Scimitar Sun: Prelude

Hidden Flames

The lightkeeper heaved a deep cleansing breath and leaned against the door he had just slammed shut behind the child of Orin Flaxal. He could breathe easier now that her infernal book was gone. He could still feel the damp, salty magic that permeated its pages. He preferred a nice, dry heat any day.

That poor girl, he thought. To be denied her heritage by that bitter old woman and something as ephemeral as time. The thought of his own gifts, and what his life might have been had they been similarly denied, made him shudder.

Sniffing and coughing back the irritating lump in his throat, he shook himself, smoothed his soot-stained tunic and began to climb the stairs back to his study. His steps were lighter with Orin Flaxal’s log book out of his home.

“Who was that, Master?”

“What? Edan?” The lightkeeper stopped short and looked around irritably. “I told you to stay out of sight! What are you doing? Where is Flicker? If you’ve let her loose again, I’ll—”

“Flicker’s right here, Master,” the boy said, stepping from behind several barrels of coal tar and tugging a thin gold chain clasped around his wrist.

A tiny female firesprite fluttered out from her hiding place, her skin the hue of burnished copper, her hair a literal flame, wavering and flickering with the flutter of her gossamer-smoke wings. She tugged on the gold chain which girded her slim waist, glared at Edan, then settled onto his shoulder to sulk.

“I haven’t let her loose, and I did stay out of sight. The woman never knew we were here.” He came forward, ignoring the petulant firesprite as much as was possible with the heat of her fiery hair bathing his neck. His own hair was carrot-red and cut short, not by choice but by necessity; Flicker kept catching it on fire if it grew too long. The boy’s smattering of freckles made him look younger than his thirteen years. His clothes were plain: cotton pants and a thick leather apron over a once-white shirt pocked with scorch marks where the sprite’s flaming hair or one of the lightkeeper’s burning contraptions had touched it.

“Who was she?”

“None of your business!” the lightkeeper barked. Embarrassed that the boy may have witnessed his moment of weakness, and wary of the questions he knew would come, he turned and ascended the stairs in a flurry. “Now don’t bother me. I’ve got things to do. See to the paraffin distillation, and don’t let Flicker near it! If I have to rebuild that—”

“I just emptied the vat, Master, and the cooker’s on low. We have plenty.” He followed the lightkeeper up the steps, his eyes wide. “That woman; I heard you talking to her about magic, about being a seamage. Is she a seamage?”

“No, she’s not, Edan. Her father was. She is—”

“Did she try to become one? Did she fail her trials, too?”

“No! No, she never got the chance you had, boy. Now she’s too old.” He turned on the boy, his bushy eyebrows bristling. “Now stop asking me questions and get to work! Bring me the small jar of phosphorous from the cellar. I’ve got an experiment to run, and you’ve got chores to do. Forget about magic! You had your chance at it, and failed. Be content with having a place to sleep and food to eat!”

“Yes, Master,” the boy said as he turned and headed down the stairs to the cellar.

The lightkeeper stopped and looked back over his shoulder, regretting his temper. In his own way, Edan was in the same circumstance asCynthiaFlaxal: he would never know the delight of elemental magic coursing through him. But he would never stop thinking about magic, and the chance he had lost.

Sam was in the water, and it was burning. The whole world was burning.

Guillotine floated only twenty feet away, consumed by flames, its burning debris falling down around her. Out in the middle of the bay, Black Guard was an inferno.

And her arm…her arm was on fire. Even under the water—she could not remember why she was in the water—something sputtered and sizzled in her flesh, sending jolts of agony up her arm. She managed to keep treading water, panic pushing the pain aside as she looked around at her hellish surroundings. Across the bay a large galleon lofted a missile onto the town; it exploded in flight, sending a rain of white hot streamers down on everything. Screams rose in the air like the smoke that stung her eyes.

Then she remembered.

She had been on Guillotine, and Jinkus was showing her around the foredeck. A horn had sounded nine times, and everyone stood stunned: the alarm had never sounded before. A small ship—identical to Hippotrin, but with the likeness of a woman as a figurehead—had appeared from the fog, and people had started shouting and running about. The ship had thrown a small cask at Black Guard, and the corsair exploded in flames. Sam had stared as the small ship headed straight for Guillotine, and a small catapult on its foredeck lofted a cask toward them. Jinkus had shouted, then pitched her over the bow rail. She hit the water as a wave of unbelievable heat bathed her back. When she surfaced, an errant bit of white fire had hit her arm and stuck, burning into her flesh. Then something had hit her head, enough to daze her.

