The creature leapt with unnatural speed as Alex moved; stumbling away as it crashed into the rail he’d just been in front of. It shook its head, seeming to clear its senses.
‘Dazed,’ Alex though. ‘Still dazed from when it ran into the forceball.’
His mind worked. He turned, sprinting toward the stairs leading below deck. He hated the idea of bringing it close to where his sister slept, but if he could wake the crew, and Theresa and Brutus, then it’d be the best hope for stopping it.
If it killed him there on the deck, then it could roam free on the ship. She’d be in danger anyway.
“Monster! Fire!” he yelled. If it had the power to put the whole ship to sleep—everyone would be in trouble—but since he’d managed to resist it, that might mean it wasn’t likely. He hoped.
His feet pounded over the deck, purposely stomping hard into the wood. Hopefully, the racket would wake the crew and hopefully, it would make the thing back off and rethink-
Feet pounded over the deck, racing after him. Alex swerved as though he was running for the stairs, then rushed forward instead, trying to fake the thing out. The sound of feet chasing him abruptly ended.
The creature landed in front of the stairs where he would have been.
Alex turned, backing to the cleared area of the deck. It rose, tearing the cloak from its body. Its breaths came in gasps as though it had been running for miles. Its eyes moved frantically, like it was desperate. It grasped for him.
Seeking his mana.
And it wouldn’t stop until it got it.
Alex glanced at the nightwatch. They were still fast asleep and showed no sign of waking.
“Shit,” he cursed, turning back to the monster.
The nightwatch couldn’t help him, and he heard no shouts or stirring from below deck. If help was coming, he needed to survive until it came. But he couldn’t be sure that help was going to come soon enough. He had to try to find a way to take the creature down himself…but he couldn’t use a weapon thanks to The Fool, even if he did have one. His forceball couldn’t help him, it would just drain his mana through it. What did that leave?
He cautiously stepped around the deck, putting the mast between him and the monster. He looked around for anything to use close by.
He spotted a familiar object.
Better than nothing.
Quickly taking it up, he called on The Mark to drop into second position of the Spear-and-Oar Dance, keeping his balance on both feet. He raised the mop into guard, pointing the head toward the monster. He tried to clamp down on the terror running through him.
It paused, unsure of what he was doing.
He used that moment to scream at the top of his lungs.
The monster rushed him.
His scream turned into a shout of surprise and he used the dance’s back step to retreat, increasing the distance between him and the creature. He put the mast between him and the creature’s mana draining hands. It made another gulping sound at him and jumped to the right, while he wheeled to the left, still keeping the mast between them.
The creature panted and gurgled in frustration. Its movements seemed weak. Alex remembered all the food it had been shoveling while in human form. Starving, maybe? Whatever it was, he could see that it was struggling.
While its attempts to catch him grew more desperate, The Mark continued to add successes in the dance to his mind. Bit by bit, he was improving. But he knew he couldn’t keep it up forever. One slip, and he’d be done.
His eyes flicked around. Looking for anything to use. Ropes? No. Barrels? No.
Then he saw the mop bucket, filled with water.
He slowly edged to the bucket, creeping out from behind the mast. If it was desperate, it would-
It rushed him at full speed.
He kicked over the bucket.
Salt water poured over the deck. The creature—in its rush—slipped and crashed into a set of barrels.
Alex stomped the deck and slammed the end of the mop against the boards. “Monster! Fire!” he shouted again. “Mon-”
The creature began to climb out from beneath the barrels.
Alex turned and ran.
He sprinted for the stairs as he heard it jump out from under the barrels.
Its footsteps echoed behind him.
Terror screamed in him, making him faster, but the creature was gaining. He wouldn’t make the steps in time. Spinning, he got into second position just in time with The Mark’s guidance. He swept back and forth with the mop head.
He remembered: tapping Theresa’s sword with a knife didn’t trigger The Mark’s interference, so swishing the mop around at the creature should also not cause it to react.
The mop head whipped around its face like Alex was wiping the deck, slowing it down. The strings annoyed it, but didn’t harm it. No interference came from The Mark, allowing him to back closer and closer to the stairs, screaming hard. His heart hammered in his chest, but The Mark guided his backward steps until-
-he stepped onto nothing.
