “I can’t believe it,” Geret said, stunned. “It ate her. She let it eat her.”

  Salvor silently shook his head as he studied the ocean’s surface far below.

  “Meena!” Sanych cried, shaking the tears loose onto her cheeks. “Please! Where are you?”

  The sailors began murmuring. Comments of sympathy, bravery and amazement rippled among the crowd at the broken bow.

  “Sanych,” Salvor said, touching her shoulder with a gentle hand, “let’s get you out of here.” She turned and looked at him, anger, hurt and surprise writ large across her sadness.

  “What’s that?” one of the sailors called, pointing. An enormous, pale yellow shape darted by.

  “A garrim,” another replied, his voice awed.

  Geret leaned forward for a better look; Salvor gripped the back of his gooey yellow collar and pulled him back a step, but Geret didn’t even notice. “All coated with this dye,” he added, fingering the stuff where it had soaked into his sleeve.

  The surface of the sea suddenly roiled madly, and a tentacle shot up into the air, higher than their heads, before it quickly retracted. A few moments later, a ship-sized, yellow-spattered silver back breached the surface, wrapped from below with half a dozen of the cephalopod’s arms.

  But the outcome of the battle was inevitable. Sanych stood and clung to Salvor, weeping, unable to stop watching the scene below. It felt as if she were watching Meena die all over again. The shark-like creature had its way with the cephalopod, whose death came only when too much of its flesh had been ripped away and consumed. The cephalopod’s glowing blue-green blood spread through the water quickly, bits of arms and guts floating, silhouetted, to the surface.

  Eventually the larger sea monster descended out of sight, its hunger sated. The cyanescent blood diffused into the blackness of the night sea. A lone tentacle pad drifted past the damaged bow, its only remaining color display being the grey of death.

  The shark-like garrim regurgitated its victim’s enormous cuttlebone, and it spiraled to the surface, its bluish-greyness barely visible in the dim distance as the Kazhak drifted with the current.

  The sailors began their enormous task of cleaning and repairing the ship, leaving the three friends together at the shattered bow.

  Salvor held Sanych tightly, an arm around her shoulders from behind, as she stared down at the sea; the strain of recent events showed plainly in the lines on his face. “She saved us, Sanych. We can go on because of her.”

  Sanych unclenched her jaw to speak, but did not tear her eyes from the water. “No. We can’t go on after this.”

  “You quested to find her in the first place, when no one believed she even existed. Why are you giving up so easily now?” he asked gently.

  “Because she had the key to the evil book’s prison inside her chest. The quest is over without that.”

  Geret and Salvor exchanged a glance. They had forgotten about the key. Without it, the quest was dead. And so was Addan.

  A long silence stretched.

  “We’ll turn around for home as soon as we get a working rudder,” Geret promised, swallowing a lump in his throat.

 
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