The wicked heroine, p.74
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.74

           Jasmine Giacomo
 

  ~~~

  Back at the beach camp, Geret gave himself a break from chopping trees and took a long drink from the water bucket. Thirst slaked, he pulled up the tails of his shirt and wiped his sweating face on them, then eyed the ocean. It looked cool and inviting.

  “I won’t tell, my prince,” Runcan said, approaching with a smile.

  Geret grinned at him. “All right, hold whatever thought you came over here with. I’ll be right back.”

  “It’s just lunch,” Runcan replied, holding up a knotted cloth.

  “Superb. I’m starved. Wait right there.” He jogged down the sandy white expanse and into the ocean, his woven footwear letting the cooling water flow right next to his feet. But just as he reached down with his hands for some to splash on his face, it retreated from him. Cursing his bad timing between waves, Geret waded out further, but to his astonishment, the water kept retreating.

  “What? Hey!” he shouted at the ocean, holding his arms up in protest. “That’s cheating! I’m hot!” He waited another few moments before stalking back onto the beach, barely wet to his knees. “So much for that idea,” he groused to Runcan. “I think I just got pranked by the ocean.”

  “My prince,” Runcan murmured distractedly, “I think we have larger issues.” He pointed, and Geret turned to look.

  He saw how far the sea had retreated in the time it had taken him to trudge back up to Runcan at the tree line. Before him now lay hundreds of paces of wet, bared seafloor, stretching nearly the depth of the entire bay. Coral reefs were exposed like the twisting walls of a labyrinth. Fish flopped helplessly on the sand. Long kelp strands lay limp, streaming like wet hair toward the retreating sea, draping over enormous pink fans, spiny sea stars, blue sea pens and countless other creatures. The trench that the sailors had been digging to hold the Kazhak for repairs had been widened on the sides and filled in on the bottom: days of work reduced to a mere divot by the retreat of the water.

  And the Kazhak itself was just settling to the seafloor like a dying dragon, careening over as if it lacked the strength to hold itself upright. Its six remaining masts slowly pointed out to sea, and its cracked hull rolled into view, revealing its second broken rudder in three weeks.

  The faint cries of the sailors inside the ship could be heard as the enormous vessel, more than five hundred feet long, rolled to a stop with a series of loud wooden cracks.

  “That,” Geret pointed at the ship, “that can’t be good.”

  “I believe our course of action should now be to flee for high ground, my prince,” Runcan said with a small, courteous bow.

  “What? Why?”

  “What goes out, must come in,” he said.

  “We can bring lunch, right?” Geret asked, eyeing the package of food. Runcan gave him a look of impatience, thrust the lunch into his arms, and turned and ran toward the trail into the jungle. Geret followed on his heels.

  As they ran through camp, the slight, redheaded Count shouted for everyone to flee the beach, warning them of the danger. Many stopped to stare at the marooned Sea God, while others quickly gathered items and dashed to follow the Count as Geret was.

  Into the jungle they fled, flashing past trees and brightly-colored flowering shrubs. Geret glanced back several times, desperate to see if the sea had returned yet.

  “What’s going on?” he panted, shifting the lunch from one arm to the other.

  “It seems to be a quake ripple,” Runcan responded, running steadily past giant fern fans and broad fruit tree leaves. “Happens when there’s an earthquake at the shore or under the sea sometimes.”

  “But we didn’t have an earthquake!” Geret protested. His breakneck run through the jungle was only making him hotter, and rivulets of sweat made their way down his spine, soaking his shirt.

  “The ocean is just a giant puddle. What happens when you drop a rock into a puddle?”

  Geret ducked under an enormous leaf, then leaped over an anthill. “Ripples!” he said.

  “Exactly,” panted Runcan.

  “Folly,” cursed Geret, thinking of the size ocean ripples must be, wondering if there was high enough ground to be had.

  Minutes passed, filled with flashing greenery and aching breaths. “Nearly there,” Runcan called over his shoulder. Geret looked behind them.

  No one was following.

  “Wh–? Where is everyone?” he said, turning and stumbling to a stop in a humid clearing. He listened, straining his ears to hear anyone over the sounds of his own thudding heartbeat and gasping lungs.

  Runcan called twice into the surrounding flora, directing people to his location, but after he received no answer, he said, “We can’t wait. It may already be at the beach.”

  “Runcan?” came a voice ahead of them.

  “It’s Salvor,” Geret said.

  The two men ran toward Salvor’s voice. They found him and Sanych stepping out of the shrubbery at the edge of the spring’s clearing, holding hands. Geret realized he and Runcan had run over two miles.

  “What’s going on?” Salvor asked, alarmed at the two men’s evident haste.

  “A quake ripple is coming; we need to get out of its way,” Runcan said hurriedly, running toward the monolith.