Now people swam past her toward Cutthroat, which swung nearby on her anchor cable. Sam looked toward shore where the town was burning and made for Cutthroat.

Sam swam with the other men and women, the pirates who had taken her in when everyone else had left her; everyone but Tim. She couldn’t find Tim now, but she knew if she stayed with the pirates, they would take care of her. After all, she was a pirate now, too, and they were her only family.

Acrid smoke burned her eyes and lungs. Many swimmers didn’t make it: some drowned, some were injured so badly that they died and sank, and some were taken by the long shapes that swam in from beyond the reef. The water was red with blood by the time she reached Cutthroat and clamored up the cargo net that had been draped over the side.

A man screamed behind her, and she turned back to see Jinkus being shaken apart by a huge shark. The screaming stopped as he was dragged under.

Once out of the water, her arm burned worse. She looked at it, wondering how it could smoke and sputter after being underwater. A pirate she didn’t recognize grabbed her and pulled her down behind the bulwarks.

“Don’t just stand there like a dolt, girl! Here.” He pinned her arm and drew a knife from his belt. “Gotta cut that outta there or it’ll just keep burnin’. Hold fast, now!”

Sam cried out as he cut the thumbnail-sized bit of burning stuff from her forearm and flicked it over the side. Her arm bled freely, but it no longer burned. He cut the bottom of her shirt into broad strips and bound the wound.

“There! Good lass! Now stay down.” He clapped her shoulder and took his own advice.

She leaned against the comforting solidity of the bulwark and looked around. There were maybe thirty men and women aboard Cutthroat, many wounded, all trying to stay low and out of sight. A ship sailed past: Hellraker, headed for the mouth of the bay. Cutthroat swung hard on her anchor as a rush of water filled the harbor. She stared as Hippotrin’s twin floated free from where she had been beached and jibed toward the channel behind Hellraker.

“They’re leaving,” she said to no one. “We should leave, too.”

“Aye, I think you’re right, Sam,” the man beside her said, peering over the rail. “The place is goin’ right down the scuppers to the Nine Hells, ain’t it?”

She looked at him and realized he was Cutthroat’s first mate; Parek was his name. “Where’s the captain?”

“He was ashore. Either dead or fled, now, I suppose.” He grinned and chucked her on the shoulder. “Guess that makes me captain!”

“I, uh… Aye, sir,” she said, trying to sound confident.

“Good lass! Now spread the word forward. We raise the fores’l and jib when the anchor cable’s cut.” He hefted a boarding axe and handed it to her. “That’s your job. Got it?”

“Aye, sir!” Her arm throbbed as she took the heavy axe, but his confidence in her bolstered her resolve.

“Good! Wait fer my signal. Now go!”

She worked her way forward, spreading the captain’s orders until she was at the capstan head. She braced herself and moved to the hawsehole, looking aft for the captain’s signal. Men and women scrambled up the rigging to ready the foresail. The captain looked at her, then brought his arm down in a chopping motion.

It took her several swings to cut the thick rode, and her arm was throbbing and bleeding when she finished. The ship swung free, and the captain shouted orders as she sat and cut more strips from her shirt. By the time she’d wound two more lengths around her arm and stopped the bleeding, they were heading out of the channel.

Sam pulled herself up and looked over the side of the ship. Beside the channel, the wreckage of Hellraker was strewn across the reef. Bodies floated in the shallows, a slick of carnage. She scanned the horizon; Hippotrin and her sister ship were racing to the north under full sail. She worked her way aft, wondering where they would go; what they would do. There was already much discussion on this matter around the captain, and he settled the argument in true pirate fashion.

“Bloodwind’s on Hippotrin and sailin’ north with that hell-spawned ship on his tail. I’m captain of Cutthroat now, and I say we head south and find someplace to hunker in.”

“But what’ll we do?” one of the crew asked, panic edging his voice.

“What’ll we do? By bloody hell and high water, what do you think we’re gonna do? We’re bloody pirates, ain’t we?”

A low murmur spread through the burned and battered crew—a murmur of hope.

“Get the mains’l on her, then. Someone go below and find out what we’re haulin’ fer provisions. A round of grog for the injured, but nobody sleeps until we find a place to hunker in. Sam, you come here and take the wheel.”

Sam gripped the wheel’s spokes, gritting her teeth as her arm throbbed in time with her racing heart. A bottle of rum was thrust at her and she took a deep swallow, coughing at the burn but knowing it would ease the pain. She turned the wheel to port at her captain’s orders, and brought the needle on the compass to a course of due south.

Scimitar Sun: Chapter One