With a cry, Alex fell, rolling down the stairs as the mop flew from his hands. He grunted, trying to grab at the railings to slow his fall. It seemed like he was falling forever as the breath was knocked out of him and he finally came to rest. He was flat on his back, groaning and trying to blink away stars swimming in front of his eyes.
Then the creature leapt from the top of the stairs.
Time seemed to slow as it dropped toward him with its grasping sucker-hands extended. Alex could hear the liquid noise its mouth made, as well as sounds of movement nearby.
Think! Adapt! His mind screamed.
The forceball. It had run into the forceball on its own. The Mark hadn’t interfered.
Grimacing, he rolled and grabbed the mop, placing its head on the floor and holding it in place, with the handle pointed high, facing the creature. It was not a weapon, and the monster was falling with full momentum.
In mid-air, it couldn’t stop itself.
The Mark didn’t react when the creature had slammed itself, gut first—with all the force of its fall—into the mop stick. Alex let go and the stick snapped, with the splintered ends driving into the creature’s stomach.
It landed on top of him with the broken mop half-buried in its stomach. A watery liquid splashed over his shirt as he pushed the flailing creature off and crawled to his feet.
A woman screamed behind him.
The bureaucrat from Generasi.
“Get back, it’s a monster! Captain! Captain Fan-Dor!” Alex scrambled into the darkened common area as the creature got to its feet, lunging after him with a final, desperate surge of strength.
Then a spear shot out of the dark, passing Alex.
It stabbed into the monster’s chest, impaling it. The creature screeched.
Gel-Dor’s rage-filled face emerged from the darkness, his snarling teeth shining in the low moonlight.
“Not this time, you chum-sucking piece of scum.” The first-mate growled.
Another spear shot from the dark and pierced the monster through the head.
The creature flew backward shuddering. It sighed as the final blow ended its life. Its form crumpled in its clothes.
White smoke began to pour from it, as its body ran like hot wax.
It was like a snowman melting at winter’s end, with water that boiled and steamed as soon as it touched the ship’s floor. From within the steam, Alex felt the tang of mana—it was weak and originated from many different sources. With a final, shuddering sigh, the creature collapsed into a steaming puddle.
Slowly, the steam drifted up the stairs and out into the ocean air. Alex’s laboured breathing mixed with the clatter of weapons and running feet as the crew rushed about.
“Where? Where were you?” Alex panted to the first mate.
“Getting our weapons as soon as we heard you shouting,” Gel-Dor said. “We were just heading to the stairs when you came flying down them.”
Really? To Alex it felt like they’d taken hours to come. Then again—as his mind slowed—he began to recognize how little time had actually passed.
Running across the deck must have taken only a few seconds or maybe a little longer. He’d backed away from the creature as it advanced on him. Then ducked around the mast a few times, kicked over the bucket of water, and ran for the stairs.
All while shouting at the top of his lungs.
It really must have been only a short time.
It’d only felt like he’d been ‘fighting’ the thing for hours.
He leaned against the wall as Fan-Dor cursed and Gel-Dor looked grimly on the empty pile of clothes.
“What about the nightwatch?” Gel-Dor asked.
“Asleep. I think the monster put them to sleep.”
The first-mate ground his teeth. “I’m going to give them a good thumping for this. Nearly letting a passenger die and…”
His teeth ground.
“What’s happening?” he heard Theresa’s voice coming from her cabin as Brutus barked frantically.
“What?” Alex tried to calm his racing heart. “What was that thing?” he asked.
“A mana vampire,” a voice said from the cabins. The husband of the Generasian bureaucrat emerged into the hall, adjusting his spectacles.
He looked at Alex. “You, my young friend, are either very skilled. Or very, very lucky.”
‘Both,’ Alex thought. ‘Definitely both.’
