“Looks like rain’s coming in after all.” Gel-Dor eyed the clouds to the western horizon.
“Damn.” Fan-Dor cursed beneath his breath. “Well, at least it doesn’t look like a bad storm. Clouds are too light and the wind’s too low. Ek-u-Dari must have liked our dance well enough.”
The crew and passengers had gathered on the starboard side of The Red Siren to see what was happening when they’d heard that a storm might be brewing.
“He’s right,” Theresa said, petting Brutus as two of his heads chewed a bone while the third lapped from a water dish. She squinted at the sky. “But—if the clouds over the sea look like they do above land—then it shouldn’t be a heavy rain: they aren’t that big or dark.”
“That’s good.” Alex yawned into his hand, sitting on a barrel behind the crowd. He watched Selina looking at the clouds, with her hands gripping the rail.
Her energy amazed him: between everything they’d faced getting out of Thameland, his nightly exercise routine, learning the dance and testing The Mark’s limits, he was exhausted.
He rubbed his aching arms and chest. Two days of push-ups hadn’t increased how many he could do yet, but his technique was getting better. It was getting easier to hold himself in a position that let him feel controlled and strong.
Hopefully, he’d start to see some results soon.
He yawned again.
But for now, he felt like he could just sleep for a year.
“Wind…direction…” one of the frog-folk said nearby in his croaking language, along with some other words Alex couldn't make out. Using The Fool to help him understand languages he heard in passing was starting to show results. He was beginning to pick out the odd words in other languages if he heard them often enough.
The skinny Rhinean man suddenly approached captain Fan-Dor and said something very quickly. Too quickly for Alex to get any of what was said. The man had a piece of salt pork clutched in his fist and was chewing it even as he talked. It was his second snack since lunch.
The Captain said something back to him, then paused and raised his voice. “Before I get this question a hundred times, no: the rain won’t delay us. It’ll probably hit us around midnight, but we’ll still reach port in Generasi by the morning. No need to panic. No need to worry.”
He gave the skinny man a look.
The Rhinean stepped back, glancing over to Theresa again—his eyes lingering—then to Alex. He shuffled to the stairs, no doubt to find more food.
Alex worked hard to keep his face neutral. With how much of the ship’s food he was going through, it really seemed he should be charged extra.
“Hey.” Alex elbowed Theresa and nodded toward the man disappearing down the steps. “What do you think of that guy?”
“That he eats more than Brutus?” Theresa whispered.
“Yeah,” he said. “But more than that. What do you think of him?”
She shrugged. “He eats a lot, I guess? That’s it.”
“That’s all? You don’t find him creepy?”
“Not really. Well, maybe a little. After the-” She made a wriggly, crawly motion with her hand, copying the silent-spiders’ movements. “-my standards for what’s ‘creepy’ have gone up.”
“Yeah, good point. But you never noticed him watching us? Watching you?”
“A bit?” she said. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I suppose it’s nothing.” Alex really didn’t want to say that it was because he felt the man was staring at her, and it was making him jealous. She’d never let him hear the end of it.
Another yawn hit him. He winced as his chest muscles ached.
He really needed a nap.
“Are you gonna make it?” Theresa asked.
“Maybe. Too many late nights, and I’ve been doing these push-ups.”
She nodded in approval. “Good. A strong body helps. So is today your rest day?”
He paused. “Rest day?”
“You rest between days you do hard exercise.”
“I thought your brothers did them everyday?”
“Yes, but they’ve been training for years. Have you ever done pushups before?”
“Then I think you need a break. Usually when you’re starting, you do it every other day. Even every two days.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” he said, yawning again. “Gives me an excuse for a nap.”
He dragged himself to his feet. “I’ll grab a quick one then come up for supper.”
She smiled. “We’ll watch for the rain while you do.”
He chuckled. “Make sure it doesn’t sneak up on us.”
As soon as he opened his eyes, Alex realized that his nap had turned into a ‘sleep for half the day’.
The cabin was dark and the ship quiet, except for the creaking of wood and the splash of waves against the hull. Beside him, he could hear Selina snoring lightly.
He slowly got up—careful not to disturb her—and slipped on his boots. For a moment, he considered doing his push-up routine but remembered Theresa’s advice: rest.
Well, sleep wouldn’t be coming to him for a while.
He crept from the room—quiet enough not to wake Selina—and slipped into the hall. From Theresa’s room, he could hear Brutus snoring, and no sounds came from the other passengers’ cabins.
Most of the crew, including the captain and first mate, were asleep in the ship’s common area. Their ranks and status allowed them to avoid all night duty.
Slipping up the stairs, he used The Mark to continue improving his stealth as he stepped onto deck. It was dark, though he could see the low glow of the moon through the clouds. Rain hadn’t come yet, but the pressure was changing in the air.