  “Oh, Wisdom!” breathed Sanych. “The spring was right!”

  “Folly!” cursed Salvor, tugging her hand toward the monolith. “How much time do we have?”

  “Minutes,” called Runcan, circling the monolith at a jog, looking for a way up through the thick vines and palms that clustered at much of its base.

  “Where is everyone else?” Sanych asked, her pale eyes scanning the jungle’s impenetrable verdancy.

  “We don’t have time to find them,” Salvor said, meeting her eyes and shaking his head.

  “Here!” called Geret, who had run the other way around from Runcan. Everyone else ran to his location and looked where he pointed.

  A nearly-vertical face of rock rose from behind an enormous palm fan shrub. The dark red basalt formation provided numerous hand and footholds, with its hexagonal breaks and surfaces, as it sloped toward the top of the forty-foot-high rock. Though the angle was intimidating, even Sanych admitted that it looked a bit like a tiny stairway, leading up above the surrounding palm trees.

  “I’ll go first,” Geret offered, “or Salvor’ll have my head. Sanych, follow me.” Geret tucked his arm through the knotted lunch cloth, pushed past the palm shrub and found a low step on the rock wall, then began making his way up the monolith. He kept his hand and foot placement close together, knowing Sanych was watching his every move from below.

  Distant shrieks echoed through the jungle. Runcan and Salvor whirled and called at the top of their lungs, but no one came into view.

  “Hurry, Sanych,” Runcan said. “I think our time is nearly up.”

  Panting in fear, the girl stepped to the rock wall and place her hands where she’d seen Geret put his. The rock was cold, immoveable. Right about now, Meena would have been chiding her about daydreaming, when she should be hauling her arse up the rock already. Sanych squeezed her eyes shut, blinking away the beginning of tears, and climbed for her life, looking above to Geret for her next moves.

  As soon as she was on the wall, Salvor motioned for Runcan to go next.

  “No. The prince and the Archivist need you far more than they need me.”

  “Don’t be–” Salvor began. A thundering, hissing sound faintly reached their ears.

  “If you don’t climb that cliff, I’ll run off into the jungle,” Runcan said, squinting. Such an absurd statement from a member of the Dictat would normally have been amusing, but at this moment, it brought sudden clarity to Salvor’s mind. He nodded and leaped onto the wall beneath Sanych’s heels.

  Geret reached a point that was even with the tops of the palm trees and saw a spot near the very top of the rock where a large chunk had fallen away, leaving an area with a vertical wall and horizontal floor the size of a wagon bed. The only downside was that it received the full
brunt of the summer sun, which was blinding after the dimness beneath the jungle canopy. He scooted up to it, set down the lunch, and turned around to help Sanych onto the narrow rock platform.

  Movement drew his eyes toward the sea. Geret froze in shock.

  The entire forest was being washed toward him by the largest flood he had ever seen. The frothy brown wall of water was nearly as tall as his perch, and it simply overwhelmed everything in its path. Geret’s eyes caught sight of the Kazhak, rolling madly at the leading edge of the surf, its masts long since snapped off, a manmade wonder reduced to a mere driftwood log at the mercy of the wave.

  And it was tumbling directly toward them.

  “Hurry!” he bellowed. The alarm in his voice spurred everyone to scamper upward even more quickly.

  Geret grabbed Sanych by the arms and dragged her across the rough stone, pressing her against the vertical basalt columns, then he turned and leaned over the incline.

  “Come on, you lackwit sluggard, move your arse! My grandmother moves faster than you!” he shouted, slapping his hand on the rock.

  Seconds later, Salvor slapped his hand onto Geret’s wrist, and the prince grasped Salvor’s wrist and bodily hauled him up onto his feet. They both turned and bent over the edge, extending hands down toward Runcan, whose face was white in the dimness below the palm tree canopy.

  They could all hear mad wooden crashing, even over the roar of the sea, as the wave swept the Sea God closer. The ship was starting to break apart as it slammed through the jungle.

  Sanych backed against the solid rock in terror as she surveyed the wooden monstrosity headed directly for her. She feared the wave’s force would crush them between the ship and the rock.

  “It’s coming!” she shouted, her body trembling from adrenaline.

  Runcan’s hand reached up into view, fingers bloodied. Salvor and Geret grabbed it at the same time and stumbled backward toward Sanych, pulling the Count with them.

  The leading edge of the enormous wave reached the basalt monolith, and the Kazhak slammed against it. Large fragments of the ship were flung into the air in the collision. A shattered portion of the bamboo deck landed, skittering, next to the four refugees, causing them to flinch and cry out, and sheets of water poured down on them, threatening to wash them from their perch. Thunderous cracking deafened them as the great ship’s keel split. As the Kazhak shuddered and snapped, the water sieved through its dying skeleton, and then, with a shrieking moan eerily like that of a dying animal, the ship broke entirely in two and was swept out of sight.