“It must have been starving for mana.” The older man said as they watched the creature’s clothes burn in a brazier. The flame reflected on his glasses. “They always avoid drawing attention to themselves and make it a point to blend in; that’s one of the reasons they’re so hard to detect. This one was different, though, and caught everyone’s attention by eating so much. That makes me wonder if it had grown careless because it was desperate: it seemed to be trying anything to hold off starvation until it could get to Generasi and feed off all the mana in the wizard city.” He looked at Alex. “Perhaps desperation is why it tried to attack you a mere evening before reaching Generasi. In a way, you were lucky: when they’re well fed, they’re quick and incredibly strong. And their natural magics can put entire households to sleep.”
Across the fire, both Gel-Dor and Fan-Dor were laying into the nightwatch. The poor buggers were on their knees before their commanders with heads bowed. The entire mood of the crew had dipped hard, and many glanced at Alex with something like fear.
He’d been offered rum rations at least half a dozen times in three different languages, but he’d politely refused them.
He stood beside Theresa as they watched the fire consume the clothes. She gripped his arm like he was about to disappear. Selina was back asleep in the cabin. It had taken a lot of hugs and reassurance to calm her after she’d heard her big brother screaming for help, but she was better now and safe with Brutus.
“Filthy murdering wretches,” the older woman looked like she wanted to spit into the fire. “That was quick thinking, not using spells against it: they can absorb any magic their vile hands or tongue touch. Many young mages have met their end by just throwing spells at them.”
“Are those things common?” Theresa demanded.
“Not common, no, but not rare enough,” the older man said grimly. “Once in a while, one will try and slip aboard a ship and sneak into Generasi to feed. Since they’re so hard to detect, sometimes they’re successful and no one knows they’ve entered the city until the attacks start. That’s when the authorities have to send out trackers to hunt them down, but finding one isn’t an easy task unless the tracker is fortunate enough to find it soon after a recent feeding. You see, while they’re digesting new mana, it tends to leak for a period of time, but—if they’re hiding—they’re nearly impossible to detect.” He sighed. “Which I think is little compensation to Captain Fan-Dor. Ugh, perhaps his goddess hasn’t smiled upon him after all.”
“What do you mean?” Alex asked.
“Generasi does not put blame onto ships or captains that transport mana vampires unintentionally: remember, they’re nearly impossible to detect for wizards, let alone those with no skill in magic. But, sometimes the families of victims do. Some time ago a mana vampire killed the son of a successful merchant of magical items. Captain Fan-Dor took responsibility and paid a hefty compensation out of honour. That took a lot out of the ship’s coffers, as well leaving him with the reputation of transporting one of the creatures. The unfortunate incident left many leery of boarding The Red Siren. Foolish, of course, since mana vampires have no interest in those without mana.”
“What happens to their victims?” Theresa looked on the fire as the last of the creature’s clothes burned to ash.
“First, their mana is drained, then their lifeforce is sucked out until a shrivelled husk is all that’s left of them.”
Alex’s blood chilled. Theresa’s grip tightened on his arm.
For the first time, Alex was very, very thankful for The Mark. If it weren’t for its interference, he would likely have tried to use his forceball on the thing again.
But since he’d learned the Dance to see if he could get around the Fool, using its movements had given him the time he needed to save his life. There was also his experience escaping Thameland. What if he hadn’t been forced to find creative solutions and try different things to fight for their lives?
He shuddered to think what the outcome would have been.
No wonder The Heroes had to protect The Fool, anyone who got his Mark was like the sitting duck among The Heroes.
The fire steamed as rain began to fall.
“We’ll talk in the morning,” the older man winced, wiping his glasses against the rain. “Try to get some sleep if you can. There’ll be things to discuss when we’re fresh: mana vampires have a standing bounty in Generasi both for their discovery and destruction.”
“We’ll see that you get it,” his wife finished. “But try to get some sleep. It’ll be a long day tomorrow.”
Alex and Theresa stood as the older couple left, and Alex began to tremble. There were more dangers in the wide world than The Ravener, it seemed, and he was glad that he’d started preparing for them. Next time, he’d be even more ready.
“Yes?” She looked up at him.
“Remember that hug you offered me? Right after you puked?”
Her face softened. “Yes.”
“I…I think I’d like it now.”
Their arms wrapped around each other as the rain began to pour.