The nightwatch—only a few of the crew—busied themselves toward the stern of the ship with a game of dice. They exchanged nods with him, and he briefly considered joining them. It might have been good practice for his languages at least. But maybe not so good for his purse. Gambling with people he barely understood was probably a really bad idea. Instead, he walked to the bow and leaned against the railing, watching the dark ocean. In the far distance, he could have sworn he saw a glowing blue light above the water. Maybe it was a trick of the moon.
He listened to the gentle waves against the ship as he took in the salty air, and the sound of the wind. He could barely make out the surface of the sea under the dark clouds.
It was time for a little light. He concentrated, slowly muttering the incantation for his forceball. It was still slower than before he got marked, but he was starting to get better at shutting out the mental interference from The Fool.
The forceball’s red light winked into life.
He smiled at the familiar spell. It had gotten them through a lot lately.
He willed the spell to float above his head and illuminate the sea and deck nearby. He thought about the spell and how his practice with it had helped him use it since he’d been marked. It might be worthwhile to experiment with spells similar in structure to the forceball. Learning new spells was going to be hard, so it’d be smart to start with ones that were at least somewhat familiar.
He listened to the wind rustle the sails.
He yawned again.
Suddenly, sleepiness came over him in a wave, but he shook it away. His mind was racing with ideas of what spells might be good ones for him to experiment with first, and he wanted to consider that some more before going back to bed.
Again, sleepiness hit him with an abruptness and an insistence.
What was happening?
The sudden tiredness didn’t feel natural. It felt draining. It was different, almost like it was coming from outside of himself. Because of the way The Mark worked—entering his mind from the outside to influence him—he recognized that this sudden overwhelming wave of exhaustion was coming at him from outside.
He fought it away.
Something quietly stepped on a board behind him.
He couldn’t hear any sounds from the nightwatch anymore.
Again, he had the feeling that something was watching him, and he doubted it was Theresa. He didn’t move. Didn’t give any sign that he suspected something was wrong.
No. He could do even better.
Faking another yawn, he let his head hang a little, as though he were about to fall asleep.
He heard whispering behind him in Rhinean. A familiar voice.
The skinny man. What did he want? Had he been looking at him and Theresa? Or had he only been interested in him? What was his plan? To rob him?
He activated The Mark, listening to the man’s whispering.
The Rhinean words were coming quickly, but Alex was able to pick out one he kept repeating: ‘Hollow.’ ‘Hollow’.
Alex held the forceball tightly in his will and mana, keeping it ready above him. Direct combat wouldn’t work, but his experiments had shown that he could move items into positions like into guard, as he had with Theresa’s knife. What if…
Yawning again, he let his head drop.
Feet rushed up behind him.
He willed the forceball to move behind him and down, like he was trying to light that area of the deck. It shot down and stopped right in front of the sound of running feet until-
The man ran headfirst into the forceball, smashing his face and collapsing.Alex grinned. No reaction from The Mark: he quickly added ‘studying traps’ to the list of research he needed to do. The skinny man was flat on the deck, groaning at his feet and holding his face.
Alex drifted the forceball down to shine on the attacker and hovered it over his head in a threat. Of course, trying to hit him wouldn’t do much good, but his attacker didn’t need to know that.
“Don’t move,” Alex said in Common. He didn’t know if the man would understand him, but he let his threat be clear in his tone.
The man froze.
“Crew, Fan-Dor!” Alex shouted, edging around the fallen figure to make sure he wasn’t between him and the stairs. Even if the man was down, he didn’t want to be trapped. He listened carefully for any sounds of his attacker muttering incantations: from the overwhelming sleepiness earlier, it seemed he was some kind of spellcaster. Alex had the advantage now, but he’d feel a lot better with reinforcements.
He watched him carefully, ready for any sudden-
The Rhinean’s hands shot up.
Not toward Alex.
Toward his forceball.
They grabbed the spell.
An awful sensation slammed into the young mage.
The man’s hands warped. Fingernails disappeared. Fingers lengthened and sprouted suckers like a squid’s tentacles. They wrapped around the spell and Alex felt something flowing out of him.
The man—or whatever he was—was sucking his mana through his spell.
Alex abruptly killed the flow to the magic circuit, and the spell winked out. He backed away as the thing jumped to its feet, with its flesh shifting before his shocked eyes.
Its skin merged into blue-grey flesh and its facial features sank into the meat like a rock disappearing into water. Its eyelids tore away and its eyes swelled until they bulged from a deformed head. It spit its teeth out, and they melted and steamed as they touched the deck. Its mouth twisted sideways.
A long grey tongue—covered in suckers—emerged, and the creature let out a sucking noise like quicksand swallowing an unsuspecting traveller. Its frame shrank even further until it was as thin as a rotting corpse.
“Oh shit!” Alex shouted. He glanced at the nightwatch. They were fast asleep against the deck.
Whirling back to the creature, he spotted it as it tensed and sprang at him.