  The wave’s immeasurable force shook the basalt cliff like a great silent bell. Water rooster-tailed up off the leading face of the rock and sluiced along the wall, now that the ship was out of its way. Sanych was in its direct path, with the three men behind her. As the immense force of the water threatened to scrape her from the monolith, she screamed and clung to one of the hexagonal columns, wedging her fingers into a crevice. Sandy water sheeted across her like a waterfall; particles wedged themselves in her teeth and eyes and ears. She felt someone grip her around the waist and hold on tightly, supporting her against the liquid onslaught.

  At least the water’s warm, she told herself, as her arms began to ache. Surely minutes had passed by now, yet still the water surged past the rock, trying to scrub her off like an unwanted barnacle as it headed inland as far as the terrain would allow it.

  Eventually, the sluicing torrent ceased, and Sanych collapsed to the rocky platform, coughing on sand and brine, while her eyes teared up, trying to wash out the embedded sand fragments. Her arms were nearly numb from exertion and sand-scouring.

  The arms that had held her steady now gathered her close, and she recognized Salvor’s scent and huddled against him, weeping in relief. He soothed her with gentle words, trying to calm his own thudding heart.

  They had survived the first wave. So far.

  The thundering push of the wave’s leading edge faded away into the distance. Quieter sounds–eddies and whirlpools, masses of popping bubbles–now made themselves heard.

  And still the water came in from the sea, pale brown with mud and sand.

  No one spoke. Minutes passed, and their world shrank to a single outcrop of rock.

  Geret shifted position and realized he had been kneeling on the lunch cloth for a while now. Slowly, he untied its sopping knot and unfolded each of the four corners of cloth, laying them as flat as he could. This lunch had been packed for him by one of the cooks, who was most likely now dead. It had been wrapped on a table that was probably another mile inland by now. And it represented the only food the four of them could hope to eat in the foreseeable future.

  He surveyed the contents. Three roasted boar sandwiches, soaked with seawater and embedded with sand. A mango, freshly picked and only slightly bruised from being knelt on. A small knife to peel and cut said mango. Lastly, a small skin, which, upon smelling the contents, Geret said held mango juice.

  Everyone watched him. Gingerly he picked up a sandwich and passed it down the row. “Eat up,” he said.

  Everyone ate their sandwiches, sharing a bit with Geret so he wouldn’t need to cut open the mango yet. By the time they finished eating the soggy creations, the water had stopped flowing inland and began to mill and swirl around on its surface.

  “Going back out soon,” Runcan commented.

  “Good; I can’t wait to get down off this rock,” Geret said, rubbing a sore spot on his back where he had leaned against a rocky spur.

  “We can’t get off yet,” Sanych said quietly. “There will be more waves.”

  Geret looked at her in shock. “Like this one?” he blurted.

  “I hope not,” the girl shuddered. Salvor put a hand on her shoulder for comfort. “We should just wait here until tomorrow.”

  “I don’t think so,” Geret protested.

  “You leave this rock and I’ll beat your head senseless,” Salvor threatened, “and tie you up on this ledge.”

  “Oh, a fine protector you are,” Geret retorted.

  “My lords,” interrupted Runcan gently. “I believe there is a compromise to be had here. The waves, as I recall from reading in the quest books–Sanych, please correct me if I am wrong–have intervals between them. A gap of time, where it is more safe to venture forth. If you two would care to descend together to look for useful tools or food such as coconuts or mangoes, then return swiftly to this ledge, I think our time here can pass less abominably. From this height, we should be able to shout for you with enough time for you to ascend safely, should a wave come while you are below.”

  Sanych nodded. “Those gaps of time aren’t predictable, though. An unnamed sailor who witnessed a quake ripple in Jenka Nala estimated the gap between waves at twelve minutes, and in another quake ripple at Yaren Fel, thirty-four years ago, they were over an hour apart.”

  “So, we should hurry, then,” Geret summed with an arched eyebrow.

  The water began to retreat back to the sea in earnest, sucking heavily around the rock as it departed. Masses of trees swept past them at high speed, leaving them to wonder if any would remain rooted.

  When the water level dropped to nearly nothing, they could all see that the surface of the land had been completely altered. An entirely new sea arm had gouged its way several hundred paces into the former jungle. It lay filled with brown water and a few uprooted trees. Other rocky hills and spires dotted the landscape in all inland directions, revealed now by the absence of obscuring greenery. The spring at the foot of the monolith was filled with salt water. Most of the trees had collapsed, and many had washed away to the sea. The only remaining tree species were palms. The undergrowth was mostly scoured from the face of the earth, and vast expanses of light brown mud lay in every direction. Behind them, they could see the broken skeletal halves of the Kazhak, left where the sea abandoned it, against the edge of the hills another mile distant.

  While Geret peered around the back edge of the rocky spire a bit later, he saw a strange s
mudge far out to sea on the southeastern horizon. “Take a look at that,” he called to the others, and they all looked as well. “What is it? It can’t be a fire out in the ocean.”

  Sanych’s eyes flicked back and forth as she slipped into recall mode for a few moments, then she raised them back to the southeast. “Oh, Wisdom. I think it’s Heren Garil Sa.”

  “On Ha’Hril?” Salvor asked. “Aren’t we a bit too far to see it from here?”

  “Not if its erupting,” Sanych said quietly.

  Runcan shook his head. “There’s your earthquake. I hope they had enough warning to escape.”

  All eyes focused on the pyroclastic eruption far in the distance. Its dark brownish-grey ash cloud streamed up into the atmosphere, defying gravity.

  Sanych recalled her afternoon in Ha’Lakkon with Salvor, and the people and places they had seen together. The beautiful city with the steaming night lamps had stamped itself indelibly on her mind, and she sighed, heart aching. She, for one, would never forget the way it had been.

  “I guess,” Salvor shrugged slightly, “that it actually could be worse for us.”

  “Let’s get off this rock before the next ripple gets here,” said Geret to Salvor. They climbed down the monolith. In a few minutes they managed to retrieve a lone coconut floating in the puddle at the spring, and a length of rope tangled in a mass of tree trunks. Once they were safely back atop their haven, they cracked open the coconut and consumed its flesh, little though it was.

  With most of the forest out of the way, it was easy to see the rest of the quake ripples approaching, but none were anywhere near the size of the first wave. They gathered a few stranded fish and more coconuts as the day went on.

  On two occasions, they came upon bodies from the beach camp, tangled in other debris. Broken and twisted as they were, the victims were unrecognizable, yet Geret and Salvor marked their locations, intending to come back and offer final respects once the waves had completely dissipated. In all their hours of searching, they never found any other survivors.

  When the fifth wave didn’t even reach the rock, the two men descended yet again and began to hunt in earnest for more durable supplies.

  The erupting volcano was ever more visible on the horizon, and the slanting sunlight cast an enormous shadow behind the ash cloud.

  With less than an hour of daylight remaining, they splashed through the mud, darting from one arboreal tangle to the next. Salvor had found a few feet of heavy cloth, so muddy he couldn’t make out what it had originally been. He was just gathering it from where it snagged on a stump when Geret suddenly shouted.

  “Salvor!” he called, waving him over. Salvor slogged over to the enormous tangle of trees, mud and debris that Geret was examining, and saw an odd blue-grey object sloping up from the top of the pile.

  “What in Wisdom is that?” he called.

  “No idea. I’m going around the far side.” Geret jogged through the mud around the tree pile, and Salvor went around it the other way. What they found amazed them.

  The object lay at a slight angle, one end supported by the uprooted trees, the other resting on the mud, as if it had been set down by the hand of a god. It was nearly eighty feet long and twenty-five feet wide, flat on the top, and barely rounded on the bottom, resembling a shallow-drafted skiff. Its porous surface was the color of a cloudy blue sea marbled with tracings of grey, and it was covered with a scattering of wet white sand. Geret approached it and touched it gently with one finger. It was hard, yet didn’t seem to weigh much. He leaned against it with all his weight and managed to get it to rock a bit. He licked the salt from his lips as he pondered a sudden idea.

  “What now?” Salvor asked, leaning on the enormous ship-like object for support.

  “I have a plan to get us out of here.”

  Salvor frowned and shifted his feet in the mud. “How ‘out of here’ did you have in mind?”

  Geret leaned his elbows on the other side of the structure. “There is no more Kazhak. There’s no more quest, no more beach camp. We need to find civilization and make our way home from there.”

  “Agreed.”

  “This looks like it’ll float quite well.”

  “You’re joking.”

  “Sanych knows the way to Salience Harbor.”

  “You’re mad!”

  “We can gather a bit of food, maybe salvage some sailcloth from the Kazhak.”

  “It’s not going to work.” Salvor crossed his arms.

  “It’ll work fine. All my plans work,” said Geret. “I want to go home. Don’t you?” he asked, his eyes full of exhaustion and too much of the day’s horror.

  Salvor met his eyes for a long moment, then nodded.

  “You are all my responsibility,” Geret said, eyes full of shame. “I’ve failed everyone else, but I’ll get us all home alive, or die trying. Halla hablah ‘anna ‘lah,” he murmured, a trace of self-mockery in his words. “This I so swear, Salvor, upon what honor I have left as a prince of Vint.”

  Salvor gazed at him with what might have been sympathy. “It’s getting dark, Geret. We should head back to the rock.”

  The muddy prince nodded. He let his hands slide off the Deep One’s cuttlebone and plodded back toward the basalt monolith, where Sanych and Runcan awaited their return.

 
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